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Plastic is Forever, Especially in the Ocean

Did you know that plastic never goes away? The plastic in that disposable fork from lunch will exist forever because I didn’t want to keep track of a real piece of silverware. Wow! All of that, just for one little meal.

Yes, plastic can be recycled if—IF—

  • facilities exist for recycling that particular type of plastic
  • there is a market for whatever that particular type of plastic can be recycled into (It is not a 1:1 re-creation: a plastic drink bottle cannot become a new plastic drink bottle.)
  • the item actually makes it to a recycling facility and not a landfill. (How much plastic actually gets recycled: think about broken toys, old synthetic fiber clothing, disposable forks, etc.)

But, recycling plastic is not a simple, clean solution. It takes tremendous energy in terms of shipping the recyclables, re-processing the plastic down, re-production of a new item, and re-shipping. Each one of those steps uses additional energy and creates additional pollution, all because I had a quick need.

Plus, what about the plastic that doesn’t get recycled, say—the pieces that blow out of my recycling bin or the tiny pieces (called nurdles) that slough off at the recycling plant and become litter? Ultimately, they end up in the ocean and then in us: storm drain to creek to river to ocean and then in a gyre, like The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Here, they may be mistaken for food by sea life or birds and consumed. They may become home to barnacles or other critters. In either scenario, they are then (plastic included) eaten up the food chain both in the ocean and on the land. Here is a 30-second clip from NBC that explains this phenomenon. I recommend the movie Addicted to Plastic (available on Netflix at time of writing) for more on garbage patches, plastic up the food chain, nurdles, and more.


 

While a garbage gyre  sounds big and overwhelming to me, it also seems abstract and distant. I don’t live near the ocean, I don’t eat much seafood. But then, the reality of plastic in our ocean came right to my feet. On this summer’s beach vacation we noticed quite a bit of trash wash up with the morning tide. It wasn’t enough that the beach looked junky (though this certainly is the case in other parts of the world, as in the video above), but it was enough that we couldn’t dig or walk without encountering little bits regularly. My kids commented on it, stepped on it, tried to play with it. Then today, I saw that creepy image I encountered while watching Addicted to Plastic:  a piece of foam that had been adrift long enough to grow some hitchhikers. Either this came in with the rough waves or a bird brought it to shore. While a great garbage patch sounds like a distant curiosity, the world is smaller and infinitely more connected that we’d ever like to think. 

Barnacles on polystyrene

Barnacles on polystyrene. (In the name of awareness, let me call out that additional plastic in this picture includes swimsuit fabric and the deck planks.)

This find led to some great conversations with our three-year-old about why we are selective about the things we bring into our home. While we have these conversations regularly, here was something tangible tied to living creatures to add to the observations we’ve made about mountains of waste at the county dump, the “stinky” (in his words) smell when we walk into a big box store filled with synthetic products, and the litter that we see in our local stormwater management streams.

To further our conversation, I decided to survey the litter that I found on a short stroll. Out of all of the trash, I found one thing that was a natural material: a peanut shell. Everything else was plastic. Take a look…did you know that all of these things are plastic? From balloon ribbon to a foam-coated coffee cup to a snack pack. Yes, even the cigarette butts contain plastic fibers. None of these things will ever biodegrade. Over time, they can break into tinier and tinier pieces of plastic that can flow into water or be eaten by animals, but they never go away. Plastic is forever.

Plastic From Beach

 

This week, is there one plastic-centric habit that you could change? Could you bring your own stainless steel cup to the coffee shop or  or bring some ceramic thrift store dishes into the office that you can wash after lunch each day? Could you drink a glass of water instead from of a one-use plastic bottle? (The most common kind of trash I encountered on the beach was plastic lids to one-use water bottles. Cigarette butts were number two.) Maybe your next step is to take an inventory of the plastic things around you that you didn’t even realize  were plastic. Could you make a buying plan for the next things you want to add to your home (e.g. choose a new shirt made of natural fibers rather than synthetics or purchase a used item so that you are not participating in the production of additional plastic items)? Another idea is to prioritize where plastic makes sense for your family and where other options could work. Contemplative, purposeful plastic use is possible for everyone, and a low-plastic lifestyle can be achieved through small steps across several years. What one thing can you do this week?

 

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About More Green for Less Green

Hi, I’m Pamm. Welcome to my little slice of the web! As a progressive Evangelical female pastor and crunchy homeschooling mom, I’m never quite what anyone expects of me. But, hey, that’s what makes blogging interesting, right? Join me as I try to wholeheartedly parent my three little boys, slowly fix up the trashed foreclosure we bought in 2009, and live simply.

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