In Case You Missed It: Disposable Plastic Still Sucks

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“I am in 7th grade and my school is doing a project where each student has to research and try and solve one problem in the world.  I have chosen plastic pollution.  We waste way too much plastic and it is really harming our environment.”

I received the e-mail above earlier this week.  At first, I was overjoyed to receive such an e-mail.  A strange thing to say, since it speaks on the harmful effects of plastic in our environment, but it is from a 7th grader.  Children showing an interest in the environment gives me hope for the future.  It is so important that we teach our children well (cue CSNY) and teach them the value of the ecosystems around them.

Once I got past my initial excitement over being able to speak with a middle schooler about  plastic pollution, I got to thinking about why plastic is “really harming our environment.”

Over and over again throughout college my classmates and I tried to convince our peers to stop drinking bottled water.  I have written a number of posts about my bottled water crusade (click here to read more), if you are curious.  I have written on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and about how plastic ends up in huge concentrations in the ocean, but I hadn’t seen the ocean pollution problem first hand…until I started working for Clean Ocean Action.

Clean Ocean Action is an environmental nonprofit based in Sandy Hook, NJ.  Our goal is to “improve the degraded water quality of the marine waters off the New Jersey/New York coast.”  COA has a number of different pollution prevention programs, one of which being our Beach Sweeps program.

Beach Sweeps has been around for 28 years and has grown each and every year.  It is a New Jersey statewide beach clean up, where volunteers head out to over 60 different beaches (rivers and bays, too) with a bag for trash and a bag for recyclables and pick up trash for a few hours. The volunteers also collect data on what they find.

Beach Sweeps happens twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall. The data that we collect comes from a few thousand volunteers over the course of 7 hours.

In only 7 hours (during 2012), Beach Sweep volunteers  removed over 350,000 pieces of debris from NJ’s shoreline.  The majority of the debris removed was disposable plastics – representing 82.7% of the total waste found.  To see what else volunteers found, check out COA’s 2012 Beach Sweeps Report.

The majority of the debris removed was disposable plastics including:

  • 49,362 cigarette filters
  • 22,308 straws and stirrers
  • 38,349 caps and lids

In just SEVEN HOURS.  Imagine how much goes in and out with the tide EACH DAY.  The number of plastic in the ocean must be incredible. To see what else ended up in the ocean, click here.

But why worry?

TrashFound

Photo Credit: Joe Sapia

Plastics do not biodegrade – they photodegrade, meaning they break down into smaller and smaller pieces, but never truly go away.  As they break down, they release toxic chemicals into the ocean.  These toxic chemicals are absorbed by the marine life that accidentally eat the plastic pieces.  The animals often mistake plastic bags or pieces of bags as prey.

For example, sea turtles feed on jellyfish, and often mistake floating plastic bags in the ocean for them.  Other pieces of plastic, like 6-pack rings, can entangle marine life and hurt them or even kill them.

So what can we do?

  • Stop using single-use plastic bags.  I often see people bringing reusable canvas bags to the grocery store, but not as much in retail stores.  Bring reusable bags for ALL shopping!
  • Use a Brita pitcher – or better yet, drink tap water – to avoid buying plastic bottles.
  • Avoid buying items in individual wrapped packages, which generate more waste, try to buy in bulk.
  • Educate others on the dangers of plastic in the ocean.
  • Participate in beach clean ups like the Beach Sweeps on Saturday, April 27!

Together, we can try like the 7th grader who e-mailed me and solve one problem in the world; plastic pollution.

An Environmentalist’s Responsibility

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Photo Credit: Treehugger.com

Today, I attended a sustainability workshop.  I walked in after signing in at the registration to pick up a bagel for breakfast.  On the table were plastic utensils, individually wrapped containers of cream cheese, Styrofoam cups and plates, various juices in plastic bottles, and my arch nemesis…bottled water.  My first instinct was to scream, but luckily I remained socially appropriate.

I listened during the meeting presentations and quietly posted to my Facebook and Twitter about my annoyance.  One of my friends said that Styrofoam and plastic at a sustainability workshop is “like bringing a concealed weapon to an anti-gun violence seminar. Come on now, they need to get their act together.”  Funny, but true.  And they did need to get their act together.

When it was time for Q&A, I voiced my concern, frustration and disappointment to the entire group.  The workshop organizer quickly scrambled to say that his organization was required to use the food supplier from the community center that the workshop was held in. A representative from the community center was in the audience and took responsibility for the unsustainable products saying it was “their fault.”

BUT I think it is the responsibility of the “sustainability” group who organized the workshop to work with whatever supplier to make sustainability events as…sustainable as possible. AND if that doesn’t work out, they should move to a new location with a supplier that’s more accommodating.  Think asking for pitchers of water and paper cups instead of plastic bottles, or if the center can provide reusable mugs instead of Styrofoam.  Simple changes, not rocket science.

Us environmentalists, sustainability supporters, renewable energy experts, Big Oil opponents, must always remember that we are ambassadors for the rest of the environmental community.  Bringing our thermoses to work, refusing plastic bags while shopping, bringing reusable bags to the grocery store and using Brita filters in our homes, all make an impression on our friends, relatives and coworkers.  We have an obligation as environmentalists to commit to these small changes, because if we don’t make the effort, who will?

Bottled Water? What’s next? Bagged Air?

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In college, I was involved with the Delaware Environmental Institute Student Programs Committee, where we encouraged students to become more “bottled water aware” and offered alternatives to buying bottled water (see Bottled Water Awareness on Campus).  After graduation, I began working for an ocean advocacy non-profit, where we also try to discourage our network of citizens, businesses and organizations from buying bottled water.

But why?

A lot of bottled water companies boast using “mineral water” and “natural spring water” in their product.  That water has to be safe to drink, right?  And when I’m in a hurry to leave my house, bottled water is just so much easier and more convenient than filling up my own stainless steel bottle or Nalgene.  What’s so bad about that?

Well, consider this…

  • The U.S. bottled water industry consumes over 50 million barrels of oil a year, enough oil to fuel 3 million cars for one year.
  • The EPA estimates that nearly a quarter of one popular brand of bottled water, for example, originally comes from tap water at a price at least 300 times the cost of tap water.
  • The recommended eight glasses of water a day for one year costs about $1,400 in bottled water versus only 49 cents in tap water.
  • The composition of tap water, which is regulated by the EPA, is also more closely monitored by the government than bottled water, which has looser restrictions imposed by the Food and Drug Administration and only when the bottled water is shipped across state lines.
  • The plastic the bottles are made from contains unhealthy synthetic chemicals like BPA and phthalates (endocrine disruptors that have been linked to breast cancer, prostate cancer, autism and obesity), which may leach into the water or the environment after disposal.

The environmental, health, and economic costs of bottled water listed above are considered “hidden costs” of the $11.7 BILLION (!!) industry.  Check out this really awesome video that further explains the idea of a “hidden cost:”

Not convinced yet?  There are cities in the United States that are banning the sale of bottled water because it is so harmful.  Earlier this month, Concord, Massachusetts  became one of the first communities in the U.S. to ban the sale of single-serving plastic water bottles.

My hope is that other cities follow suit, until the United States has banned bottled water completely.  If we allow this industry to continue to grow, what would come next, bagged air?

Featured on: Eco News Network

Bottled Water Awareness on Campus

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The mission of the Delaware Environmental Institute is to conduct research and coordinate partnerships that integrate environmental science, engineering, and policy in order to provide solutions and strategies that address environmental challenges.  As their intern, one of my responsibilities is to chair the Student Programs Committee (SPC), a group of 8 undergraduate UD students that are passionate about the environment.  We are charged with being ambassadors, serving as representatives of DENIN at campus-wide events, a focus group to tell DENIN staff about what students are concerned about, event planners of programs for undergraduate students specifically, promoters of DENIN events and activists creating a greener campus through effective scientific communication.

We have started a Bottled Water Awareness Campaign on the University of Delaware’s campus.  We are petitioning students to sign on and show their support for going bottled water free.  SPC will be handing out “Platypus” style, reusable (and foldable!) and BPA-free water bottles to those who pledge to become more awareness of the products they buy.  We are planning to screen a documentary about bottled water outside on the Green at the end of the semester.  We are also working with the UD Sustainability Task Force to promote the Hydration Station on campus and advocate for more.  Over 90 colleges and universities across the nation have restricted sale/banned bottled water.

This campaign begs the question: Why go bottled water free? Watch this video: