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Swimming in a Sea of Plastic

I'm more than a little ashamed that my consumption helped create messes like this.

I'm more than a little ashamed that my consumption helped create messes like this.

This past Saturday I got to the gym and my Spin class was canceled. I’m sort of glad it was. I decided to make the best of it and do 45 minutes on the cardio machines. Without headphones, I was stuck reading magazines. I grabbed the issue of Rolling Stone with Madonna on the cover and started reading. While I was flipping through to find the Material Girl I stumbled on an article called The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The writer, Kitt Doucette, has it posted on his Web site. Great read. Upsetting read. Depressing read.

I must have been too busy in August to read the other coverage about the Pacific Garbage Patch — ten million tons of waste floating in the ocean west of California. “Scientists estimate it’s twice the size of Texas.” And what is in that floating pile of crap? Plastic. Lots of plastic, which, since it is not biodegradable, simply breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic. Eventually, as in the Pacific, it becomes small enough for animals and fish to ingest it. The article explains that the birds in the area have, on average, about 44 pieces of plastic in their stomachs. It’s more than frightening.

Various scientists have taken experimental journeys out to the junk heap since August. They’ve discovered that the mess is mostly plastic bags like you get at the grocery store, bottle caps, plastic water bottles, and expanded styrene — Styrofoam to you and me. Good has an amazing graphic that shows what it might look like, and how the plastic is distributed.

Scientists have come to the conclusion that cleaning it up is going to be nearly impossible. However, as that moving cesspool of plastic continues to grow, it’s going to start affecting us. It’s absorbing all the chemicals that are sitting out there in the water. Things like DDT, aldrin, chlordane, and PCBs. The fact that there is six times more plastic than zoo plankton floating on the surface of the water means that it’s slowly choking that life form out, too. A life form that the smallest ocean animals need to live. It also affects the rest of the food chain. When either plastic or smaller ocean life is eaten by larger fish, some of the chemicals get into their cells. Then we catch some of these tainted fish, and we become tainted, too.

Reading about such a huge pile of garbage, such an insurmountable problem might make you feel helpless. It made me feel helpless. But then I realized the only way we can stop this is to stop the inflow of more garbage. And yes, every person can help. Here’s how you can keep more trash from going into the ocean:

  1. Use recyclable grocery bags. Today, there’s no reason not to bring your own bags to the supermarket. And to Target, CVS, Toys R Us — anywhere you go. I have about ten reusable bags in my car. I bring them wherever I go. If you need a little motivation, frequent places like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and CVS, which give you an incentive to bring your own bags. TJ’s enters you into a drawing for a gift card (at least in my area). Whole Foods takes $.05 to $.10 per bag off your order depending on where you live. CVS has a new Green Bag Tag. It’s $.99. You attach it to your reusable bag. Every fourth time you scan it, you get an Extra Bucks coupon for $1.
  2. Stop buying soda in bottles. OK, I’d like to say don’t buy soda anymore, but I know that’s a hard one for a lot of people. So I’ll ask you to please stop buying plastic bottles. Buy aluminum cans instead. Plastic can’t be broken down; it’s not biodegradable. The caps aren’t usually recycled, either. Cans, however, are 100% recyclable. In fact, within one month of being tossed into a recycling bin, your old can is probably sitting back on a shelf waiting to be sold. Unlike plastic, which is mostly recycled into non-recyclable items such as flooring, for example.
  3. Get a reusable water bottle. It drives me nuts how many people are still buying bottled water. Especially since most bottled water is probably no better than tap water, a fact that the Environmental Protection Agency confirms. Get an aluminum bottle. Use it today. Use it tomorrow. Your body and earth will love you for it. So will your car. According to the Greeniacs: “Manufacturing [water] bottles requires an estimated 47 million gallons of oil each year. In fact, in the United States alone, 1.5 million barrels of oil are used annually in the production of plastic bottles. That’s enough to fuel 100,000 cars for one year!”
  4. Buy locally, and fix instead of buy — if you can. The last component of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Styrofoam, the stuff that packing material is made of. You can reduce how much you put into the environment by fixing appliances instead of buying new ones to cut down on related packing materials, shopping locally to cut down on the number packages coming to your house, asking online retailers to use bio-friendly packing materials, and avoiding foam take-out containers. Several California cities, in their wisdom, actually outlawed Styrofoam back in May. That’s the last thing you can do: Ask your local and state representatives to help make laws to increase recycling and decrease the amount of plastic being used and spit into landfills and our oceans.

What else are you doing to help limit the amount of plastic in the trash stream? Can we ever get our seas back to their pristine condition? Are you, like me, anxious about what we’re doing to the earth? Tell me about it below.

2 Responses to “Swimming in a Sea of Plastic”

  1. MarthaandMe says:

    The image of this is so horrendous – the size of Texas is huge. I wish there was a way to collect it and recycle it. We’re working hard to cut back on plastic here – it’s shocking how many things come in plastic when you start to look. And I can’t get over how stores always try to give you a bag even if you are buying just one item!

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

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