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What's in that gulp of ocean water you just swallowed? This, unfortunately.


One of the things I am most proud of is our household ban on plastic. We don’t use plastic if we can help it. I take reusable bags on shopping trips to the supermarket and the mall, and we recycle any plastic that does come into our home. Every bread bag, every piece of packaging, every toilet paper or paper towel wrapping, every piece of bubblewrap, every dry cleaning bag, shrink wrap — it all goes into a big bag that is then recycled at our local Lowe’s. (You can read more about it here.) It really adds up. I started this family campaign after reading about The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (Again, you can read more about that here.) To date, I’ve probably kept thousands of pieces of plastic out of landfills.

People think I am crazy. As they point out, this way of life does take some work and commitment. Still, it’s worth it to me. It really hurts when I think about how — by using plastic — we are polluting our oceans and inadvertently polluting our food supply.

I started this family ban a few years ago, but haven’t really heard a lot about the topic lately. Am I making a difference, I always wonder? Are we, as a society, making a dent in the problem? This week, I got answers to these questions when I garnered some time with an executive from Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of oceans, beaches, and the surf. Below, Bill Hickman, Surfrider Foundation’s Rise Above Plastics Coordinator, explains how why our oceans are still at risk, and why one person’s efforts really do matter.

KB: Have we seen a decline in the amount of plastic being found in our waterways?

Hickman: Some places yes and some places no. Cities that have passed plastic reduction ordinances such as plastic bag or expanded polystyrene foam bans are starting to see litter reductions. Some cities have done a good job with increased street sweeping, [adding] catch basins for storm drains, and other efforts but overall we are not seeing a decline in plastic pollution reaching the ocean.

KB: What’s are some of the biggest risks of plastic waterway pollution?

Hickman: Plastic does not biodegrade in our lifetimes, it typically photodegrades [meaning it breaks up into tiny pieces but never decomposes into organic matter] into smaller pieces that can easily be confused for food by marine life. Those plastic pieces are good at adsorbing persistent organic pollutants that may be in the water such as PCBs [which act as hormone disruptors and carcinogens] and DDT [a dangerous pesticide], which over time could travel up the food chain and possibly pose a threat to people who eat fish.

KB: Where is the plastic originating from?

Hickman: Not all plastic is bad, but disposable plastics can be devastating. After World War II the United States changed from a society that reused everything possible to one that promoted the convenience of throwaway living and benefits of “no more dishes” without realizing the consequences of these decisions as population soared. Now plastic encases everything from electronics to razors to fruit and veggies that already have nature’s packaging — its skin! Plastic is typically derived from petroleum or natural gas and starts out as pellets or ‘nurdles’ at production facilities that are shipped to plastics manufactures via rail and truck. Those pellets are typically heated then expanded or extruded into products such as plastic bags, bottles, toys, foam foodware, and more.

KB: What can we do to reduce the amount of plastic going into the water?

Hickman: The best way to help prevent plastic pollution is through source reductions such as plastic bag and expanded foam bans along with more states adopting ‘bottle bills’ [requiring a bottle deposit] which help to increase recycling rates.

KB: Can one person really make a difference?

Hickman: Absolutely. Every action helps to make a difference, and on a personal level it’s great to follow the four R’s: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle plastic! Get involved with your local Surfrider Chapter and participate in their beach cleanups and their Rise Above Plastics efforts.

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