Why you need to stop using disposable plastic-how the ocean garbage patches will grow

I’ve posted before about the plastic garbage patches in the ocean. I’ve talked about how Beth from My Plastic-free Life (formerly Fake Plastic Fish) is my hero – she lives a life free from most disposable plastic . And I’ve rallied against polyethylene plastic beads in body scrubs.

If none of that has persuaded you to eliminate at least some disposable plastic, then watch this.

Maximenko’s Plastic Pollution Growth Model from 5 Gyres on Vimeo.

Plastic, Plastic Everywhere: What Would Beth Do?

green moms carnival logoThe second Green Moms Carnival this month is about plastic.  It is hosted by Beth at My Plastic-free Life (formerly FakePlasticFish who is my no-plastic Superhero).  You really should go check out her blog – she describes her inspirational journey to a lifestyle free of disposable plastic.  And she is a woman who truly practices what she preaches – but never in a holier than though manner.  Instead she is quietly galvanizing force.  Sharing some meals last year at the BlogHer08 convention brought home to me just how much disposable plastic we use every day.

Since then, I found out about the absolutely frightening amount of plastic in the Pacific Ocean.  I also found out about polyethylene plastic beads being in hundreds of beauty and personal care products and am sterering clear of those products. 

And since then, really, since Beth, I’ve made efforts to get rid of disposable plastic.  We already used re-usable shopping bags and totes for shopping, but I made an effort to use all the time, from the grocery store to Target to Macys.  I also got some awesome re-usable produce and organic re-usable bags for buying bulk from Plum Creek Mercantile (I love them!).  I use stainless steel straws purchased through Amazon, carry my own stainless steel cutlery for lunches at work (no disposable plastic forks), and thumb my nose at my son’s school by refusing to use a plastic bag for his towel each week. (we use a re-usable nylon tote).  I shocked my daughter’s friends’ parents at her birthday party by using my good china for birthday cake instead of disposable plastic.   

Right now, I’m focusing on disposable plastic – plastic bags, plastic packaging, plastic packing tape, etc. – the things that you don’t re-use.  So, for example, I don’t buy single serve items, but buy in bulk, and then use small containers to make the items portable.  Like apple sauce (if I don’t have time to make my own) in a large glass container spooned into reusable containers for lunches.  I always ask myself – what would Beth do? 

But it still feels like it isn’t enough. I look around our house and just see so much plastic.  I try to skip it all the time, but it is virtually impossible to get completely away from plastic.  And, to be frank, I am glad to have my plastic car seats for my children.  I recognize that plastic has made our lives easier and more safe in a lot of ways.  But it is not without its problems.  
ocean trashWhy is plastic such a problem?  It is made with petroleum – a non-renewable resource.  It doesn’t degrade or break down in any relevant time frame so it fills our landfills and chokes our oceans. Just imagine – every piece of plastic made in the last 50 years or so, except for the 1/2 percent or so that has been incinerated, is still around in our environment. 

How much plastic do you think will exist in the next 50 years? 

And recycling helps, but it doesn’t make the plastic disappear.  The recycled items are just made into other plastic items, which may not be recyclable.  Most plastic is not particular eco-friendly in its manufacture either – particularly polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic.  Plastic items may also be exposing us to potentially harmful chemicals – think of hormone-disrupting bispenol A in polycarbonate plastic or the neurotoxin lead in polyvinyl chloride. 

We really need to do more.  I saw a Disney Thumbelina doll at Target yesterday and was heartened to see the post-consumer recycled content packaging replacing the typical plastic packaging.  But it did NOT change the fact that the doll was still just a plastic doll.  

And I seem to be a bit cranky about it lately.  Two nights ago at the grocery store (granted, it was around 10 pm), the man behind me in the check out line asked me how I remembered to bring my re-usable bags.  And I snapped at him – “Well, I just think about what will happen if I don’t bring them – when my kids grow up the world will be crap.”  Not the most diplomatic response. 

I’ve also snapped at my husband, who often doesn’t think about it and buys single serve apple sauce or similar items. 
So I guess this is a preachy post because I’m going to urge you to do something about plastic.  I really think we have to do more – to conserve our resources, to protect our oceans, to preserve our Earth.  Let’s all try to: 

  • Use re-usable bags and totes for shopping, whether at the grocery store or a department store.  No more plastic bags.  If you think a single plastic bag is no big deal, consider that Americans throw away some 100 billion polyethylene plastic bags every year.
  •  Use re-usable bags for your produce too.
  •  Skip the bags at the dry cleaner.  If you need a bag, then you can buy a fabric bag to use.
  •  Try a stainless steel or glass straw (both available on Amazon) instead of the disposable plastic ones.  My kids absolutely love our stainless straws.  They are super easy to clean.
  • Carry your own cutlery.  Virtually all take-out restaurants are glad to forego giving you disposable forks and knives.
  • Use a re-usable stainless steel bottle for your water or coffee or whatever you drink.
  • Bring your own containers for take out.  Most of the places I lunch out frequently are more than willing to use my containers from home for my lunch when I eat out.
  • Look for items with less packaging.  Buy concentrated. Buy in bulk. 

Any if you aren’t sure, just ask, What Would Beth Do? 

Small Plastic Particles or Microplastics Pass Toxic Chemicals to Marine Life

I’ve blogged before about the impacts of plastic on our oceans.  My pet peeve – microplastic beads in beauty products designed to be washed down the drain and into our oceans since they are too small to be removed by sewage treatment plants.  Plastic that makes its way into our oceans breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces, and gets taken up by marine life that mistake the plastic pieces for food.  If you didn’t already know, there are huge garbage patches of plastic floating in our oceans – the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is roughly twice the size of the continental United States.
People think that the plastics will just magically disappear.  But, “except for a small amount [of plastic] that’s been incinerated, every bit of plastic manufactured in the world for the last fifty years or so still remains.  It’s somewhere in the environment,” says Tony Andrady.
Now it seems that microplastics – plastic fragments smaller than 5 millimeters – are posing a significant toxic threat to our oceans.  Those microplastics release their toxic additives – such as flame retardants (added to plastic parts of consumer electronics), phthalates (plasticizers found in vinyl), and antimicrobials – into marine life.  In addition, plastics tend to soak up additional toxic chemicals.  Plastics soak up persistent organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that don’t mingle in water.  In other words, those chemicals that don’t dissolve in water attach themselves to the microplastics.  Microplastics have been shown to have PCB concentrations more than 1 million times higher than PCB concentrations in the surrounding water.  These chemicals also get passed to animals when the plastic is ingested.
Two recent studies (one involving mussels and the other involving seabirds) have shown that marine life ingesting microplastics have significant higher concentrations of plastic-related toxic chemicals in their bodies. 
Ultimately, if toxic chemicals are making their way from microplastics into marine life, they will make their way into our bodies.  We just contaminate our food chain. 
So, let’s do what we can to eliminate disposable plastic.  I’ve talked about options before, but, well, I defer to the queen of eliminating plastic, Beth at Fake Plastic Fish.  She is truly the goddess of eliminating plastic.  I bow down to her expertise.
Nevertheless, with the approaching holiday season, some tips:

  • Use glass or stainless steel instead of disposable plastic bags to store leftovers.  Or, try aluminum foil (recycled) to package up those Thanksgiving Day doggie bags.  Aluminum can be readily recycled.  Perhaps you can learn to fold like a turkey?
  • Use paper tape to close & ship packages.
  • Look for consumer goods that are not packaged in unnecessary plastic.
  • Use reusable bags for all shopping, not just grocery store.
  • Use reusable cloth produce bags.

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Plastic Beads & The Plastic Soup Swirling In The Ocean

After writing about polyethyelene beads in conventional body scrubs, I’ve been researching plastics in our oceans.  It really irks me that beauty products contain plastic DESIGNED to be washed to the ocean.  And I’ve found those beads in lots of products, now that I’m looking, including toothpaste (see Simple Steps below). 

Okay, I realize that this may be old news.  Beth over at My Plastic-free Life (formerly Fake Plastic Fish) had a blog about it in early May.  But still.  I’m a green mom on a mission.

If you didn’t know, those polyethylene beads are not caught by sewage treatment plants.  They go right to the ocean.  And while the beads aren’t responsible for the plastic garbage patches swirling in our oceans, they don’t help matters.  And they contribute to them.  My research has compelled me to renew my vow to eliminate plastic as much as possible from my life.

I’m going to guess that you have seen the horrific images of sea life damaged by plastic.  A turtle grown up with a deformed shell from a plastic ring wrapped around him when he was young.  Or a dead bird with a stomach filled with plastic items.  And these images are no doubt disturbing.  But, while we try to do what we can to stop such things from happening, most of us think that we do what we can to recycle our plastic items so we’re not contributing to this problem.  Even if we are wrong.

What has me disturbed is not those images, which do indeed disturb me, but the information that there are huge patches of swirling, floating plastic debris in our oceans.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a combination of the Eastern Garbage Patch and the Western Garbage Patch – is believed to cover an area the twice the size of the continental United States.  Twice the size!  And growing.  The plastic debris is held in place by currents.
And more plastic garbage patches exist in other oceans.Map of garbage patches in ocean

What are these plastic garbage patches made up of?  Plastic.  Plastic from the last 50 years.  Plastics don’t degrade, but in the ocean, they do break into smaller and smaller pieces.  And they form a plastic soup on top of and below the surface of our oceans.
What is in there?  University of Plymouth marine biologist Richard Thompson has identified varieties of acrylic, nylon, polyester, polyethylene, polypropylene and polyvinyl chloride in our oceans.  And in this swirling mass of plastic are objects more than 50 years old.  (Photo courtesy of Algalita Marine Research Foundation).

Plastic does not degrade in any relevant time frame.  Almost all the plastic ever produced is still around.  Consider this quote from Orion Magazine’s article Polymers are Forever by Alan Weisman:

“EXCEPT FOR A SMALL AMOUNT that’s been incinerated,” says Tony Andrady the oracle, “every bit of plastic manufactured in the world for the last fifty years or so still remains. It’s somewhere in the environment.”

Holy sh*t! 

How does the plastic in our oceans get there?  About 80% of the plastic comes from land and the remaining 20% comes from ships and oil platforms.  Keep in mind that only about 3.5% of plastics are recycled.  And, there are a lot of myths about recyling plastic.  The biggest myth?  Plastics that go into curbside recycling bins get recycled.  Not all of them do.  Actually, most of them are NOT recycled.  And if they are recycled, they are made into products such as textiles, parking lot bumpers, and similar products – that cannot be recycled.

So what can we do?  Here are some Smart Mama Simple Steps to help reduce plastic consumption, and also help reduce the plastic garbage patches in our oceans:

  • Give a hoot, don’t pollute.  That saying is true.  Don’t litter, and pick up litter you do see.  Even better – organize a park clean-up, a beach clean-up, or get the local homeowner’s association to install trash cans.  Be a green mom on a mission.
  • Reduce the use.  Don’t buy items in plastic packaging or plastic containers.  Buy in glass or paper.  Use your green purse!
  • Use reusable bags when shopping.  Let’s eliminate plastic bags altogether!  Whenever you shop, use reusable bags – whether you are grocery shopping or clothes shopping, take your own bags.  Richard Thompson reports that even some purportedly biodegradable bags aren’t really – they break down into cellulose and plastic polymers.  After the cellulose broke down, Richard Thompson’s team found that thousands of clean, nearly invisible plastic particles remained.  And, after tying plastic produce bags to moorings in the ocean, his team found that the bags could still carry groceries after a year.
  • Buy in bulk.  This will keep plastic packaging down.
  • Bring your own container.  We just did this at lunch today in my quest to use less plastic.  We brought our own cups to Target (yes, my kids went to the dentist today and we ended up at Target).  The snack counter had no problem with us using our own stainless steel Kleen Kanteens.
  • Skip personal care products with plastic beads.  If a product identifies micro-fine polyethylene beads, polyethylene micro spheres, polyethylene beads, polyethylene or , skip it.  Natural exfoliants such as walnute shells, apricot huls, grape seeds, coarse sugar, sea salt, jojoba seeds or similar products are okay.  Just skip those stupid beads.  Based upon product labels, I’ve found them in: Crest Pro Health Fluoride Toothpaste, Colgate 2 in 1 Toothpaste & Mouthwash – Whitening Icy Blast, Pond’s Fresh Start Daily Exfoliating Cleanser, L’Oreal Pure Zone Pore Unclogging Scrub Cleanser, Aveeno Skin Brightening Scrub, and many more.
  • Clean up your waste.  This summer, whether you are at the beach or on a picnic, pick up your trash.  If the trash bin at the location is full or prone to losing its trash, take your trash with you and put it in a secure location.
  • Sweep sidewalks, don’t hose them.  Pick up the plastic – don’t wash it to the ocean.  This will save water too.
  • Put butts in the trash, not on the ground.  Those cigarette butts are litter!  They do not degrade.  Cigarette butts are not biodegradable as you think.  Almost all cigarette filters are a bundle of 12,000 plastic cellulose fibers.  The acetate (plastic) filters take years to decompose.
  • Dispose of trash in secure container.  Don’t let your trash trash your neighborhood and our oceans.  Make sure your trash can is secure.