Protecting our Waterways
5 Steps for Reducing Plastic Waste
It’s a pleasant fall morning, and I’m walking along a local nature trail. It’s quiet, the noise of urban traffic is filtered by the forest surrounding me, leaving the sound of the wind blowing through the trees and the cacophony of birds singing. It’s as if I am far away from civilization, in a remote part of the world, just me and nature. The visual serenity is broken by a glimpse of something that is definitely not natural; a plastic bottle lays off to the side of the trail. Then, I see a small plastic bag wrapped around a tree branch, like a snake constricting it prey. Guess I’m not as far removed from civilization as I imagined.
This is more than a common occurrence in today’s world, even in areas that may be considered ‘wild and natural’. But the closer you get to an urban environment, the worse the picture becomes. Here’s a simple challenge: drive or walk down a street, even in your neighborhood, and not encounter plastic littering the roadway, drainage culvert, or open field. It isn’t that items were put there intentionally, although that’s still an issue. But rather, many items converge in these areas as a result of not being properly secured, easily finding their way to nearby storm drains or open spaces. Add major flood events that sweep large amounts of debris from their secured locations, and the problem compounds downstream in collection points along our streams, bayous, and shorelines. For items such as the ubiquitous plastic bag, a light breeze is enough to lift these lighter-than-air objects and carry them far distances. Like in the movie Finding Nemo, when Willem Dafoe’s character Gill says to Nemo, “All drains lead to the ocean kid”; plastic in our oceans is a straightforward supply chain, and it begins close to home. Storm drains empty to local streams, local streams to larger rivers, larger rivers to bays, and bays connect with oceans. The result of plastics finding their way into any one of these upstream sources leads to downstream impacts.
According to a recent study of 192 countries, 275 Million Metric Tons of plastic waste are generated annually, with approximately 8 Million Metric Tons entering the ocean. That is equivalent to finding 5 plastic bags full of plastic on every foot of coastline studied. That uses a moderate estimate, and doesn’t account for what is already in the ocean from decades of mismanaged plastic waste. Another study estimates 5.25 Trillion pieces of plastic weighing 269,000 Tons can be found floating in the global oceans today. However, most pieces are small, between 1mm and 4.75mm in size. Why so small? Because plastic doesn’t biodegrade but rather breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces when exposed to heat and sunlight. This is small enough for fish to ingest and pass along toxic compounds to other larger predatory fish and on up the food chain. Furthermore, many times when wildlife, such as birds, come across these small pieces of plastic, they don’t know they aren’t digestible, and may eventually fill their stomachs leading to starvation and death.
Plastic products have become indispensable in our daily lives. Disposable plastics are highly useful and beneficial to industries such as healthcare, minimizing contamination and infection through their single-use purpose. But these uses are not where the major issues exist with regards to improper disposal. It is the everyday plastics, from random consumer products, cups and straws, to plastic bags. These items don’t have strict disposal protocols, other than the user’s willingness to ensure they find their way to a proper recycling or trash receptacle. Many of these items can be replaced by bio-degradable products on the market today that are not plastic, yet function just as well and are not prohibitively expensive. Take disposable cups that are made from plant-based corn resin that biodegrade, are fully compostable, and contain no petroleum products. They look, feel, and function just as good as a traditional plastic cup. In the end, it isn’t the nature of the product that is the issue - it is the design. I believe in the marketplace determining viable long-term products. As long as people are informed as to their choices and want to do the right thing, positive change can come about through individual actions. After all, who doesn’t want clean air, water, and landscapes?
What else can individuals do every day to help curb the use of plastics and other non-biodegradable items from entering our natural areas, waterways, and oceans?
1. SWAP! Swap out plastic bags for reusable bags at the grocery store. They’re cheap and durable, not to mention the insulated ones keep your ice cream cold on those hot summer days. But if you can’t afford them, or they just aren’t available, look for plastic bag recycling containers at your grocery store. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is a good hierarchy to follow.
2. STOP! Stop using one-time plastic bottles and products. A double walled stainless steel water bottle will keep your water cold all day. In general, think reusable containers versus one-time use items for all your needs. In the long run, you may even save some money.
3. ACT! Volunteer for local cleanup activities in your community. Many of these occur on Earth Day each April, and are typically organized by local groups, nonprofits, and cities. But don’t forget, Everyday Can Be Earth Day, so if you are out for a walk, do what you can to help keep your community clean.
4. GIVE! Get involved in local conservation activities. There are many nonprofits all around the country that rely upon volunteers as their base to help cleanup and maintain natural areas for everyone to enjoy. This is great way to have a positive impact on the environment, even at a small scale, and make your community a better place. Tackling large global issues begins close to home.
5. TALK! Communicate and inform others. For me, it’s getting outdoors and using photography to visually share beautiful places, wildlife, nature, and the issues we face.
The Earth is a complex biosphere, much of which we still do not fully understand. But we do know that the unnatural loss of habitat and species does not lead to a bright future for any part of humanity. Work to make the world a better place than you found it, involve others, and enjoy the journey, even if you have to help clean up a bit along the way.
In closing, I would like to thank the staff of Bayou Land Conservancy for their feedback and assistance with editing this article. Plastic pollution is a large area to cover and this article just touches the surface of actions that are needed to get a handle on the issue and point us in a more sustainable direction. There are certainly many more innovations and ideas that continue to come about to deal with the issue of plastics in our environment. To learn more about Bayou Land Conservancy visit BayouLandConservancy.org and see how you can help with conservation activities in the Houston-Galveston region and do your part.