NeedLESS Plastic, by John Strathman
Photo: John collecting beach debris on an Ocean Legacy expedition
In a 2016 survey, The Pew Research Center reported that 74% of Americans said: “the country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment." But only 20% said that they make an effort to live in ways that help protect the environment “all the time.”
It’s really tough to be environmentally conscious when it comes to plastic. Plastic is a ubiquitous workhorse and a seemingly essential component of our way of life. It’s everywhere, in almost everything we use, for many good reasons. Plastic is light, strong, durable, and cheap. Try to get everything on your grocery list and avoid plastic. Good luck. Try to go a day without using anything plastic. Not gonna happen. But, there ARE many opportunities to reduce our use.
The problem with plastic is that we produce, use and discard far more than we can manage. Much plastic waste is mismanaged. Worldwide, 8 million metric tons of plastic finds its way into the oceans every year. That’s a garbage truck every minute. By 2050, there will be as much plastic in the oceans (by weight) as fish. A million sea birds and 100,000 sea mammals and turtles are killed by plastic trash in the ocean every year. Microplastics (bits of plastic less than 5mm) have been found in bottled drinking water, shellfish, finned fish, sea salt, even in the air in the Pyrenees mountains, 100 miles from the nearest town. And, yes, it is found in human poop. We eat, drink, and inhale plastic every day. It is believed to be toxic.
In 2018, China stopped accepting plastic waste from other countries. That was a game-changer. Much of the plastic we dutifully deposited in our blue bins was baled up and sent to China. They don’t want our trash anymore. So, recyclers like Waste Management are scrambling to find other markets for plastic (somewhere else to send it). Much is sent to developing countries like Indonesia, Thailand, and India where 80% of plastic is mismanaged – incinerated, land-filled, or illegally dumped. Recyclers in the U.S. are forced to landfill or incinerate plastic they can’t find a market for. Six times as much plastic is incinerated in the United States as is recycled!
My interest in plastic pollution was triggered on a trip to the gorgeous islands of Raja Ampat in West Papua, Indonesia in 2016. Before that, I didn’t think much about my own plastic consumption. I used whatever I wanted, figuring it was okay as long as I tossed my plastic into the recycling bin when I was done with it. In Sorong, a city of 100,000, I saw plastic containers all over the streets and canals so choked with plastic garbage it was hard to see any water. There were discarded plastic water cups and bottles everywhere. There are no blue bins there, no big trucks to collect the waste and take it away. On the beautiful island where we stayed, home to some of the most biodiverse coral reefs in the world, resort staff cleaned the beach of plastic debris early each morning before guests arose to see it. I kayaked to the other side of the island only to find a beautiful beach covered with plastic trash. It was a shocker!
I’ve started to look for ways in which I can do my small bit to deal with plastic pollution. I’ve educated myself by reading articles online and visiting websites. I discovered a non-profit called Ocean Legacy, based near Vancouver, B.C., that collects marine debris from remote beaches and recycles as much of it as possible. My wife Deb and I visited the Ocean Legacy warehouse last November and spent a day sorting tons of plastic trash – everything from rope, floats and other fishing gear, drink bottles, plastic barrels, disposable lighters, straws, tires – you name it. I kept in touch with the organization and in June I joined them on a beach cleaning expedition near Bamfield, B.C. on the west coast of Vancouver Island. For 6 days, I boulder-hopped and crawled under salal at the high-tide line to recover plastic trash that had washed ashore. We filled at least thirty 2-yard “super sacks” with junk. The days were long and exhausting. But it was also quite inspiring to hang out with a dozen fearless millennials who love the ocean and hate to see it trashed.
Of course, plastic is not just a problem in far-away places. I've picked up plenty of plastic bags, water bottles, and miscellaneous plastic waste from Guemes Island beaches. So, in my small way, here are a few things I'm doing to reduce plastic waste in my little corner of the world:
- Working with others to help ban lightweight plastic shopping bags in Anacortes and at the state level.
- I feed wild birds. I’ve accumulated a pile of colorful woven polypropylene bags that once contained sunflower seeds. Friends give me chicken feed and other bags. They aren’t recyclable. So, I repurpose them. I watched YouTube videos, learned how to operate a sewing machine and have made at least 50 reusable, strong, washable grocery totes. You may see islanders carrying them on the ferry or around town.
- Deb and I try to avoid single-use plastic packaging whenever possible. Of course, we bring reusable bags to market, refusing wasteful, needless single-use plastic bags. We try to buy stuff packed in glass bottles or jars or in steel cans (big sigh… unfortunately, cans are usually coated with plastic on the inside!) or wrapped in paper. I was buying food for our little dog, which came in small polypropylene containers. I switched to dog food that comes in steel cans. I found ketchup in glass bottles (remember those?) at Smart Food Service Warehouse Store (formerly Cash and Carry). I buy olive oil in gallon steel cans to avoid plastic jugs. We take reusable, washable small bags to the supermarket to put produce in, or don’t bag produce at all.
- If I see a product that is packaged in plastic, I sometimes write the producer and ask them to consider ditching the plastic. I won't buy until they do!
- We take a stainless steel container with us to restaurants and fill it with leftovers instead of taking a polystyrene carry-out container provided by the restaurant.
- I take a reusable cup to Starbucks for coffee. They give me a $.10 discount. To-go coffee cups are plastic-lined paper and not recyclable around here. The disposable lids are polypropylene plastic, also not recyclable.
- I don’t buy bottled water or soda. At best, those bottles are “down-cycled” to make carpeting or fleece, but ultimately are destined for the landfill. I use a refillable water bottle. Lots of places will allow you to refill it for free (Starbucks is one). Plastic drink bottles are a top item found on beach cleanups.
- We don’t use single-use plastic drinking straws.
- Deb makes re-usable beeswax wraps which we use instead of plastic film for food storage.
- We used to buy ice cream in plastic tubs. A friend gave us an ice cream maker so now we enjoy ice cream without the plastic waste - and we don't have to worry about it melting in the ferry line!
I’m old enough to remember when plastic wasn’t nearly so pervasive. Pop bottles were heavy glass, returnable, and as kids we collected them and returned them to the store for money. Milk came in a paper carton without a stupid plastic spout on the side. Meat was wrapped in butcher paper, not sitting on a Styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic film. We had drinking fountains and steel canteens, not plastic water bottles. I dunno, maybe we were dehydrated all the time?
That’s my plastic story. What’s yours?
There's so much we can all do to help reduce plastic waste. The world needs LESS plastic!
We invite you to tell us your story/share your plastic reduction tips. We'd like to compile tips from islanders and share them (anonymously) on our website. Taking action to reduce plastic waste begins by raising awareness and re-thinking our purchases. You can help!