Opinion | Susan Knopf: Wake up to our plastic world with new Easy Being Green program
Did you know there are five plastic islands floating in our oceans, and the biggest one — The Great Pacific Garbage Patch — is more than twice the size of Texas? It’s floating halfway between California and Hawaii. It’s been described by ocean travelers and photographed. This is not fake news.
We each contributed to the creation of this island. If you brush your teeth you likely contribute to this island. No, I’m not saying to stop brushing your teeth. But your toothbrush is made of plastic (unless you’ve already switched to bamboo, like my friend Rylee!), and it was sold to you in plastic packaging. The packaging is a single-use plastic; like the plastic silverware you use at a fast food restaurant. Single-use plastics make up about one third of all the plastics we consume, according to the Plastic Pollution Coalition.
The problem is the earth can’t consume plastic. Plastic doesn’t go away. All the plastic that has ever been produced, say back in the 1950s, is still here. It’s just broken down into tiny pieces called microplastics. This is the really dangerous stuff. Turns out we’re eating it! If you are a meat eater, the animal you are eating ate something that contained plastic.
A fish sees something colorful floating in the water. It sees food and eats it. The fish doesn’t know it’s a bit of microplastic. In a video from The Ocean Clean-Up, you see an entire tray of microplastics that came from a dead turtle’s stomach.
Even if you are a vegetarian, you are eating plastic. Trace plastic chemicals are virtually everywhere: in soil, water and Arctic ice!
So what can we do about it? Sounds like one of those issues that is so big we would rather just stick our heads in the sand and forget about it. Start with being present. Today, and perhaps the rest of this week, notice every time you touch or use anything plastic. Just notice. As you move through the week, start to think what you might use instead. It’s called the “Six Rs”: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rethink, Repair, Refuse.
So what would that look like?
Reduce: Instead of buying something in a new plastic jar, see if you can buy it in bulk and refill the same jar.
Reuse: If you buy it in a disposable plastic container, can you reuse that container for something else? I recycle plastic containers and use disposable plastic jar lids as saucers/coasters for plants.
Recycle: Turns out we rank very low globally on recycling. Europe is recycling about 30 percent of its plastics. China recycles about 25 percent of the plastics it uses, according to National Geographic. We recycle just 9 percent.
Rethink: Consider how things were packaged in the last century, before we were handed a plastic bag with every purchase. How can you change your daily routines to consume less plastic?
Repair: Instead of buying a new plastic laundry basket, duct tape the broken handle on the old one. Save money and use less.
Refuse: Just say no to plastic bags, single use plastic utensils, straws and cups. Instead of accepting a disposable cup, ask to refill your own cup or bottle. Carry metal silverware in your backpack or purse and clean it each night. Forget the straw; or buy a durable straw and reuse it each day. I bought a straw brush. (Yes it has plastic bristles, but I’ve been using the same brush for more than a year and saved a bunch of straws!)
We can reduce the flow of plastics into the ocean. According to Surfers Against Sewage, eight million tons of plastic garbage finds its way to the ocean every year. That’s five shopping bags full for every foot of coastline in the world, according to National Geographic. We can do better. Unfortunately, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and plastic recyclers, we’re consuming more plastic and recycling less.
In the 1970s we drank less than one bottled beverage per day. Back in 1970, soda was in a glass bottle that was recycled again and again. Our rate of consuming bottled beverages has more than tripled. Yet, our rate of recycling went down in 2015 and 2016 according to plastics recyclers. Some of that is due to making the bottles lighter, thus less tonnage. It appears the only way to get recycling done is to incentivize it.
The 10 states that charge bottle deposits have much higher rates of recycling — about twice as high — as compared to states which don’t charge deposits. The increased recycling directly reduces litter by the same amount. Good news, the recycled plastic doesn’t feed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. So why don’t we adopt that model to encourage more recycling? The beverage industry, which initiated the first glass bottle deposits, because the bottles were valuable and they wanted them back, is the source of the pushback. Now the bottles are cheap plastic, the industry fights container deposits because the companies view such programs as a threat to profits, according to Matthew Gandy in his book “Recycling and the Politics of Urban Waste.”
In November, Breckenridge will ask taxpayers for a property tax mill levy to improve recycling and waste management. Currently Summit County recycles about 20 percent of refuse. Breckenridge would like to see that move to 40 percent. Waste Less Summit has a goal to reduce single-use plastics in restaurants and bars and thus reduce waste headed to the landfill.
Summit Colorado Interfaith Council, Headwaters Chapter of the Sierra Club, Waste Less Summit and Mountain Top Children’s Museum are joining forces to encourage recycling with a new local program, Easy Being Green, Saturday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Frisco Historic Park Gazebo on Main Street. You can enjoy compelling film shorts, fun crafts and relay games focused on encouraging correct recycling practices. Sunday night, at 6:30 p.m. at Colorado Mountain College Breckenridge Campus, the Interfaith Council presents the last of its Summer Sunday Film Series with the debut of two short films. Sierra Club will present “Straws,” and the Interfaith Council will present “Plastic is Forever,” by a multiple-award-winning young filmmaker. Both events are free and open to public.
Susan Knopf is a Summit County resident. She has won awards from the Associated Press and United Press International for her news reporting.
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