Consumers play a critical role
Recently I read an article by an Oregon State University scientist arguing that the size of the plastic garbage patch in the Pacifi c Ocean is not actually as big as the state of Texas. Her position further fanned the debate between the plastics industry, scientists and environmentalist as to the actual extent of the plastic-marine litter problem, who is to blame and how to fix it. But unfortunately, while the research continues, no one is comparing the garbage patch to the size of Rhode Island.
As an island resident and a member of the plastic-packaging industry for more than 20 years, I can tell you the blame is not contained to any one segment of our complex global materials loop. Sure, plastics companies want to sell more products, retailers continue to offer a plastic bag with every purchase and there is a lack of public recycling bins, but consumer choices and habits play a critical role as well. I know firsthand that the plastics industry is desperate for more recycled feedstock, yet plastic bottle recycling rates have been struck below 30 percent in this country, while other counties have found ways to double and event triple this rate.
It may seem like a small thing to stop and pick up unsightly plastic debris on the shoreline and roadsides as many of us did last weekend but it is a critical step. Once it reaches the ocean, plastic breaks down slowly and as it does the fragment act like sponges absorbing the other dangerous chemicals that we are releasing into the marine environment. These small plastic fragments are indistinguishable to small fish and crustaceans from plankton, so they eat it along with the plankton and in turn are eaten by bigger fish. Then we eat the fish.
So the solutions begin on land with legislation that encourages recycling and sets meaningful target reductions for municipal waste; with enlightened companies that embrace cradle-to-cradle design and extended producer responsibility; and with each and every of us, demanding change and taking responsibility in our own lives.
Are you part of the solution?
The author is a member of the Jamestown Conservation