Conservation Corner

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Pauline Lee

Man’s wellbeing depends on a healthy environment. Thus, 20 million Americans from all walks of life launched the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, to call attention to environmental issues. While some progress has been made, plastics continue to damage our environment due to the growing world population and global pursuit of a Western lifestyle. Since plastic is inexpensive, light and versatile as compared to other raw materials, it has transformed every facet of our lives in the last 70 years, in packaging, clothing, construction, transportation and medical fields. Each year, 400 million tons of plastic are produced. Of this quantity, 40% is for single use, i.e., items used only once before being thrown away. Sadly, only 14% of all plastic packaging is collected for recycling after use. We have systems in place for recycling plastic, including equipment like phs Wastekit balers and compactors to help transport it, but it requires everyone’s individual efforts to make sure it enters the system in the first place. Vast quantities escape into the environment every year.

More than eight million tons of plastic enter our oceans each year, with most of that coming from land. At this rate, our oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight in 2050. Plastic bags and fish nets trap sea birds and marine creatures or are mistakenly consumed by marine life as food, resulting in significant fatalities. Even when plastics break down into microscopic pieces, fish consume them – as found recently in the stomachs of a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish. This can cause malnutrition or starvation for the fish and lead to plastic ingestion in humans too. While pure plastics have low toxicity because they are biochemically inert, some components used to make plastic are known to interfere with hormone functions and are suspected human carcinogens. Many highly-toxic chemical pollutants also accumulate in microplastics, manufactured or produced by the breakdown of larger plastics. Our oceans have become a dangerous microplastic soup.

During the last decade, scientists have identified five major patches of plastic garbage created by the flow of ocean currents. Unbelievable as it may seem, the Pacific Patch is about twice the size of Texas! This summer, after five years of planning, a non-profit Dutch organization, Ocean Cleanup, hopes to begin efforts to clean up 50% of the Pacific Patch in five years using specially-engineered floating screens. In addition to donations, funding for their project will hopefully come from the money made from recycling the collected trash. An Australian-based Seabin Project has designed floating garbage cans, submerged in the water at marinas, ports, yacht clubs and floating docks, to collect an average of 3.3 pounds of trash a day and prevent these water bottles, plastic bags, Styrofoam and other debris from making it out into the open ocean.

These innovative approaches will help remove plastics from the ocean, but they must be coupled with “source reduction” to be effective. Please celebrate Earth Day this year by reducing usage of single-use plastics, recycling plastics where possible and making sure your discarded plastics don’t litter the environment.