Please, PLEASE, cut down on your plastic use

I am BEGGING YOU. This isn’t a drill anymore — plastic is EVERYWHERE. And it’s a huge problem.

From the National Geographic June 2018 issue:

Because plastic wasn’t invented until the late 19th century, and production really only took off around 1950, we have a mere 9.2 billion tons of the stuff to deal with. Of that, more than 6.9 billion tons have become waste. And of that waste, a staggering 6.3 billion tons never made it to a recycling bin—a figure that stunned the scientists who crunched the numbers in 2017.

No one knows how much unrecycled plastic waste ends up in the ocean, Earth’s last sink. In 2015, Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia engineering professor, caught everyone’s attention with a rough estimate: between 5.3 million and 14 million tons each year just from coastal regions. Most of it isn’t thrown off ships, she and her colleagues say, but is dumped carelessly on land or in rivers, mostly in Asia. It’s then blown or washed into the sea. Imagine five plastic grocery bags stuffed with plastic trash, Jambeck says, sitting on every foot of coastline around the world—that would correspond to about 8.8 million tons, her middle-of-the-road estimate of what the ocean gets from us annually. It’s unclear how long it will take for that plastic to completely biodegrade into its constituent molecules. Estimates range from 450 years to never.

I want to point this specific part out to you: “It’s unclear how long it will take for that plastic to completely biodegrade into its constituent molecules. Estimates range from 450 years to never.”

We can only do so much to clean up what’s out there. So here’s what you can do to slow it down:

1. Stop using single use items

We all do it. Even me (hey, I never claimed to be perfect). But we can be better about this. One of most impactful things we can do is STOP USING STRAWS. There’s a great replacement coming to market soon for a traveling, collapsible straw, but in the meantime, just buy straws and take them with you if you have to — or just stop using them. K-Cups are just as bad, if not worse (they could wrap around the planet 10 TIMES). If you have to use them, make your own reusable ones. Buy compostable ones (though, those aren’t that great either). Cut down on your deliverable meal plan boxes, or at least choose one that doesn’t have as much single use plastic. I’ve found that Hello Fresh does the best with this (Blue Apron’s packaging is TERRIBLE for the Earth), so just be aware of what you’re contributing).

Globally, 18 percent of plastic is recycled, up from nearly zero in 1980. Plastic bottles are one of the most widely recycled products. But other items, such as drinking straws, are harder to recycle and often discarded.

I could go on for days about single use plastic bottles and bags, but I’ll spare you. So just don’t use them. Use reusable bags — keep them in your car, in your desk, in your spouses’s car… wherever it takes for you to remember to bring them in the store. Buy reusable produce bags to take with you. And FOR THE LOVE OF THE EARTH, stop buying plastic water bottles.

Meanwhile, ocean plastic is estimated to kill millions of marine animals every year. Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, are known to have been affected by it. Some are harmed visibly—strangled by abandoned fishing nets or discarded six-pack rings. Many more are probably harmed invisibly. Marine species of all sizes, from zooplankton to whales, now eat microplastics, the bits smaller than one-fifth of an inch across.

2. RECYCLE EVERYTHING

And if you can’t when you’re out and about, take it home and do it. Make sure you actually can in your recycling bin — check out this list to see if you’re recycling correctly, or your items right to a recycling plant. Also pay attention to HOW to recycle in your town. Do your recyclables need to be washed? If so, rise them (but save water while doing it, ok?). Do your paper products need to be tied with twine? (Mine do, which is strange, but whatever, buy some twine and get it done).

3. Be more conscious about your purchases

Are you about to buy those brussels sprouts already chopped up, sitting in styrofoam, wrapped in plastic? Don’t. That tiny package will have a way bigger impact on our planet than it’s manufactuer ever intended (see that little blurb from NatGeo above), so just think twice before buying unnecessary waste.

If you can disrupt the cycle by not buying plastic at the source, hopefully we can slow down the amount being put back onto the planet.

From National Geographic:

“This isn’t a problem where we don’t know what the solution is,” says Ted Siegler, a Vermont resource economist who has spent more than 25 years working with developing nations on garbage. “We know how to pick up garbage. Anyone can do it. We know how to dispose of it. We know how to recycle.” It’s a matter of building the necessary institutions and systems, he says—ideally before the ocean turns, irretrievably and for centuries to come, into a thin soup of plastic.

There are things we can do to help this global problem. So let’s do them.

 

Water pollution may make #Rio2016 the most hazardous yet

Olympic visitors flocking to Rio de Janiero, Brazil for this year’s Olympic games have been warned: “Don’t put your head underwater.”

According to a study contracted by the Associated Press, the waters along the coast of Rio are filled with a toxic sludge of raw sewage, “teeming with dangerous viruses and bacteria.” In an amazingly horrible comparison, swimmers need to ingest only three teaspoons of water to be almost certain of contracting a virus, with levels of pollutants “1.7m times what would be considered alarming in the United States and Europe.”

But it’s not just a warning for the visitors — Olympians competing in the bay (sailors, rowers, and open-water swimmers) have had to take extra precautions in the form of antibiotics and anti-pollution microbial suits.

“[The water quality] is a real concern. We’re going to have to be very disciplined about how we’re taking care of ourselves,” said Meghan O’Leary, a member of the U.S. rowing team. “Don’t touch our face if we touch the water. Covering our water bottles with plastic bags. We get splashed a lot. I sit in bow. It’s going to happen. We’re just going to try to control everything we can.”

Unfortunately, the most polluted areas are the points where Olympic rowing and sailing races will take place.

The New York Times writes that a part of Rio’s Olympic bid was to “capture and treat 80 percent of the sewage that flows into Guanabara Bay,” which certainly isn’t happening by the time the Olympics start on Friday.

In the long term, Rio will be added to the list of Olympic host cities with issues — including the lack of snow in Sochi in 2014 and in the upcoming winter games in Beijing in 2022.

Earth Week 2015: how are the oceans doing, anyway?

Welcome to my annual Earth Week series! I believe that protecting the Earth deserves more than one day, so I’ve given it a week. Check back every day from April 20-24 to learn about a new environmental issue (or solution!) each day.

Sometimes we forget about the oceans, despite the fact that they take up 70% of the Earth’s surface. Or, more specifically, we forget to think about what ends up there.

A study in the journal Science found that we deposit between 5.3 and 14 million tons of plastic in the oceans every year. I mean sure, that’s a huge range. But to make it more fathomable, OnEarth made analogies for plastic totaling 9 million tons. 9 million tons of plastic is 136 billion plastic jugs, which, if stacked, would “reach more than halfway to Mars.” 9 million tons of plastic is “also the equivalent of piling five grocery bags full of plastic on every foot of coastline in the world.”

So, in other words, that’s a lot of plastic. And however you quantify it, a lot of it is going into the oceans.

garbagepatch

If you don’t know, there is a huge pile of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The patch is actually a group of trash piles that collect between the west coast of the US and the East Coast of Asia. The trash “vortex” collects in a convergence zone in the ocean – where warm water from the the southern hemisphere meets with cold water from the Arctic. You can see the different trash piles below:

The plastic converges here because a lot of it isn’t biodegradable, considering it’s plastic. That, paired with the fact that we produce 620% more plastic than we did as a society in 1975, is causing problems for marine life as well as the health of the ocean. Mashable reports that when plastic is jostled in the ocean, it is sometimes broken up into tiny shreds, small enough to be ingested my animals and avoid nets of those trying to clean up the sea.

Garbage washed up in Hawaii

So what can you do to help? Here are some ideas:

  • Use less plastic: we only recycle 14% of plastic we use in the US, and that’s pretty bad. If you live in an area where recycling is easily accessible, please just recycle. Just put that plastic bottle in your recycling bin!
  • Stop using products with plastic micro-beads in them: okay, so ICYMI, your facial cleanser probably has tiny pieces of plastic in it. Do you have exfoliating beads? Bingo. Simple solution – don’t use these! Find other products . If you’re inclined to take a stand, find out more here.
  • Reuse the plastic you do use: use extra plastic jars to house snacks instead of using plastic snack/sandwich bags. You can also reuse the tupperware from lunch meat to take your sandwiches to work. There are endless possibilities!
  • Don’t use plastic bottles: if you read my blog, you know plastic bottles are horrible, not just for the environment because of plastic pollution, but because of water extraction too. The bottles are made of fossil fuels, too, which doesn’t help the Earth much.

It’s easy to make change – just pick what works for you and stick to it! A little goes a long way. Thanks for joining me for this Earth Week series!

This post concludes my Earth Week posts for 2015. Click here for more!

 

Earth Week 2015: BP Oil Spill update

Welcome to my annual Earth Week series! I believe that protecting the Earth deserves more than one day, so I’ve given it a week. Check back every day from April 20-24 to learn about a new environmental issue (or solution!) each day.

So, what’s going on with the Gulf of Mexico? The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, more commonly known as the BP oil spill, took place 5 years ago in April 2010. Here’s more background:

In April 2010, there was an oil spill of catastrophic proportions in the Gulf of Mexico due to negligence by BP executives and an explosion on an oil rig. This negligence caused the largest oil spill in U.S. history: 4.9 million barrels (205 million gallons) of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico over months, and the blast from the explosion killed 11 workers and sent oil spewing into the Gulf for 87 days. In September 2014, BP was finally found liable for the oil spill in 2010 in court, and was charged with gross negligence. The oil giant could pay up to $4,300 per barrel spilled in fines on top of everything they have already paid (number is floating around $13.7 billion).

Map of the spill during summer 2010 (photo by NASA)
Map of the spill during summer 2010 (photo by NASA)

A lot has happened since then – clean-up efforts have been partially successful, BP has been fined billions, and restoration efforts continue on. On the 5 year anniversary of the spill, news organizations and government agencies alike have compiled information for the public and put them in graphic form.

OnEarth Magazine, magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council, put together an infographic explaining what scientists know about wildlife deaths, which total in the millions (click-through for full image):

BP oil spill OnEarth

The AP also created a beautiful interactive scrolling image that catalogs the Gulf’s health 5 years after the spill. Categories include the health of the seafloor, mammals, crustaceans, the food web, marshes, birds, fish, water quality, turtles, and beaches before and after the spill. Spoiler alert: every data point except one, the red snapper population numbers, has decreased since the spill (click-through for the full image):

AP gulf oil spill interactive

Here’s a more comprehensive list of what’s been happening since BP was found liable for the oil spill:

1. A study in January 2015: found there may be close to 10 million gallons of oil stuck in the bottom of the Gulf. The scientists speculate the oil may have come from microorganisms digesting it and discarding it on the sea floor, and the extra oil may cause lesions (or death) to deep-sea creatures that live there.

2. The White House has proposed new deep-sea, offshore drilling regulations. If passed, deep-sea drilling rigs, like the BP rig that exploded, will “tighten safety requirements on blowout preventers, the industry-standard devices that are the last line of protection to stop explosions in undersea oil and gas wells,” according to the New York Times. This is huge, considering the blowout preventer is what faulted, causing the Macando well to explode in the first place. These rules and regulations would be imposed on all deep-sea offshore drilling equipment, as this type of drilling is expanding.

If passed, these regulations would be the third of their kind. In 2010, the Department of the Interior introduced new regulations on drilling well casings. In 2012, the DOI announced tighter regulations on the cementing of wells.

3. Cat Island, once one of the four largest bird-nesting grounds in Louisiana, has been disintegrated by the oil from the BP oil spill. Yes – an entire island is gone. National Geographic reports that the spill killed the mangrove trees on the island, the roots of which made up the sediment traps to make Cat Island an actual island. Since there is nothing to hold the sediment, the island has washed away. The 5.5 acre island was once home to rare and endangered birds, including the brown pelican, who’s habitat has been ravaged by the oil spill. Many brown pelicans were also found dead on the shores shortly after the spill. Watch the video below for more:

4. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) continues to work through restoration projects throughout the Gulf, all of which can be seen in this interactive map. NOAA, along with other government agencies, is working with the $700 million pool they have to work on restoration projects revolving around barrier islands, dunes, marshes, shorelines, and oyster beds, along with wildlife issues and recreation areas. For more from NOAA, visit their Response and Restoration website.

Restoration will continue until oil stops washing up on shore or until BP’s money runs out. Craving more? Check out OnEarth’s 5 years later series.

Check back Wednesday 4/22 for Earth Week 3: Happy Earth Day!