An ambitious plan to corral and remove the islands of floating garbage in the oceans failed in December, and the solar-powered barrier system is back in port for examination and re-engineering.
Meanwhile, our synthetic clothing is shedding microplastics that make their way from the washing machine to groundwater to oceans, into marine animals, and back to our tables.
Everywhere I look there’s another article about a world being overrun by plastic. Wildlife tangled in plastic bags, six-pack holders and yogurt containers. Endocrine disruptors. Plastic particles so small we can’t see that we’re eating and drinking them. Floating plastic, buried plastic, wind-borne plastic.
And I can’t even get everyone in my extended family to use reusable shopping bags or kick the Keurig habit.
Now a new study by seven environmental organizations says we’re not even worrying about plastic the right way. Rather than focusing on one aspect — manufacturing, disposal, impacts on wildlife, or chemicals leaching into our bodies — we should be looking at the “entire life cycle” of plastics. Because, the report says, there are toxic implications every step of the way.
“Plastics & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastics Planet” says that “At every stage of its life cycle, plastic poses distinct risks to human health, arising from both exposure to plastic particles themselves and associated chemicals. The majority of people worldwide are exposed at multiple stages of this life cycle.”
Exposure, the report says, comes through breathing toxins in the air, ingesting them and skin contact. These exposures come from transport, manufacture, consumer use and disposal, including recycling and incineration.
Great. When problems get so huge that our own efforts seem insignificant, it’s easy to give up. I don’t think we can afford to do that, since this is the only planet we’ve got and I, for one, would like to leave it to my children’s children, and their children too. I’ve been fighting this fight for too long to throw up my hands now.
So what do we do? Educate yourself, share your knowledge and demand policy changes.
Cut down on your own plastic use, which means working really hard not to bring it into your house. Refusing is way better than recycling, which is better than landfilling or incinerating. But don’t fool yourself. Can you really empty the plastic coffee pod and throw it in the recycle bin? Before you do, make sure your recycler actually accepts whatever number plastic the pod is made out of, and if it does, make sure you rinse out the coffee grounds.
Wear natural fibers, buy in bulk, make your own. Reuse and repurpose rather than discarding — an empty jar is great for holding leftovers. Buy secondhand when you can, and seek out products and places that sell with limited packaging. Bring your own bags. Give yourself credit for what you’re already doing, and then look for the next step.
I bought a bamboo toothbrush. Then I read an article about toothpaste packaging — as if the plastic tube isn’t bad enough, most also come in an entirely unnecessary box. Next step: I’m making my own toothpaste. It’s a pretty simple recipe of coconut oil, baking soda and a couple of drops of peppermint oil. (I’ll report back on how it works and whether I’ve convinced anyone else to use it.)
And my big next step is the freezer. As our seedlings are sprouting on the windowsills and we’re mapping out this season’s vegetable gardens, I’m thinking about how I’ll be storing garden produce for next winter. My plan is using canning jars and any other jar I save to hold frozen fruits and vegetables instead of packing them in freezer bags. I’ll let you know how that works, too.
Share what works for you with your friends and relatives. Talk to your neighbors, your elected officials. We can’t do this alone.
Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on March 17. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.