Photo National Geographic (By Waterframe, Alamy)
Plastic is my pet peeve, especially single-use straws. After all, it’s so easy for restaurants, spas and resorts to source straws made from biodegradable paper or recyclable bamboo. But plastic straws are everywhere, as well as plastic bags, plastic packaging, plastic tableware, plastic everything.
According to Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by environmentalist Paul Hawken, “Globally we produce 310 million tons of plastic each year. That is 83 pounds per person, and plastic production is expected to quadruple by 2050.”
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling gyre of discarded plastics in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and California, already contains more than 87,000 tons of plastic: bottles, children’s toys, cosmetic packaging, storage bins, fishing nets and more. Many miles from land, it exists as a floating ghostly graveyard for plastic--and it’s growing. A while back, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued what was then a startling statistic: If we don’t do something, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. It seems like that is happening even faster than that.
According to new study in the journal Scientific Reports, the Garbage Patch is four to 16 times bigger than we knew. It takes up an area more than four times as big as the entire state of California. And it’s made up of approximately 1.8 trillion pieces of trash. Laurent Lebreton, oceanographer with the nonprofit Ocean Cleanup Foundation and author of the new study, measured the Garbage Patch via aerial photography and by trawling it with nets. Some of the plastic pieces in the Patch dated back to the 90s, which is not surprising, I suppose. Although the majority of plastic breaks down into tiny pieces, it does not decompose, it just lives forever.
Those tiny pieces are called ”microplastics” and they are often accidentally swallowed by creatures of the sea. When those creatures are fish, and we eat those fish, we may end up eating those plastic particles, too, which was the reason “microbeads” (similar to “microplastics”) in beauty and personal care products were banned by the Obama administration. But according to the study, the microplastics take up only eight percent of the Patch’s mass. As time goes on, and more microplastics are created, it will be harder to clean up the ocean, since the particles are so small and hard to capture. But the Ocean Cleanup Foundation is working on developing a way to do just that, with a floating device that would consolidate those pieces so that they could be picked up by boats and taken to shore.
Brands like ECOBAGS, founded by Sharon Rowe, author of the forthcoming book, The Magic of Tiny Business, noticed the rampant plastics problem well before most of us did. Rowe had an epiphany 26 years ago, which was that single-use plastic was not only unnecessary, it would lead to ecological disaster, which led to her then-visionary idea for a business, based on the idea of subbing in reusable organic cotton bags, everything from totes to tiny muslin sacks designed to carry cosmetics or vegetables, for plastic.
That is something we can all do: bring reusable bags to the market, and politely refuse plastic bags. And when you order a drink at a restaurant, bar or spa, make a simple request: please hold the straw.
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