If you have not read Planet or Plastic by writer Laura Parker and photographer Randy Olsen you need to get off your bum and go get a copy. The striking images will leave a lasting effect on you and make you contemplate your role as a trash producing killer of the ocean. Something that stuck out to me was one line in the article “there are no ocean trash deniers so far”. While climate change continues to be a constant battle of, is it real vs is it fake, ocean trash so far has undeniably been held up as an accepted and terrible problem.
On a very interesting infographic map within the article, the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean from various rivers all over the world is depicted. To my surprise rivers in the USA were not major contributors of plastic to the ocean. I am sure American readers are all breathing a sigh of relief, and patting themselves on the back for a job well done. Hang on there just a minute, put down your 3.99 bottle of Dasani and tiny pre-made grocery store salad. The USA recycles a measly 10% of all plastic trash (1) produced. Just because we aren’t dumping it into a river doesn’t mean it isn’t going to be a huge environmental problem. In 2016 the US sent 16 million tons of waste to china to be processed, a program that has since been discontinued (2). So yes, we are responsible for some of that trash entering the ocean from rivers in Asia, let that marinate.
Creating change in plastic use and recycling is where major strides can be made in the waste-pocylapse that is headed our way. We have little control over companies that continue to produce plastic packaging that is impossible to recycle, or not accepted by your cities’ waste management system. However, we do have control over ourselves and influence in our community.
Upon entering into my current field of employment I was startled to find that the high school I work at still uses Styrofoam cafeteria trays. Many of these trays go directly into the trash unsoiled, having a usage lifespan of mere seconds. There are recycling bins located all over the school but the waste will often not make it to the recycling dumpster and instead is put in the landfill bin. The school gets penalized (custodians bear the brunt of it) if non-recyclable trash gets put into recycling. To avoid backlash custodians will often throw out whole bags. So the question remains, how do you get 3000 teenagers to recycle better? My recent visit to an elementary school opened my eyes to how different schools can approach this problem. While elementary school kids recycle simply for the sheer joy of a high five or praise from an adult, teenagers will often do exactly the opposite just to get a reaction. Some tend to show apathy for anything you care about just for the sake of rebelling.
On a more fundamental note, how do we get people to increase their participation in the three R’s? All it takes is one look at the greenbelt in mid-summer, or a beach in Texas after a holiday weekend and you are left scratching your head as to who the heck would cause such a mess. Cleanliness of residents is often a cultural shift and requires a lot of political support both locally and statewide. It has to be a priority for the city and residents (3,4). The Texas supreme court has recently made it quite clear that it is not going to take the necessary steps to reduce waste and has made it illegal for any city to ban packaging, including bags(5). It will take an election and a creation of a new state law for this to be reversed.
Sources for this post
#1 EPA plastic facts, https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/advancing-sustainable-materials-management
#2 Mosbergen, Dominique, China no longer wants your trash, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/china-recycling-waste-ban_us_5a684285e4b0dc592a0dd7b9
#3 McCarthy, Niall, America’s cleanest cities, https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2017/09/06/americas-cleanest-cities-infographic/#10a96ff0698e
#4 Leber, Jessica, 4 cities that are getting rid of all their garbage, https://www.fastcompany.com/3046428/4-cities-that-are-getting-rid-of-all-of-their-garbage
#5 Knight, Drew, Austin plastic bag ban sacked, https://www.kvue.com/article/news/local/austin-plastic-bag-ban-sacked-following-texas-supreme-court-ruling/269-570420457