What to do about plastics, Part II

Has the bad publicity about plastic changed how you use it? You’ve probably seen headlines. Everywhere on earth, air, soil and water is contaminated with plastic. It seems pretty unlikely we’re going to be able to get a handle on this. Right?

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Amazon Prime package. It says it’s recyclable. It isn’t. 

Last week I promised good news. Here it is: We can fix the problems with plastic. Most of them, anyway. That doesn’t guarantee we will, but we have tools, materials and know-how. Researchers are documenting plastic pollution around the world and it’s effect on human and animal health, and developing biodegradable plastic. The press is doing a good job of raising alarms. Activists are working hard to get us all to change our plastic habits.

We are short on political, commercial and personal will. Fortunately, opinions can be changed, and action follows change. Take gay marriage, for example. In my state voters banned same sex marriage in 2004. Ten years later gay marriage was legalized. Now we have the first openly LGBTQ governor in the country.

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Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown, first openly LGBTQ governor in the nation Photo: Wikipedia Commons

The switch happened because scientists prepared the majority of us to accept gender is not something we choose. Education spread the message. Advocates worked to update laws and win acceptance. When the time came, most people almost took it for granted: not only do LGBTQ citizens deserve equality under the law, everyone of every stripe should have the opportunity to do their bit to make our world work better.

What we did with gay marriage, and also with wilderness laws, DDT, leaded gasoline and child labor laws, we can do with plastic.

We’ve already started, in small ways. Literally. For awhile cosmetic companies added  bits of plastic to lotions, soaps and exfoliants. These microbeads, mostly made out of polyethylene, polypropylene and/or polystyrene, poured into the rivers, lakes and oceans. Our water purification systems weren’t equipped to filter it out and microbeads quickly became ubiquitous. Sarah Zhang of Gizmodo does a great job reporting in this article.

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Neutrogena “Deep Clean” among the worst offenders. Photo credit: Gizmodo

In 2015, the US banned microbeads in cosmetics. The phase-out completed in January 2018. We still have to figure out how to deal with what’s already in the water, but at least the input has slowed down.

Plastic is wonderful. For people like me, who don’t physically experience the fallout, it’s easy to ignore plastic’s dark side. My garbage is carried away by a reasonably priced hauler, buried in a scientifically supervised mountain of trash and ta-da! Gone! Now go cover more leftovers with polyethylene (aka Saran) food wrap!

Speaking of landfills and unlikely outcomes: not long ago, local authorities were looking for a replacement for our landfill because it was getting full. Not anymore. Because of new compaction techniques, better methods of handling runoff, a methane collection system that produces electricity for a nearby town, it looks like our landfill will be taking trash for another 100 years at least.

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Short Mountain Landfill

Given the knowledge and will, we can deal with plastic, just like my county is dealing with garbage. Last week’s post  laid out some of the reasons why we must change how we use plastic. In posts coming up, I’ll look at health risks, check in with grocery store recycling, look at science behind and history of plastic, profile heroes and heroines in the fight against pollution, talk about pros and cons of individual vs. collective effort, what’s happening now in new laws and technology, and actions for everyone, from zip-lock junkies to candidates for Congress.

I’m betting we’re going to see a lot of change in the right direction. Will it be quick enough?

See you next week.

Photo credit for feature image: Orb Media

More posts inspired by WordPress Photo Challenge: Unlikely

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