by Kristen Hoss
Throughout history, people have classified time according to the remarkable organism or material used during that period. We had the dinosaur, stone and iron ages, and now, the plastic age! Since 1907, plastics have increased in popularity. The general population moved from biodegradable materials such as clay, paper and glass which have virtually no negative health impacts when used to contain food, and as far as most animals are concerned do not resemble food, to synthetic, non-biodegradable oil derivatives with known adverse health effects that do resemble food for many animals, from organisms as small as a coral polyp to as large as a whale.
Plastics can be made at home using corn starch or sugars, but more commonly are made in factories utilizing 2.7 percent of the U.S. annual petroleum—the same petroleum that the U.S. is dependent upon for use in vehicles, energy and production. Sounds like a healthy choice so far, packaging our food in petroleum and allowing it to escape into the environment through littering, landfills or burning. Disposal leads to plastic being unleashed onto the surface of the earth in one form or another, forever. Because it is derived from a petropolymer, it does not biodegrade back into its natural components, but rather photodegrades into smaller often toxic particles, invading water, land, air and food webs.
Plastics range from bottles to boat fenders and are found in fashion, foam, furnishings, fixtures and even foods. Some of the ingredients that people cannot pronounce in many foods or products are a type of plastic or plasticizer. Sometimes the number in the chasing arrows on the container will reveal the plastic in the packaging, other times research is needed to reveal what’s lurking within.
Plastics cost! They cost with adverse health, waste management fees, clean-up efforts, increasing wildlife deaths, and many more cryptic. Regarding health effects, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) did many studies to determine the presence of plastic-related chemicals in over 2500 participants per study. The results demonstrated measurable amounts of these chemicals, some carcinogenic or resulting in birth defects or neurological disorders, in all of the participants. This does not imply that the levels found were dangerous, but “dangerous” levels have yet to be determined (*cdc.gov/biomonitoring). Is it worth the risk?
One waste management cost is approximated utilizing the data on one’s tax bill. In North Lauderdale, for example, the annual tax for solid waste management (trash put on the curbside) is about $214. If everyone living in Broward in 2013 paid this tax bill, then the total amount spent would be approximately $385,498,440 just to manage solid waste. If our waste was biodegradable, we could manage most of it ourselves through composting or vermiposting (composting with worms), a practice that I utilize in my gardens and teach students through Youth Environmental Alliance (YEA) programs.
The cost for the environment can be extrapolated from studies and coastal clean-up data. In 2010, a scientific study calculated the generation of plastic waste in 192 coastal countries was 275 million metric tons, 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of that entered the ocean (*sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/768.short). In 2014, approximately 650,000 volunteers in 92 countries collected over 12.3 million pounds of oceanic garbage, mostly plastics (*oceanconservancy.org/our-work/international-coastal-cleanup/2014-ocean-trash-index.html).
In Florida, our land-based trash enters the ocean through storm drains and canals. Interviews of Broward County residents participating in the coastal and waterway clean-ups revealed finding plastics of every shape and size, including those found in boat fenders. Watch during a rainstorm—it is apparent how plastic enters the ocean. That is only the solid plastic; these statistics do not take into account the airborne chemicals released when the plastic is burned at waste-to-energy plants or when it off-gasses volatile compounds in the heat and sun.
The cost to wildlife is disheartening. Plastics kill! Approximately one million seabirds and hundreds of thousands more animals die annually from ingestion of and entanglement in plastics (*epa.gov/owow/oceans/debris/toolkit/files/trash_that_kills508.pdf). I personally have rescued wildlife from entanglement in plastic, including egrets, sea turtles, fish, crabs, sea sponges, corals and a huge southern stingray. Around the state and country, many species of fish cannot be eaten due to the bio-accumulation of toxic substances, including plastic chemicals, in their bodies. Plastic is moving up the food chain, and we‘re the top.
The solution? Waste minimization! Recycling is good but not good enough. Often it costs more to recycle plastics than make new. Depending on the plastic, only 1 to 12 percent is actually recycled, the rest returns to the waste stream. When recycled, plastics down-cycle—deteriorating into inferior quality, so can only be recycled twice. Choose to decrease trash.
Avoid plastic bags and packaging. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans use about 380 billion plastic bags and wraps each year, utilizing 12 million barrels of oil. To combat this, bring reusable bags to the store and buy in bulk or from farmers markets. Many places will allow shoppers to use their own containers for packaging their foods at the deli, butcher counter, produce aisle or from bulk bins. This saves money. For example, a reusable grocery bag costs $1. Shopping at Whole Foods or similar grocery that offer a $0.10 bag credit, pays that $1 back after 10 visits. The bag credit adds up over time. The choice is clear as cellophane.
Utilize metal reusable bottles and cups. In the U.S. alone, 30 billion plastic bottles are consumed annually. For bottled water alone, that is a cost of $11.8 billion dollars, an average cost of $1.88 per gallon. In contrast, tap water costs Broward County residents about $3.50 for 1000 gallons. Utilizing a reusable bottle and tap water can save $1876.50 for every 1000 gallons of water consumed for hydration. Maybe the kids prefer Gatorade—purchasing the powdered product at $8 for six gallons saves $92 and keeps 40 plastic bottles out of production.
Many restaurants and convenience stores allow people to refill reusable cups. At Starbucks, this practice earns the customer a $0.10 refund. On average, Americans consume 200 to 300 individually purchased cups of coffee/day per coffee shop (*e-importz.com/coffee-statistics.php). Multiply that by $0.10 and the 24,000 independent coffee shops in the U.S. for a savings of $480,000 per day.
Say “no” to straws, a momentary convenience producing a huge amount of waste. During the International Coastal Clean-up, 555,000 were recovered. Saying no is a simple solution for a complex issue.
Choose alternatives. Purchase or make boat fenders from 100 percent natural and biodegradable yet durable cotton and hemp rope (*classicropefenders.com/about). Choose the item that is packaged in or made of wood, metal, clay or glass. Bring reusable to-go containers to restaurants. Grow your own food. Make new items from used materials. Purchase products made from or packaged in recycled materials and bring your own reusable utensils to luncheons and parties.
Teach others lessons learned. Contract YEA to provide a plastics program. Join one of YEA’s coastal clean-ups and restorations (YEAFrog.org). Lead by example to go green and save green!
Kristen Hoss, Executive Director of Youth Environmental Alliance, is an educator and ecological consultant who leads the Florida Master Naturalist program in Broward County, produces in-school environmental and science education programs, and provides expertise for ecological surveys and monitoring. She has a BS in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, a Masters in Conservation Ecology and Wildlife Sciences, and more than 25 years in the field of ecology (marine, aquatic and terrestrial) and the management of natural areas and wildlife. Her work has been featured on the National Geographic Channel, Wildlife Views TV, the Pompano Forum, The Pelican, Miami Herald and By the Sea Times. Email her at [email protected]