Can We Stop The River of Plastics Flowing Into the Ocean?
Author: Valeria Merino, Vice President Global Earth Day
From a hotel on the island nation of Malta, I am writing a few thoughts. And, you might ask how is this place related to plastics pollution? Well, first because in this place the European Union hosted just a few days ago the conference “Our Oceans 2017”. For two days, participants listened to and shared with government, business, and social leaders our combined understanding of the many problems affecting our oceans and the possible solutions.
But, for me, Malta will always be relevant when thinking about plastics pollution because of a personal experience I had there with someone for whom this problem is very personal.
The Indian activist Afroz Shah (@afrozsha1), known for his effort to clean Versova beach in Mumbai, invited me to go collect plastic at the beach in the beautiful district of Saint Julian. For a minute I asked myself, why should I go collect plastics dumped by the Maltese? I told myself because otherwise it might end up in our oceans, and because I wanted to feel that I was doing something about it. So, I accepted his invitation. He had asked the hotel for some bags to collect the plastics and gloves, and there we went walking down to the oceanfront.
I asked him, how he decided to go clean Versova beach in Mumbai on his own, at first. He told me about the strong and beautiful memories he had from his childhood about that beach and how much he loved to go there, and how painful was for him to see the whole place transformed into a dump. Incredible amounts of plastics and other debris had accumulated over the years brought by the tides and by people throwing trash directly on the beach. He told me that people lost their sense of belonging to that place and stopped caring. He still cared and needed to do something. He saw, when others chose not to see.
Our walk, to my surprise, did not take us directly to the beach, but into a marina surrounded by restaurants and a walkway with boat ramps. Those ramps were of interest to Afroz. He had made a reconnaissance walk the night before and knew that large amounts of plastics were accumulating there. It was obvious that the municipality cleaned the place often and that this was just one days’ worth of plastic debris pushed in by the tide. There was a lot of it! We spent one hour collecting as much as we could— about 100 pounds of plastics in three large bags.
The experience was surreal. There we were, two people obviously not locals, an Indian and a Latina, cleaning up while locals and tourists walked around. Not one person stopped to ask us what we were doing. Not even one!
Then we looked for a place to safely dispose of the plastics. We asked at two restaurants if we could use their dumpsters. Surprised, if not annoyed, they said no. Mind you; we collected all that plastic less than 100 feet from their doorsteps. Finally, we found a public garbage can, and arranged our bags around it.
Later, Afroz and I walked around town where most turist attractions are, and it was striking to see plastic cups, straws, bottles and caps everywhere in the streets and on the sidewalks. Much of that plastic will end up in the sewer system or in the ocean, I thought. After spending time picking up plastics, that seemed much more real. Soon there will more plastic in the oceans than fish!
The negative consequences of producing trillions of plastic objects in the last decades are startling. When oil-based plastics are discarded, bacteria can’t break them down. They end up in landfills and accumulate. Also, plastics are thrown in open land, rivers, lagoons, and oceans. Single-use-plastics, objects that we use once and discard, are particularly problematic because they are often small, light enough to float and be transported by wind and water, and are produced in unbelievable quantities.
Plastics have become a problem of global proportion. As of 2010, 3.5 million tons of solid waste was generated per day and will rise to 6 million tons by 2025; 10% of that waste is plastic. Less than 10% of plastics are recycled.
Plastics linger for years polluting, collecting other pollutants on their surface and shedding microscopic particles which are now found in many water systems and the food chain. Therefore, when we consume fish or other animal products, we could also be consuming these pollutants and the plastic itself. Someone said during the Our Oceans conference that now “plastics are often on the menu.”
Plastics are also injuring animals and marine life. Pieces of plastic of all sizes have been found in even the most remote marine and land environments. We often see depictions in social media of animals being harmed by eating plastics, for example, birds killed by eating plastics, or large marine mammals drowned when caught in discarded ropes and netting.
At Earth Day Network we are launching a global campaign to help tackle this problem. We would like to help individual consumers of all ages understand the environmental, climate and health consequences of plastics so they can choose not only to “reuse and recycle,” but also to reject single-use plastics proactively, and think carefully every time that they buy products that contain plastic.
My husband Byron, for years now, has been picking up plastics and cans every time he goes out for a walk. At first, my reaction was, why should he be doing that? Wasn’t that the job of the municipality? Wasn’t the USA, after all, a developed country? Well, he made me see that chances were that if we did not collect the plastic trash we found in our way, it would remain there for a long time polluting the land, or worse ending up in a stream or river, and then in the ocean.
From then, the step of being careful about recycling became easy for me and next, I started to think about packaging when buying groceries and other things. Deciding to buy a water filter to use only tap water was easy. One step took me to the next. Then, I became interested in how to push companies to take responsibility and in learning about policy issues.
All starts with a personal commitment, for sure. I am not talking about refusing to buy anything that has plastics. I am advocating being more conscientious about the way we make choices, and also to having this conversation with our family members, friends, co-workers, businesses that we patronize and politicians we vote for. Tech helps, too. There are many apps that can help all of us figure out ways to reduce plastics. And voting with our wallets and using our political rights effectively is quite powerful.
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