That quote is from the 1967 film The Graduate. An innocuous little quote, but it is what’s been keeping me up nights. More specifically it’s the growing amount of plastic in the water. Let’s start small and consider the microbeads from beauty and cleaning products that may have already entered the food chain. These tiny (smaller than 2 millimeters) bits of plastic are added to our face washes, toothpastes and nail polishes to help us exfoliate. But unlike organic grainy products like sugar, sand, shells or coffee grounds that break down, these microbeads travel down our drains and into the sewer system. Since they are too small to be filtered out at local water treatment plants they flow right into the ocean (they are even too small to join the huge floating garbage patch — more on that in a bit) where they are eaten by fish….who are in turn eaten by bigger fish…. and, well, you get the idea. The plastic bits are also great at absorbing other pollutants in the water — intensifying their toxicity as well.
Maybe there’s hope. Congress passed and President Obama has signed legislation banning the manufacture of polyethylene microbeads late last year. ( H.R. 1321, or the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015), but the ban on products containing microbeads isn’t in effect until January 1, 2018. The manufacture of products containing microbeads begins six months earlier on July 7, 2017. This legislation was sponsored by New Jersey’s Representative Frank Pallone (D-6th Dist.) So let’s give thanks to some bipartisan efforts in passing legislation to protect us (and our waters) just a little bit.
One of our local environmental advocates is NY/NJ Baykeeper. The good folks of this organization published the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary Plastic Collection Report. (You can access the link to the February 2016 report from NY/NJ Baykeeper.) Their estimate is 165 MILLION plastic particles are floating in the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary ~ that seems like a big number for a localized area that prides itself on water tourism.
But the West coast isn’t immune to the growing footprint of plastic either. It’s a real thing, The Great Pacific Garbage Patch – 270,000 tons of plastic garbage floating across the ocean. How can we possibly think that our children’s children are going to be able to swim in the ocean on a summer day? I grew up within a 2 mile walk to the Atlantic Ocean. I took for granted that I could go to the beach anytime, in any season. I’ve scavenged for driftwood in the deep cold of winter and I’ve walked on the beach at summer’s twilight, feeling the sand cool between my toes. I’ve cleaned beaches with various groups and marveled at the junk coughed up by rough surf.
Then I realized with great shame that even with self-awareness and best intentions, I am part of the problem. I buy bottled water, I drink coffee in a to-go Styrofoam cup, I eat my morning yogurt from a plastic container. My newspapers are delivered dry in plastic bags. I can rationalize that I recycle plastics at home, but it that enough of an effort to stem the tide of floating junk? I began to really look at every product I touched today. Here’s an abbreviated list:
Lip balm and tubes of make-up
Personal care products: tube of toothpaste, toothbrush, shampoo and hair dryer
Plastic bag to carry my ice cream home from the market
The garbage bag in my plastic kitchen garbage can is also plastic
My electronics: laptop computer, cell phone, e-reader (not just plastic, but toxic e-waste, too)
Okay, then, what’s the alternative? The NY/NJ Baykeeper Report includes guidelines to move towards a “plastic-free” lifestyle. I’ve added them below as well:
Bring reusable bags to the grocery store. Shop products sold in bulk at the grocery store. Check out ECOBAGS®, ECO Lunchboxes, and EcoDitty for a great selection of produce bags, lunch bags, sandwich bags, and more. Use a reusable glass or stainless steel bottle or mug, such as Klean Kanteen and Love Bottle. Carry reusable utensils with you. When ordering take-out, opt-out of plastic utensils. Ask your server to wrap your leftovers in aluminum foil instead of using polystyrene foam boxes. Say no to plastic straws. Check out Glass Dharma for durable glass straws. Dispose of cigarette butts in a receptacle. The filter is composed of plastic. Use fewer garbage bags by composting food waste and paper. Check out all natural personal care products that do not include plastic microbeads. When in doubt, check the product label for polyethylene or polypropylene. If the product contains either of these ingredients, it contains plastic microbeads.
The reality is that Nature will do her own cleaning after humans have polluted themselves out of existence. But I don’t want to just ride the plastic gravy train until we can walk back to Russia from Alaska. So I’m also going to give a shout-out (and link) to young New Jersey company looking to reduce hard-to-recycle waste, Terracycle. These folks started out in 2001 and have taken some creative approaches to waste, recognizing that in case it’s too late to put the brakes on our disposable society, maybe we can alter the life cycle of waste. Hey, outside the box thinking means never needing a box at all.