plastics

A Plug for Trash Free Waters

By Annette Poliwka

Ocean samples collected on board the Mystic found plastic throughout the 3,000 mile journey.

Ocean samples collected on board the Mystic found plastic throughout the 3,000 mile journey.

My love of recycling, or better said, my hatred of trash led me to a research expedition through the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre, a portion of the Atlantic Ocean that traps man-made debris.

My interest in recycling really began in the 7th grade, when I realized how the newspaper my father read stacked up on the porch until I could carry it to my parochial grade school for recycling. Yes, those were the days when we learned about current events by reading the paper, not our tablets. And those were the days prior to curbside recycling in major cities. I knew there had to be a better way, and I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up: protect the environment. I guess you could say, I’m living my dream.

The 5 Gyres Institute sails around the world collecting samples and conducting analysis of plastic pollution in our oceans. My experience began with a flight to Bermuda where I boarded a 172 foot, three-masted schooner named the Mystic. The boat had already sailed from Miami to the Bahamas, and our final destination was back to New York City! I was in the middle of paradise, along with other “Zero Wasters,” researchers and dedicated environmentalists, collecting samples of plastic pollution and figuring out how to prevent them from getting into the water in the first place.

The research included sampling the sea surface for the 3,000 mile journey. Micro-plastics, which are smaller than a grain of rice, were found in each sample. In the middle of paradise, in the middle of the ocean, and in the middle of the New York City harbor, we were consistently finding plastics. What is often described as an “island of trash,” is more of a “plastic smog.” The sun and waves shred larger pieces of plastics into micro-plastics, which can be a variety of colors and sizes. Fish can’t distinguish between a 3mm piece of plankton and a 3mm piece of plastic. We caught a fish and dissected it, finding plastics in its stomach. This is a human health concern, as plastics can transfer toxins into fish and up the food chain.

A water sample taken this summer in the NYC Harbor contains a wide variety of plastic pollution.

A water sample taken this summer in the NYC Harbor contains a wide variety of plastic pollution.

As we sailed to New York City, the samples of plastics we collected were bigger and more easily identifiable than what we found in the open ocean. This makes sense, as 80 percent of the plastics in our oceans are land-based, and it takes time to break down into micro-plastics. The samples also stunk of sewage!

Our use of plastics affects our waterways, the fish we eat and the general health of our oceans. Researchers have found that experiences, rather than material consumption, make people happy. So rather than buying the next new gadget, spend time doing something interesting, with someone you love. Your wallet and our oceans will be happier, too.

We can all help prevent waste by buying less and reusing what we have. If you live in New York City, recycle with the blue and green bins. Compost with the brown bin, or bring food scraps to Green Markets all around the city, year-round.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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A Plastic Problem in the Chesapeake

Maybe you’ve heard of “micro plastics.” They’re created when plastic products eventually break down into tiny particles that drift in our ocean waters and can be eaten by fish and other wildlife.

They’re a big problem globally, as is trash from plastic products in general. As much as 80 percent of trash in the ocean comes from sources on land, and up to 60 percent of this trash is plastic.

I got an offer from two conservation groups to tag along as they trawled the upper Chesapeake Bay waters to assess the extent of plastics pollution. As an oceanographer, I always cherish the days that I get to take my off my tie and get back out on the bay, so I was eager to join them.

I predicted that we wouldn’t find much. My theory was that the Chesapeake Bay is too dynamic, with its constant tides, winds and currents, as opposed to the somewhat quiet open ocean circulation patterns that can concentrate plastics pollution.

I was wrong.

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Trying to go “plastic free”

Several links below exit EPA Exit EPA Disclaimer

Greetings from New England!

Each Monday we write about the New England environment and way of life seen through our local perspective. Previous posts

By Robin Johnson

Like most people, I use a lot of plastic. Virtually all of my food comes wrapped in it; it houses my toiletries; and some even sneaks in as cups, straws and bags despite my efforts to choose alternatives. Let’s not even mention the plastic in my appliances and gadgets.

Hearing about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a huge flotilla of garbage floating in the ocean – and albatross chicks dying from ingesting plastic reminded me that the environment pays the ultimate price for our love of disposable plastic.

When I heard about a campaign to use less single-use plastic, I was intrigued. Could I eliminate it from my life for a month? Only one way to find out!

So far, it’s been a mixed bag. Most plastic can be avoided by carrying a water bottle and reusable shopping bag. My bag can be packed into its own pocket, so it doesn’t take up room in my purse. Morning coffee is more challenging. I have to make my coffee at home, or stop in the office to pick up my travel mug.

At home, I’ve come a long way, but it hasn’t been easy. I switched to milk sold in reusable bottles. I bring “empties” to the store and get the $2 deposit back, but I have to recycle the plastic lid. From the milk, I make yogurt, which is pretty easy. Finally, I’ve started making my own almond milk and protein bars.

I may be green, but I still love pizza, Thai, falafel, and other foods. Getting takeout without disposable plastic usually means getting it in my own container. I purchased a reusable plastic clamshell container that I take to my favorite restaurants. Most restaurants are happy to fill my container, and some even give me extra food or a discount. After all, I’m saving them money.

Personal care products may be the biggest hurdle. Few shampoos and sunscreens are available without plastic packaging, and those that exist are online. I’m going to use what I already have, while looking for better options.

I’m keeping a “dilemma bag” filled with plastic garbage I couldn’t avoid. At the end of the month, I’ll continue to look for alternatives.

Could you go without single- use plastics for even a week? What would be the biggest stumbling block for you?

More info on plastic marine debris from EPA

About the author: Robin Johnson writes wastewater discharge permits under the Clean Water Act.  She lives in the Boston area with her husband and two cats.  She spends her time vegetable gardening, swimming, and knitting.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Just One Word….Plastics

I still remember the brief exchange in the 1967 movie “The Graduate.” The actor Walter Brooke insisted on giving the young Dustin Hoffman one piece of advice: “Plastics….There’s a great future in plastics….” I guess this just shows my age. However, I still recall the time when most of the containers for household detergents and common hygiene products were made of glass instead of the more commonly used plastics that we see nowadays. During the past decades, advances in the petrochemical industry have led to positive uses for plastics in the fields of medicine, construction, automotive, packaging, and many others. The innovative usage of plastics has fundamentally changed our world. Unfortunately, its proliferation has had unintended consequences.

Today, plastics are a constant in our lives. From beverage containers, household items to packaging, plastics are everywhere. Ultimately, many of these items are discarded on a daily basis and they end up as trash in our landfills or oceans. For example, in the year 2007, almost 12.1 percent of the total municipal solid waste in the United States came from 31 million tons of plastics. Since plastics do not easily break down into simpler components, they become virtually everlasting in the environment. Increasing awareness of the situation is just the first step in addressing the problem. Recycling deals with just one area. Technological advances are only part of the solution.

That brings me to another aspect of the preponderance of plastics: their toll on the environment. The adverse effects of plastics are not solely related to the tonnage of plastic debris produced yearly. Moreover, the negative impacts on human health and the environment stem from some of the chemicals added to plastics during the manufacturing process.  Recently, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson outlined the Obama Administration’s principles for reforming the legislation commonly known as TSCA, the 1976 Toxic Substance Control Act.  In a recent speech at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, Administrator Lisa P. Jackson spoke of the need to fix the weaknesses in TSCA with a new chemical risk management law. The planets seem to be aligning in the right direction. Important players in government, the private sector, health and environmental organizations all seem to agree that the time for reform is now.

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and chairs EPA’s Multilingual Communications Task Force. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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