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‘Islands of plastic trash’ polluting our oceans

By Barbara Kelly

Remember Tupperware* parties?  You probably still have a Tupperware item or two in your home—a bowl, a set of measuring cups, a lettuce keeper.  Their airtight seal made them one of the handiest products ever in our kitchens.  The plastic spray bottle was introduced that same year—1946.  Plastic garbage bags came along a few years later.  Then in the 1950s, “zip” storage bags, “character lunch boxes” and bubble wrap followed.  The prevalence of TV in the 50’s—and the affordable price of the microwave a decade or so later, paved the way for TV dinners—and soon even their aluminum trays were replaced with plastic!  By the 1960s, we were on a roll!

The word plastic derives from the Greek plastikos, meaning that it’s capable of being molded.  This malleability during manufacture allows it to be cast, pressed, or shaped into a variety of configurations, such as films, fibers, plates, tubes, bottles, boxes, etc.  Its other advantages are well-known: it’s relatively inexpensive and it’s impervious to water.  While not unbreakable, it’s less likely to break than a glass container.

Plastic has prevailed over formerly used natural materials, such as wood, stone, metal, glass, and ceramic.  Just look around.  It’s hard to find something not made at least partly of plastic.  Now, 3-D printers turn out plastic toys and real guns.  Plastic car parts, furniture strong enough to sit on, fences, storage buildings, medical devices, appliances—even some that get hot, such as hair dryers—are common.  Our computers and printers are made of plastic—our telephones, our smartphones, and their cases.  We clean our teeth using our plastic toothbrush and toothpaste from a plastic tube with a plastic top. Don’t forget the floss in its plastic dispenser.

Eventually, the dominance of plastics that began in the early 20th century led to environmental concerns.  Gradually the slow decomposition—due to its large molecule composition—rate of plastic being discarded as trash began to dawn on us.   If we had only known—all those items, whether or not we still had them—remained in existence somewhere, in someone else’s home, in a landfill, in our rivers, our streams, our oceans.  As the 20th century came to a close, wide recycling efforts began in earnest.   

Now we know recycling will not be enough. Not everyone recycles.  Not everyone recycles correctly.  There isn’t a sufficient market for recycled plastic.  Most plastic ends up in our landfills and filters into our earth, our waterways, our oceans.  It has become part of the food chain—our food chain as we consume the land animals and fish that have consumed the plastic remains.

Plastic is a substance the earth cannot digest. Neither can animals or people.

You’ve most likely read about the “islands of plastic” in our earth’s oceans—some as large as the state of Texas.  New research published in May by the Scientific Reports journal estimates conservatively that roughly 414 million pieces of trash have washed ashore on a group of largely uninhabited islands off the coast of Australia.  Single-use consumer items comprise much of this trash, like bottle caps, straws, toothbrushes, and sandals.

The main source of the tons of plastic pollution found in our waterways and oceans is plastic litter from takeout orders including cups, cutlery, and straws.  According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, Americans use more than 100 million plastic utensils and 500 million plastic straws every day, which when thrown “out,” end up in our waterways and oceans where they can take up to 1,000 years to decompose, leaking harmful substances into the earth while they are breaking down, eventually harming human health. 

Obviously, we can’t continue this way.  What can we do?  We can begin by doing what we can: eliminate the use of plastic bags, cups, straws, and utensils—entirely.  Carry reusable bags with you for grocery and other shopping.  In a restaurant, refuse a straw.    Don’t purchase single-use water bottles.  Carry your own thermal water container.  Reuse what you can.  Recycle what you can’t. 

There is a popular and growing movement to ban or heavily tax single-use plastic bags across the United States and globally. According to Forbes magazine, more than 300 known cities, counties, and states have, in some way, banned or taxed plastic bag use.

Costa Rica, a tiny Central American country already ahead in the race to save our planet, this year announced that by 2021 it will become the world’s first plastic-free country. 

Big Canoe can do that! Big Canoe can set the example for Pickens and Dawson counties.  Let’s do just that.  Our mountain community could set an example for our beautiful state of Georgia.

*Tupperware is a registered trademark of Tupperware Brands Corp.

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