Talkin’ Trash: Plastics

Plastics

By Lynne Gilbert, Member of the Keep Pemaquid Peninsula Beautiful Steering Committee

Plastics are inexpensive, convenient, waterproof, and durable. According to the Society of the Plastics Industry (an industry trade group), the plastics industry is “the third largest U.S. manufacturing industry.” No other material better represents the advancement of modern manufacturing and packaging techniques, and no other word better represents the conundrum of our modern society. Plastic makes our lives so easy, and at the same time, makes our future so complicated.

Why complicated? Plastics have become so common in our world that it’s nearly impossible to live without them. They make up our plumbing pipes, rain gutters, shower curtains, window frames, flooring, outdoor furniture, children’s toys, and toothbrushes. They encase our TVs, phones, printers, keyboards and even our cars. One of their chief uses, and the most problematic one, is their use in packaging. Chances are that if an item on your local store shelf is not made of plastic, it’s at least packaged in it, partially or completely — especially at our grocery stores, where we shop most frequently. We place our fruits and vegetables in plastic bags to preserve freshness; plastic bags are also used to package nuts, brown sugar, coffee, rice, frozen foods, bread, chips, and other snacks. Items in cardboard boxes have plastic bags inside: crackers, cereal, cookies, etc. Liquids are sold in plastic containers (e.g., detergent, mayonnaise, peanut butter, salad oil, dressings, cottage cheese, yogurt, milk, juice, and soda). When we check out at the store, we are offered convenient plastic grocery bags. That’s where our future comes in. What do we do with plastic packaging when we’ve opened it and used the contents? We throw it out.

The durability of plastic makes it a problem when we dispose of it. It doesn’t degrade easily in landfills, and when it does degrade it releases methane, a harmful greenhouse gas. Much plastic packaging escapes from the waste stream, littering our roadways, and eventually ending up in our streams and rivers, where it makes its way to the ocean. Once there, it entangles sea life, or breaks up into tinier pieces, poisoning the fish, marine animals and birds that accidentally eat it. It becomes concentrated when larger fish eat many smaller animals that have consumed it. Plastic can actually starve animals when their digestive tracts fill with it. Many of these fish and other sea animals end up being consumed by us. The old adage is still true — you are what you eat. And there is no way around the fact that plastics are made up of many toxic chemicals.

The best solution is reducing our use of plastic. Consider buying items in bulk. Bring your own takeout container when you dine out. Buy or make your own reusable shopping bags. Buy your fruits and veggies loose, or reuse the “roll bags” you get in the produce section. Even adopting only one of these will make a difference! The next best solution is reusing plastic items, rather than disposing of them. Many plastic containers are good for storing household items. Opinions vary on the reusability of disposable plastic water bottles, but the recent proliferation of these bottles is a serious source of plastic pollution. They’re an item we all seemed to be able to live entirely without until about ten years ago! Plastic can also be recycled, but for many plastic items, that is not the best solution. Plastic beverage bottles (soda, juice, milk) are never truly recycled into new beverage bottles, as this requires virgin plastic — the used bottles can only be made into things like plastic chairs, tables, and benches.

Plastic bags are one of the most serious plastic pollutants, from both ecological and economic standpoints. According to Elizabeth Royte (Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash. Little, Brown and Company, 2005), it is estimated that Americans go through about 100 billion plastic bags a year, or 360 bags per year for every man, woman and child in the country. Did you know that in Maine, retail stores that offer plastic bags must, by law, collect and recycle them? (Title 38, Chapter 16, §1605.) Hannaford and Shaw’s do this, collecting not just shopping bags, but other plastic wraps as well: dry cleaning bags, the plastic around paper towels, diapers, bath tissue, water and drink six-packs, pet food can six-packs, tuna can four-packs, etc. But the plastic must be clean and dry and without any food residue. Your other plastic bags can be taken to the transfer station, but please make sure they are all bundled together in a single bag and tightly tied so that they don’t escape into the environment. Of course, all rigid plastics (buckets, plastic lawn chairs, milk and soda crates, landscape trays, coolers, toys and playhouses, pet carriers, etc.) and plastic containers with the numbers 1 through 7 can be recycled at your local transfer station as well. Visit http://www.pemaquidwatershed.org/education/keep-pemaquid-peninsula-beautiful/ to see the recycling brochure for your town.

The solutions are in your hands!

Pemaquid Watershed Association was established in 1966 and is a volunteer-based, membership-supported non-profit organization whose mission is to conserve the natural resources of the Pemaquid Peninsula through land and water stewardship and education. PWA’s “Keep Pemaquid Peninsula Beautiful” initiative will bolster PWA’s work to preserve and enhance the natural beauty of the Pemaquid Peninsula by promoting a clean, litter-free environment. For more information, visit www.pemaquidwatershed.org.

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