Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Great Plastic Menace

No matter how careful I am about recycling, reducing, and re-using, I still end up with many pieces of plastic going into my trash. I get all these little bits and pieces that are just not recyclable by any currently available system.

According to the Energy Information Administration the average American garbage can is 11% plastic by weight and 25% plastic by volume.(1) I am blessed to live in an area that offers pretty good recycling options.(2) I can recycle plastic jugs and bottles(not caps), round dairy tubs(not lids) and plastic shopping bags(no paper receipts and wet ones go in the trash).
So now I am left with all the plastic that I can’t recycle like the lids, plastic wrap, 6-pack rings, bread bags etc, etc. As a crafty person, I re-purpose a lot of these items into usable stuff: I made a beautiful lamp out of CD’s for example, but the majority of this waste plastic is overwhelming.

A little research has made me aware of just how big a problem plastics are becoming in the ocean. Visualize an island twice the size of Texas. Now look closer and realize the “island” is actually made of discarded plastic. Nasty, huh?? A vast landscape of traffic cones, milk jugs, Bic lighters and plastic bags, TWICE THE SIZE OF TEXAS!(4)

What is even worse is that sea life becomes entangled in the mess, eats the shiny pieces and even feeds the plastic bits to their offspring. More than a million seabirds die from ingesting lighters and bottle caps instead of food. Thousands of birds wash ashore dead with their bellies full of tampon applicators, construction cut-outs and pretty scraps. One bird was documented with over 1600 pieces of plastic in it’s gullet. (4)An estimated 100,000 marine mammals per year are killed as a direct result of plastic. We seize up over the Makah Indians killing a gray whale(6) but yet we allow plastics to contaminate the sea?

Where does all this food sized plastic come from? Mostly from us. Each day we handle dozens of small pieces of plastic(hand sized or smaller) and each piece gets discarded in turn when we are done with it; a piece of tape here, a bottle cap there, a foam ear plug, maybe-the list goes on and on. Once it passes out of our hands, we do not feel the responsibility anymore. We did the right thing by recycling what we could and “safely” disposed of the rest. Except that “safe disposal” only means safe for us. it doesn’t mean safe for birds, or safe for animals, and it definitely doesn’t mean safe for the Earth.

Lately I came across a new thought: What if all the plastic that we brought into our homes had to stay in our homes forever? No more throwing it away, ever! What if every single piece became our responsibility for the rest of our lives? How would that impact us and how could we deal with all that plastic? Well on a global scale that is exactly what we are doing. We are creating plastics that we will have to deal with for thousands of years. In fact, “Except for the small amount that’s been incinerated-and it’s a very small amount-every bit of plastic ever made still exists.”(4)

A Personal Experiment: for the past 2 weeks I have been separating out everything that is neither biodegradable or recyclable and already it is starting to add up. Old lighters, plastic wrap, lids, rings and those evil supermarket receipts printed on toxic paper.(3) I have about 10 pounds so far even though I am actually very careful about accepting plastics, in fact, I think about every single piece of plastic like it is radioactive! Each piece I touch makes me wonder, “Do I like this enough to bring it into my life forever?” The point is to actually see how much plastic I use. And I actually plan to live with it for a while -my goal is a year.

I have sewn up some cloth bags to store the trash in. I am packing it down as much as possible and when the bags are full, I plan to strap them together and make something like an ottoman(I hope) and hopefully not a SOFA. I borrowed this idea from Designer, Inna Alesina. Her idea is to use recycled plastic to make pillow forms. Then we would stuff the forms with trash, strap them together and make furniture.(5)

Could you live with a year’s worth of trash? Our planet will be living with all of it, forever, so a year’s worth can’t be too bad, right?

1) http://www.eia.doe.gov/kids/energyfacts/saving/recycling/solidwaste/plastics.html
2) http://www.seattle.gov/util/Services/Recycling/Recyclable_Items/PLASTIC_2003120207594611.asp
3) http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1200/is_21_163/ai_102696961
4) http://www.bestlifeonline.com/cms/publish/travel-leisure/Our_oceans_are_turning_into_plastic_are_we.shtml
5) http://www.alesinadesign.com/fill_it.html

6) http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2003878034_webmakah10m.html

As long as companies are allowed to produce a single scrap of non-recyclable material, that material is going to end up in the ocean. The key is not curb-side recycling but rather stopping the problem at the source. Make EVERY item recyclable, period.

Update, June 28,2008

I am still saving my plastic scraps and I have about 30 pounds on hand now. The first 15 pounds were sold as an ottoman at my last garage sale for $5.00. It was a bundle of plastic scraps about 16 inches square, upolstered in a black velvet I scored at the Goodwill Store. ;-) Seems that people will buy anything for the right price!

1 comment:

Seana said...

I completely agree. Even though the county I live in (Los Angeles) accepts all types of plastic for recycling, there's a good chance that they aren't recycling all of it. They just accept everything to make it easier on the public to recycle.

And even if they did recycle it all, it would only be downcycled, which can only happen once (twice at the most for plastic) unlike aluminum and glass which can be recycled indefinitely.

As a professional organizer, I see a lot of what people bring into their homes and a lot of what they throw away. We should all put as much thought into our purchases as VicinSea. Better yet, we should encourage companies to sell their products in as little packaging as possible by calling the "questions" number on the package.

Don't be afraid to make even just a small change in how you purchase things. A little bit is better than nothing.

Seana Hansen
The Eco-Organizer
Earth Friendly Home Organization