Climate Corner: The Plastic Pandemic

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The refill bar at Eastport General Store. Photo by Brendan J. O'Reilly

By Jenny Noble

Imagine you’re an albatross whose stomach is so bloated with plastic that you can hardly walk. Or a sea turtle suffocating on a plastic bag that you mistook for a jellyfish. Or a socialite at a gala, reaching to nibble on a shrimp canapé and unwittingly ingesting toxic microplastics. Whatever sort of creature you are, the deleterious effects of plastic are almost impossible to avoid.

When we throw plastic “away,” there actually is no away. All of the single-use plastic that’s ever been produced is still with us in one form or another.

It’s incinerated into the air we breathe, buried in landfills, and dumped off ocean barges, always coming back to haunt us in the form of methane, carbon dioxide, toxic smoke, seafood and oceans of trash. Only 9 percent of all the plastic waste ever created has been recycled.

Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming carries this handy utensil packet sold by Surfrider Foundation for $15. Photo by Bridget Fleming.

The surprisingly large amount that we dump into the Atlantic floats around for a good 450 years or so, traveling the world. It drifts to every ocean and shoreline of every continent, from the Arctic Circle to the beaches of Thailand. If you were to visit a beach in Tasmania, there among the flotsam and jetsam, you might meet up with that fork you once used five years ago at the Chipotle in Riverhead.

In the last decade, people have produced more plastic than they did during the whole of the last century. Marine life is first in line to bear the burden of this tsunami of single-use plastics. It’s impacting everything from sea turtle to fish, seabirds to osprey nests.

Out east, our seasonal guest the whale continues to collect the detritus of garbage in our oceans. A sperm whale mistakes plastic for squid and starves to death, thinking it has a full stomach. A gray whale found in Puget Sound contains surgical gloves, tracksuit pants, and golf balls. The whale, it seems, has become a sort of swimming trash can.

After I join a beach cleanup, I like to give myself a little pat on the back for not being one of Those Other People who treat the beach like it’s their personal dumping ground. Unfortunately, all the beach cleanups in the world won’t protect us from the dangerous ocean smog known as microplastics.

Plastic doesn’t actually break down. It just breaks apart, creating tiny granules about the size of a dewdrop, what surfers call “mermaid tears.” These insidious little pellets end up everywhere. They mix into beach sand, blow in the wind and seep into zooplankton who are eaten by tiny fish, then bigger fish, moving their way up the food chain until they become the secret ingredient in your seafood special. They’ve been found in water, salt, sugar, honey and beer. Maxine Montello, program director at the New York Marine Rescue Center in Riverhead, tells me, “Microplastics are now found in newly hatched baby turtles as they crawl towards the ocean, even before taking their first swim!”

How does all of this affect that mostly terrestrial animal — the Hamptonite? Scientists estimate that we ingest up to 52,000 microplastic particles every year. While a variety of health effects are still being studied, I’m pretty sure that having my diet supplemented with tiny bits of plastic can’t be a good thing.

One (thin) silver lining for people on the East End is that if you eat local seafood, it’s tested regularly. “Because the waters off Montauk are relatively clean,” says Sean Barrett of Dock to Dish, “we don’t yet have any plastic showing up in local fish, thank God.”

Long before plastic becomes trash, this petrochemical material is a major culprit in climate change. It emits greenhouse gases when it’s being produced, shipped across the world, and then again as it degrades in landfills. Even in recycling, the process of breaking down plastic uses toxic chemicals.

So what’s a material girl with good intentions to do? Between carbon emissions, microplastics, and the fact that my trash is escaping to sail the seven seas, the most important thing to do is simply use less plastic in the first place.

To reduce plastic consumption, start by — Just. Saying. No.

Take for example my seemingly innocuous bagel.

It’s a Russian Matryoshka doll of consumer waste.

I open the plastic shopping bag, then pull out the brown paper bag, then maybe flip open a plastic sandwich container, until I finally unwrap yet another layer of wax paper to reach it. Then without a second thought, every layer is tossed into the trash can within the hour.

This is madness.

Let’s all tell stores that we don’t need the plastic bag — or the paper bag — or maybe the nine napkins that come with everything. Create a little container in your car, where you can keep a reusable coffee cup, water bottle, utensil packet and a straw. Plus a few shopping bags. When you forget something and end up having to use more plastic, don’t beat yourself up about it. Just wash it out, and remember to use it again.

Water Bottles:

Invest in a durable metal water bottle. Or since so many studies have been debunking the misconception that plastic water bottles leach chemicals into the water, just reuse your water (and soda) bottles.

Straws:

Because straws are too small and lightweight to be recycled, they often end up in landfills or storm drains that empty out into our estuaries. Check out cool alternatives — bamboo, paper, hay, pasta, metal and even candy straws.

Refill:

Shopping at refilleries saves money, as well as plastic waste.

I can refill almost all of what I need in my kitchen and bathroom between two stores: Provisions in Sag Harbor, which has bins full of all kinds of beans, grains, nuts, candies etc. Refill almond and oat milk from the in-store dispensary. They let you bring your own zip-lock or paper bags from home.

Beauty and cleaning products are an olfactory treat at Eastport General Store on Montauk Highway in Eastport. Refill shampoos, conditioners, soaps, essential oils, laundry detergent, etc. Start by making a collection of your used bottles and bring them in to refill yourself.

Sometimes it’s the little things: A toothbrush made from bamboo. Cucumbers that aren’t shrink wrapped. A bulk pack of 12 paper towel rolls instead of a four-pack. Invest in SodaStream to carbonate water, rather than buying endless bottles of it. Take a look at your trash and think, “What can I change?”

Anything you do to reduce plastic is a step in the right direction. Laura Mancuso, local author of the children’s book “The Fin-Tastic Cleanup,” compares reducing plastic waste to losing weight. “You don’t say, ‘I’m going to lose 50 pounds.’ You do it one pound at a time!’”

What one thing can you change today?

Information to check out:

oceana.org/plastics: Very cool organization that works to protect our oceans on a global scale. Check out fun facts about your favorite marine animals.

surfrider.org: Learn about ocean friendly gardens, which restaurants are going green, and much more. Join them for a beach clean-up or Surf Movie Night (September 13) at Southampton Arts Center (surfboard swap beforehand).

Youtube “Sea turtle with straw in nose”: Watch this now infamous video. A lot of shock value for just three minutes.

“Thicker Than Water: The Quest For Solutions To The Plastic Crisis”: Eye opening book by local author, Erica Cirino. Join her sailing expedition to far flung places and learn the history, science and sinister truth about plastics. Not so fun fact: She and her team once found 50 hair brushes on Kamilo beach in Hawaii.

Jenny Noble is a writer and mother who enjoys food, water and clean air.

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