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Plastic Free July

By Sarah Rafferty

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Are you participating in the Plastic Free July challenge?

What is it?

A challenge to go a full month of refusing single-use plastic. This means plastic cups, straws, coffee lids, disposable utensils, water bottles, food wrappers, shopping bags… you get the idea!

Why?

We’ve all seen the photos of sea turtles stuck in 6-pack rings, or beached marine mammals with stomachs full of plastic bags. But beyond not wanting to harm innocent wildlife, why is reducing our plastic consumption important to those of us who live on land?

To start, it’s important to understand one fundamental fact about plastic: it does not break down, it does not degrade. It only breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. These are commonly referred to as microplastics. The porous nature of aging plastic also happens to make them sponges for toxins.

There is now evidence showing that even creatures as small as plankton are ingesting microplastics. These teeny tiny ocean-dwelling organisms are the building blocks for the entire marine food web. They’re the primary source of food for filter feeders such as manta rays and whale sharks, and they happen to produce 70% of the oxygen in our atmosphere. When tiny bits of toxic plastic start to work their way into the food chain from the bottom up, it’s bad news for those of us on top. For humans to continue to eat fish, breathe clean air, or dive with manta rays at night, we must have a clean and healthy ocean ecosystem. It might sound cliche, but Dr. Earle wasn’t kidding when she said “No blue, no green.” All life on earth truly does depend on the well-being of the ocean.

Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

But I recycle this stuff? WTF?

We know, right. While recycling sounds great, there are a few issues with it:

Not all types of plastic are recyclable. This varies depending on where you live, so check your local government websites for information on what can be recycled in your area. For example, Hawaii County (the Big Island) recycles #1, #2, and #5, while Oahu only takes #1 and #2. This leaves the rest (#3, #4, #6, and #7) to go into the landfill.

Recycled materials aren’t always cost effective (for now). Oftentimes, it is much cheaper for manufacturing companies to produce virgin plastic from raw materials (petroleum) than it is to purchase and reuse recycled material.

Recycling doesn’t shut off the tap, but rather perpetuates the notion that single-use consumption can be exonerated by tossing refuse into the right bin. It places the onus of disposal on the consumer, and relieves manufacturers from the pressure of producing something better.

What’s more important is to reduce and reuse.

So how do I start using less plastic?

Here are a few EASY ways to cut down your single-use habits:

  • Say no to straws, or bring your own. Stainless steel straws come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and can easily be cleaned with a brush or pipe cleaner. Get used to adding “no straw” to your order.
  • Decline plastic take-away bags at checkout. Chico bags makes a great stuff-stack that stores easily in your purse or glove box.
  • Bring your own mug or water bottle. Many cafes or coffee shops offer a discount for bringing your own mug, and will happily refill your
  • Ditch the plastic utensils, or bring your own. Visit an Ocean Friendly Restaurant near you, and support vendors who provide reusable or compostable cutlery. I keep a Togoware sleeve in my purse for takeout lunches (bonus- my stainless straw fits perfectly in there).
  • Watch for greenwashing. This often comes in the form of labeling regular plastic items with words like “green,” “eco,” “earth,” etc., to appear environmentally friendly without actually being environmentally friendly. It’s also worth noting that the terms “compostable” and “biodegradable” are not interchangeable. Items can be labeled as “biodegradable” regardless of how long they actually take to break down (ten or ten thousand years). To be labeled as “compostable,” an item must be able to break down in a commercial composting facility within 180 days.

The takeaway:

Aiming to eliminate all single-use plastic at once can be overwhelming. If you’re new to the practice, we suggest choosing one item from the list above and starting there. Once you’ve established one good habit, move on to the next, and work your way from there.

Other ways to help:

  • Support innovative cleanup projects like The Ocean Cleanup.
  • Clean up a beach! Volunteer with a nonprofit like the Surfrider Foundation, or organize your own.
  • Download the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch App to make sustainable seafood choices when grocery shopping or dining out.

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