When A&W announced they were going to stop using plastic straws, it generated a lot of discussion about plastics.
It made me think about how much single-use plastic I throw out in a day and then I wondered what actually happens to that plastic.
When I buy something, like a coffee, I rarely ever think about how even though I’ll only use it for a few minutes, that plastic lid and cup are going to remain in the environment, somewhere, for thousands of years.
Recently I went to Palmerston Beach on the West Coast and was reminded of this.
The beach is mostly clean of marine debris thanks to initiatives from Living Oceans and Cove Adventure Tours, but as I walked along the beach I picked up more plastic water bottles than I could carry, and a lot of them, if not all, had clearly washed up from the ocean.
I wonder if any of the plastic water bottles I have used throughout my life have ended up on a remote beach somewhere? The United Nations Environmental Program estimates that each year, more than eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans and it is expected that by 2050, the oceans will carry more plastic than fish.
That’s only 32 years from now.
The problem with plastics is that they don’t biodegrade but they do break down. Plastics that are less than five millimetres in length are called “microplastics” and they come from a variety of sources, including from larger plastic debris that degrades into smaller and smaller pieces. They also come from microbeads found in items like cleansers and certain toothpastes.
Microplastics pose risks to wildlife because they can physically damage the digestive tracts and can expose animals to chemicals and contaminants.
The bright side to this problem is that reducing our plastic consumption is so easy and doesn’t really change our quality of life in any way.
It’s so easy to take a reusable water bottle, coffee cup, or shopping bag on an outing and there are so many new and innovative alternatives to traditional single-use items, like beeswax food wrapping and silicone zip-lock bags.
Habits are changing though, companies and municipalities around the country and world are banning items like plastic bags and straws. There’s even Nada – a new zero-waste grocery store opening up in Vancouver where none of the food comes in plastic packaging. If anyone wants to take a more active approach to help this problem, they can volunteer to help remove plastics and fishing gear from the beaches. Living Oceans’s Clear the Coast initiative is cleaning up marine debris on West Coast beaches throughout July and August.
I’m actually writing this editorial to remind myself to use less plastic so I can hold myself accountable. It’s so easy to be an unconscious consumer and toss plastics away without ever thinking about it again.
But it’s also so easy to have a little forethought and just say no to purchasing a disposable plastic when there are just-as-good alternatives.
Because if keeping our environment plastic-free and healthy means that I’ll have to use a paper straw at a restaurant in the future, then that is a sacrifice I’m willing to make.
Hanna Petersen writes for the North Island Gazette