Article by Melissa Solorzano
In a TEDx Talk about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Beth Terry, an activist, author, public speaker and founder of myplasticfreelife.com, tells her story, Living Plastic Free. She says that, “The average American generates about 100 pounds of plastic waste per year.”
A friend of mine, Brendan Kane, who is an electrical engineering major here at Penn State, helped me estimate that this would add up to nearly 32.3 billion pounds of plastic in one year alone. That is a huge amount of plastic being consumed in America.
We are capable of using plastic bags over and over again, but we only use them to carry groceries and as garbage bags once or twice. While I was in my environmental science class one day, my instructor Dr. Christopher Uhl said, “One plastic bag, a plastic food container or a plastic bottle of water won’t fully decompose for an average of a thousand years after it is thrown out.”
When man-made plastic materials aren’t properly recycled, they are picked up by the wind and eventually end up inside the ocean.
According to the article, 3 Ways to Avoid Having More Plastic Than Fish in the Ocean by 2050 published by Global Citizen, there is a pile of garbage the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean and, “right now, 32 percent of ALL plastic produced escapes collection and ends up in the ocean.”
The less plastic we use, the cleaner our oceans will be. I decided to eliminate the use of plastic bottles of water from my life my freshman year of college after I read a book that changed my life. This book was titled No Impact Man and it was written by author Colin Beavan. In it, he talks about the year in which he decided to live a life where he created as little pollution as possible. He talks about this negative cycle humans are stuck living in that will eventually have a tragic outcome with no way of reversing the damage being done.
Beaven describes what humans must do to reduce pollution, global warming and the overuse of our natural resources. He said, “If we want to ensure that the planet maintains its ability to support us, we have to choose differently.”
Not only is our garbage damaging to the ocean but it is killing all the animals that depend on a healthy ocean for food. When Laysan albatross are searching for food, most of the time they accidentally pick up pieces of plastic and feed it to their chicks. Beavan also said, “In the North Pacific alone, an estimated 10,000 sea turtles and sea mammals, a million seabirds, and countless fish starve to death each year after plastic blocks their digestive tracks.”
In his book, Developing Ecological Consciousness, Dr. Uhl writes, “In 2007, a whale found dead off the coast of California had four hundred pounds of plastic in its stomach.” Imagine if one person swallowed one plastic bag? It would definitely cause some damage.
If not for the marine animals in the ocean then we should worry about our own health. If the ocean is polluted, so are our own bodies.
“Giving up plastic in our personal lives protects our health and the health of our families,” Terry said. “When we know about all the chemicals that can leach out of plastics we realize it is important to do this for ourselves.”
Anything made out of plastic is harmful to the ocean and the environment all together. If plastic isn’t choking marine animals, the chemicals that come from plastic and pollute our waters are poisoning the fish that have to breathe that water, and we are eating those fish.
Take Bisphenol A, also known as BPA, for example. Plastic bags and bottles of water are made out of this chemical that can cause, male impotence, reproductive disorders, breast cancer, and type 2 diabetes. The list goes on and on.
You don’t eat meat or fish? Well plastic still poses a problem for you. Terry also said, “For vegetarians, did you know that animal fat is used to make plastic bags slippery?” And therefore the fruits and vegetables you eat that come in plastic bags or containers have already been smothered in animal fat.
I asked Penn State students this question: how do you think not recycling is going to affect the oceans and humans in the future?
“First of all, this is already heating up our oceans and the way it heats it up is that there is a greenhouse effect when we throw things out,” said Carlos Rivera, 20, an environmental systems engineering major here at Penn State. “Those methane gases get released from the landfill into the atmosphere but the actual carbon dioxide molecules can get into the water and warm it up.”
Not an environmental systems engineering major? No problem. He explained it to me in a more simplistic way by saying, “Even if the water increases by half a degree then the fish start dying and everything that is feeding on the fish start dying.”
Is it not obvious that we are the ones feeding on the fish that could potentially kill us? All because we have decided to bag our groceries in plastic bags instead of paying 99 cents for one of those reusable bags with a picture of a cute animal on it.
So what can we do as college students to help diminish the use of plastic? Easy: if it can be recycled or replaced, then it should be.
Margaret Shaw, a nutritional sciences dietetics major, told me about how being raised in a family that recycled affects her actions today
“Growing up, my mom used to have bags inside of bags inside of bags in the closet and we would always take them to Giant and have them recycle,” said Shaw. “Now I am on my own and I still bring my bags to Giant.”
I also asked her this question: as a college student, how do you think you are making a difference in the world?
“Even though I am one person I think I am doing good,” Shaw said. “I work at Starbucks and if I pick up trash off the floor then maybe someone else will see that there is trash on the floor and they will throw it away as well. If one person at the HUB throws away their glass bottle in the right receptacle then maybe the next person will be more inclined to do the same thing. It is like one of those pay it forward things.”
Eric Wildemann, an intended fine arts major with a concentration in painting and drawing, shared his story about why he stopped using plastic bottles of water.
“Freshman year of college we started off with two cases of water and I realized that we flew through them very quickly,” Wildemann said. “So a month into it I got myself one of those Gatorade bottles. Plastic bottles are bad for the environment and also, why would you spend money that you don’t have to spend?”
It is so simple people!
If you think that you are only one person and it won’t make a difference, think again!
“I came across more plastic bags than fish,” Slat said. “I thought well, why can’t we just clean this up? So then I came up with this passive system that is attached to the seabed and really allows the ocean to clean itself.”
Not only does this spread awareness about pollution in our oceans, but it also does something about all of the garbage that is already lost at sea.
At the end of my favorite documentary Oceans, by Disneynature, the narrator, Pierce Brosnan says, “We watch her now all the time. We see how she moves and we take her temperature. And when she hurts we can measure her pain. Using satellite imagery you can see how pollution runs out of rivers. Penetrating like veins into the deep. Sparing poison all around”
The ocean is beautiful and it is 70% of our entire planet and it is responsible for the existence of all living things. But the sea is slowly dying, along with the rest of our water sources because they are being polluted by garbage, plastic and toxins created by humans. In Oceans, Brosnan also said this about the damage we have done, “We have littered the ocean with hundreds of millions of tons of trash. Human objects, which challenge each creature to find a new way or a new place to survive.”
Think of the ocean as a living, breathing being allowing us to use the natural resources it offers. We should feel privileged that we have such a beautiful ocean. One person has the power to change the world, so why not start by simply recycling more, or trading the use of disposable plastic water bottles for reusable ones.
“Every breath we take, and every drop we drink depends on a healthy ocean. Now her life depends on us.”
Feature Image: Manta Ecuador, Melissa Solorzano