Let's start with the good news: There are many things that can be done to reduce the amount of plastic garbage, and every bit counts. I am talking about one-time use plastics, in all varieties and colors - plastic shopping and kitchen bags, plastic utensils, plastic-wrapped merchandise, plastic bottles. The problem is serious, but the solutions are simple, albeit not quite as cheap and convenient as the problem.
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Most plastics don't biodegrade - over hundreds of years they break down into smaller and smaller bits, some releasing toxins. Tiny pieces of plastics and their toxins that find their way into the oceans become incorporated in food chains and accumulate in toxic amounts in top predators, including humans.
The United States alone produces 100 billion plastic shopping bags per year, and 8 billion pounds of these bags are discarded - many ending up in landfills and the oceans. Half of all plastics that find their way into the oceans sink, covering miles and miles of ocean floor. To me, these numbers are humbling and incomprehensible. So let me instead focus on simple things we can do. Acting together, as a community, we can have a profound effect reducing the amount of plastic waste we discard. And wouldn't it make us a better community?
Let's start with the most obvious: plastic bags. Once manufactured, recycling these bags is a great way to reduce plastic waste. However, plastics are not truly recyclable. The "recycling" process yields a lower grade, less flexible material of limited usefulness. It draws on valuable energy and produces pollution, including climate-changing gasses. A viable solution is to get canvas bags and use them. Just possessing such bags and leaving them behind - and I know some of you who do - won't do the trick. If you keep forgetting them in your car, force yourself to walk back and get the bags, even if you're already in the store with a basket full of groceries. After doing so myself a couple of times, I rarely forget them any more. Or, simply take the cart to your car and load up your bags there.
Paper bags are not a viable alternative. The production of paper bags takes much more energy, plus it involves cutting down trees. According to the Backpacker's magazine (September '07), using canvas bags will lower the carbon dioxide output by 5 pounds per year per person. Just in Juneau, it would add up to 150,000 pounds per year!
There is no better time to start than now! Do you want to stand out from the crowd - maybe by getting your nose pierced or dying your hair green? Great! But add a couple of canvas bags to your arsenal. Look at arguably the hippest grocery establishment we have in town, Rainbow Foods. Kudos to them for discontinuing plastic bags and actually offering their customers canvas bags to buy or borrow! Our supermarkets have followed the trend of offering cloth bags for sale, an excellent first step in the right direction. It is up to us to take the next step.
The use of plastic bags for trash is even more widespread, seemingly without alternatives. But even there we have options. Before discarding anything, check if it can be composted, reused, donated, or recycled. According to the city Web site, we gain one day of landfill use for every 100 tons of garbage we recycle. Biodegradable trash bags are gaining popularity. Make sure that the bags of your choice will, in fact, biodegrade, and not just break down into smaller bits. The brand I've been using is Bio-Bags, sold online and at Rainbow Foods. These bags are 100 percent biodegradable and compostable, and contain no polyethylene. They are not quite as sturdy as regular plastic bags, thus I found it best to empty the whole garbage can into the Dumpster, with the bag in it, instead of pulling the full bag out. If any spillage occurs, I just rinse the garbage can and, once dry, sprinkle some baking soda on the bottom. This surely is a small price to pay compared to the long-term negative environmental effects of plastics. Bio-bags are even available in small sizes for picking up such things as dog poop. Your dog poop is biodegradable, so why not lodge it in a biodegradable container.
Another issue is plastic water bottles. How convenient is it to buy bottled water and toss the bottle away? Unfortunately, these bottles don't go away, but follow the same path as plastic bags. And the solution is as simple as with plastic bags: Have a couple of sturdy reusable bottles with home-bottled tap water with you while you're out. Our Juneau water is great for drinking, and it only takes a day for the chlorine to escape. I boil my water, not because I am worried about its safety, but to quickly remove oxygen and chlorine, and get the "flat" taste I am used to from childhood. I always keep a bottle of boiled water in the fridge, and carry another one with me. Juneau's tap water is great, at the very least just as good as bottled water, and using it you reduce climate-changing gasses arising from the process of bottling and transportation.
Plastic utensils pose another challenge. Just carry a set of reusable utensils with you, and you can proudly do without the plastic ones offered at the eateries (which often come wrapped in plastic). See where I am going with this? You can take this type of reasoning as far as you wish: Bring your own large bottle of shampoo and conditioner with you to hotels, instead of using their little bottles. Bring your own Tupperware for leftovers to restaurants. If you regularly buy salads at the same salad bar, and must use their own plastic take-out container, why not take it home, wash it, and re-use it over and over?
Mihael Blikshteyn is a member of Turning the Tides, a Juneau nonprofit focused on the ocean and its health. To contact the group, call 789-0449 or visit www.turningthetides.org.