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The other, bigger 'oil spill': Your use of disposable plastic

If you thought the Gulf oil spill was bad enough, disposable plastic threatens our oceans on a massive scale. Refuse to use it.

By Daniella Russo / June 17, 2010

Carmel Valley, Calif.

As the world has watched the dreadful string of attempts to stanch the flow of oil from its source a mile down in the Gulf of Mexico, it's a good time to consider ways people can make a positive difference in the ocean.

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That petroleum bubbling from the seabed is used to make plastic, and, at an alarming rate, that plastic returns to the ocean as pollution.

We've all been watching the BP cam of the broken oil well. But did you know that for quite some time, cameras have logged the swirling gyre in the ocean nicknamed the Pacific Garbage Patch? Did you know that the environmental devastation Atlantic Ocean is not new?

These ocean catastrophes did not begin with a fiery explosion. They began with a disposable cup, just like the cup you likely used at that weekend barbecue.

By one estimate, the ocean has already been corrupted by 200 billion pounds of plastic pollution. Other experts estimate that we are now dumping additional billions of pounds of plastic each year.

The number continues to grow, driven by our ever-increasing consumption of things like plastic toothbrushes, toys, and combs, and single-use items like plastic bags, bottles, and straws.

Whatever happened to that mantra "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle"? Today the recycling part of that has taken off somewhat. But is it too little, too late? A placebo, a myth?

We are simply using too much disposable plastic for the small percentage that gets recycled to even make a dent. And, unlike paper, glass, or stainless steel, most plastic can only be "down-cycled," or used for increasingly fewer purposes. All the recycling, like using a teaspoon to empty the ocean, simply can't stem the tide of plastic engulfing us.

Billions of pounds of plastic? That's like a few million cars dumped into the sea every year. Maybe we let it happen because the pounds accumulate not by one-ton car increments but by fractions of an ounce – a straw here, a plastic bag there, an empty shampoo bottle over there. When we're doing it one plastic bottle cap at a time, it's hard to realize that we are turning the ocean into a trash can.

Will an ocean cleanup be effective?

Certainly any effort to clean up our polluted seas is to be applauded, but we should also make sure the work is worth the effort.

In the Gulf of Mexico, the arguably toxic oil-dispersant sprays and containment strategies seem woefully insufficient when barrels of oil churn each day from the source below. Is an ocean cleanup an equally futile effort when we're replacing the garbage that's there more quickly than we could ever scoop it up?

So much of the garbage creating these shameful plastic gyres is single-use disposable plastic.

The most powerful thing people can do to clean up the oceans is to refuse to use "disposable" plastics in the first place. Let's add "Refuse" to the list of R's: Refuse-Reduce-Reuse-Recycle. Until we reduce our use of plastics wherever possible, real change will not happen. Recycling or cleanup projects alone won't cut it.

So what does that mean?

Just say no to single-use plastic

It means that whenever you can, say no to using plastic that will end up in the garbage that same day. Daily life offers countless ways to start saying no – just start with one.