Opinion

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.

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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.

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?

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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.

Once a day, refuse to use a plastic bag, a plastic bottle, straws, takeout containers, disposable cups, utensils, or unnecessary packaging. Start there. Phase out the single-use plastics in your life, reuse the ones you already have as much as you can, and then change your habits: Choose reusable products. Take all of your plastic containers to the nearest recycling center and don't replace them.

Then, begin choosing products sold in glass, metal, cardboard, and paper instead of plastic. These materials can be more effectively recycled or, when it's paper, biodegrade in water or landfills.

What about jobs in disposable plastic?

According to the American Chemistry Council (ACC), roughly 1 million people make a living off developing and manufacturing plastic. But reducing plastic pollution doesn't have to mean reducing jobs.

Members of the ACC who develop plastic should keep jobs by developing new, safe, biodegradable alternatives to plastic that do not leach toxins or contaminate the earth as they biodegrade. Plastic manufacturers should have a plan for end-of-life for each of their products and own up to their responsibilities.

Recycling or even reusing alone will not reduce the plastic waste on our planet if we continue to create more and more disposable plastic products every day. As the United States buckles down to months of Gulf oil spill cleanup, we must take advantage of that momentum to save the oceans.

Plastic pollution poses a massive threat to the health of our oceans. If we don't reduce dependence upon and production of single-use plastic alongside that cleanup and recycling, we are engaged in a somewhat Sisyphean task.

Life without plastic pollution is possible. Try it.

Daniella Russo is the executive director of Plastic Pollution Coalition, a nonprofit.

Want to think more deeply about the oil spill? Try reading these:

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