Mama Gone Green is a blog dedicated to raising happy children and reducing our impact on the Earth. My name is Taryn and I am the mother of 2 young kids and an environmental studies instructor at a community college in Portland, Oregon. Please join me as I journey through life as a mama, teacher, knitter, photographer, gardener, and environmentalist!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Sailing the Seas of Plastic

We have already discussed BPA, it's use in plastic, and the problems it can cause. Plastics also cause pollution during manufacturing, and can have some pretty serious negative health effects. Today we are going to bypass all of that and learn about the problems with plastics polluting our environment and poisoning wildlife.
Plastics are everywhere. Seriously. Our society could not function the way it does without them. After World War 2, the role of women in the home changed as plastics were used to create a "throwaway" lifestyle where women could be freed of the jobs of washing dishes and such. Women were being encouraged to simplify their lives with disposable items (made of plastic), and unfortunately, that mind set has stuck.
The biggest problem with plastics is that they do not biodegrade. They can spend time in the sun and the water and they will become brittle and break into smaller pieces, but the quantity will not decrease. And, since only a small percentage of the plastic we produce get recycled, that means that most of it ends up in landfills, or in places where it should not be, like the ocean.
There are 5 gyres in oceans across the globe. These are basically areas where ocean currents circulate and they tend to be a magnet for improperly disposed of items. The North Pacific Gyre off the west coast of North America is commonly called a garbage patch. It is not a floating landfill, where a big collection of garbage amasses; however, it is an area where a whole lot of plastic is floating on the waves. It is estimated that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic for every square meter of ocean in this area.
The biggest problem with plastics in our oceans is that they break down into smaller pieces, are mistaken for food sources and are eaten by aquatic life and birds. Plastics act as a magnet for oily pollutants (such as pesticides) and end up concentrating toxins on their surface. So while the ocean water may not have high levels of chemicals in it, these pieces of plastic act as poison pills to animals. Once ingested, the high levels of toxins are now residing inside an organism. Over time, as fish and birds eat piece upon piece of plastic that they mistook for food, they accumulate higher and higher levels of toxins in their system. Not to mention the fact that since these plastics don't biodegrade, they just sit in the animals gut. Many a dead bird has been found with a belly full of plastic, which affects the health and reproduction of the organism.
Now let's see how this relates to humans. If you eat fish, as most of us do, there is a good chance that the fish you eat has also ingested some of this lovely ocean plastic, and the pollutants that have adhered to it as well. And, if that fish you ate ate smaller fish who have also ingested pieces of plastic, the levels of toxins in it's system will be even higher (this is a process called bioaccumulation).
So, plastics are wreaking havoc not only on our oceans and our wildlife, but also on our own health. Plastics are extremely useful and great for some purposes. The point is that we need to use less of it and re-use it over and over again, and when we are done with it, it needs to be recycled and kept far away from our rivers and oceans.
How can you help?
* Buy less items made of plastic. this is especially true of children's items. Yes, wooden items may cost a bit more, but they look nicer and our safer for our Earth and for our children.
* Refrain from buying things for one-time use. Do you need to have plastic cups and silverware for that birthday party, or can you deal with washing some extra dishes for one day? How about washing and reusing those plastic bags?
* When you do buy plastics, try and buy used first. Check, goodwill, or other re-use shops in your area. Often you can find the plastic you need for a fraction of the price, and your purchase don't contribute to degrading our Earth.
* When you are done with your plastic items, try to donate or resell what is still usable. Anything leftover should be recycled if possible. Try to dispose of as little plastic as possible!
For more information, check out the movie "Addicted to Plastic" by Bullfrog films. And if you want a heart-breaking story about the dangers of throwing away plastics, check out Mae West, a turtle who was caught in a plastic milk jug ring as a baby. Also, check out Life Less Plastic, a woman's blog about her journey in trying to be plastic-free. Pin It Now!

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