by Dr. Lenore Tedesco

I often wonder about my role, my contribution, my impact. Perhaps it’s because I think about the impact the average American lifestyle has on the environment so much that it has become alarming. I am talking about our disposable society, and the starkest, in your face awareness comes when you actually open your eyes and look around.

Undoubtedly, you have seen it – plastic grocery bags tangled in trees, straws littering our beaches, plastic utensils washed up in the dunes, bits of Styrofoam in the wrack line. The typical person uses these items for a few minutes and yet they persist for hundreds of years. Most of it will travel to a landfill where it will sit for eternity; a very small amount will be recycled and transformed into new products, but increasingly a notable portion finds its way into our waterways and ocean. Consider this, a plastic shopping bag has a working life of 15 minutes, we use 15 trillion a year, and they take more than 200 years to break down. This is just the beginning of the story. Estimates also indicate that half the plastic ever made was produced in the past 15 years.

Plastic pollution has rapidly become a global problem. Each year, 1,000,000 seabirds and 100,000 marine animals die from ingesting plastic. A 2016 Ellen MacArthur Foundation study predicted the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050 if no actions are taken.

The root of this problem is our disposable ways. The most important step is to REDUCE our use of single use plastics. Start with a reusable bag for ALL shopping needs and if you do end up with single use bags – recycle them! Take the extra step to return them to a store; less than 3% are recycled nationally.

Plastic water bottles confuse me. Tap water is actually better regulated and guaranteed safer than many brands of bottled water, yet Americans purchase 50 billion plastic water bottles each year. Investing in a reusable bottle is another great way to cut down on single use plastic. Straws – Just say no! Tell the wait staff you don’t want a straw or use paper straws. Styrofoam is a problem in its own right. Styrofoam effectively never breaks down and is not recyclable. There are also valid concerns that the chemicals in Styrofoam can leach into hot foods.

Both Avalon and Stone Harbor are working on ordinances to ban single use plastic bags, Styrofoam and plastic straws. There are provisions to make disposable food service products like forks, spoons, and knives more environmentally friendly.

Unless each of us takes a hard look at the way we live and makes adjustments, these are only small changes. Consider where you can reduce the use of single use plastics – and act on it! Learn what is recyclable in your area and recycle correctly. Finally, consider the future. Most of us remember the time before the convenience of single-use plastics and we managed fine. It doesn’t take much effort to get back to that lifestyle. We don’t want our legacy to be a sea of plastic pollution, but we’re well on our way. Let’s do something about it. Let’s use a lot less and recycle a lot more. Definitely, something worth teaching our kids and changing our lifestyle to achieve.