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Paper v. Plastic

A New Year Resolution (Belated)

I’ve been sparked by a couple recent events to vow to change one thing in my life in this still new year.

As I’ve wandered the globe during the past decade, studying its ocean and coastlines, one of the biggest problems I see everywhere – from the Adriatic to the Scotia seas, the coastlines of Vietnam to Chile – is plastic pollution. You’ve seen it too, I’m sure. Detritus washed or thrown off fishing boats and tankers, cruise boats and yachts. Garbage washed up from waste dumps situated too near the sea. Cities and resorts overbuilding right on the edge of the coast. But it doesn’t have to be a crowded place to result in beach trash; one of the most plasticked beaches I’ve ever seen was on remote Carcass Island in the Falklands just the other day.

While talking about the mess that plastic pollution makes of the world’s beaches is a good thing, it doesn’t necessarily do much to help. Often I’m asked what individuals can do to help in regard to the handful of things killing our ocean and coastlines: over fishing, climate change … and plastic pollution.

That’s a tough question to answer. Education and enforcement of existing laws are big needs, but tough for the man-on-the-street to impact. There are things you can do around the house, your neighborhood, in your daily life that can make a difference. though And I do believe that millions of small efforts can affect real change (See: Election/Barack Obama/November 2008.)

For example, I’ve been contemplating a cold turkey approach to plastic and paper bags for a long time. In the U.S. alone, more than 100 billion cheap plastic bags are distributed every year, bags which never really go away, many of which end up in our waterways. Less than one percent are recycled. Many countries (Bangladesh, South Africa, Uganda, even parts of China) and cities (San Francisco, London, Mumbai) have already banned plastic bags; others – like Ireland – have instituted a plastic-tax. New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg is still hoping for a six cent per bag tax.

For me, the combination of having walked along that plastic-trashed beach in the Falklands, the new President’s call to individual action and having seen flimsy plastic bags scattered all over the world in trees, coral reefs, nests and along highways and coastlines … from here on out I’m refusing all plastic (and paper) bags … which means valiantly trying to remember to stuff one of the dozen cloth bags I’ve got in my truck into my pocket whenever applicable.