Where is “away”, exactly?

Last weekend I participated in a beach clean-up with the Sea Shepherd organisation at the Rosebud Pier in Victoria, Australia.  This used to be a regular activity for me back in my home state of California, but the final throws of my PhD thesis have been keeping me occupied.  I like to balance my scientific research with some good ‘on-the-ground’ conservation and this was a good opportunity to get back in the saddle, so to speak.  In this case, the items collected during the clean-up were sorted, catalogued, and the data were uploaded to a national database for scientific research which was a bonus.

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These clean-up events are both satisfying and horrifying at the same time.  Satisfying, because I feel like I am at least doing something about the problem; horrifying, as I imagine the overwhelming extent of the problem (see this great Ted talk by Chris Jordan).  Herein, I would like to share a few observations and recommendations.

The phrase “throw it away” is quite benign and most people are shielded from what “away” exactly means.  Anyone who has spent any time near a municipal landfill (most are hidden from public view) may get a glimpse of the ultimate fate of rubbish, however, most decent citizens just feed the bin that gets collected each week without paying much mind.  If everyone had to store their rubbish, consumer behaviour would undoubtedly change.

Although properly disposed of, rubbish overflows bins or is blown from landfill operations and finds its way to streams, creeks and rivers and, ultimately, the ocean.  This problem is compounded by the breakdown of rubbish items.  Smaller bits escape the rubbish traps installed on waterways, are more difficult to clean-up, and become consumables for wildlife.  Plastic items being the worst.

Many tout recycling as the solution to the problem of plastic waste – perhaps due to convenience as this type of activity does not require much behaviour change to implement. Although recycling is good practice, and better than no solution at all, there are some important things to keep in mind.  Regarding waste management, environmentalists commonly refer to the “Three R’s” – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.  And notice ‘recycle’ is last on the list, yet receives the most attention.  There is a hierarchy here that is often missed.  Our first priority should be reducing the amount of disposable items we consume – especially non-recyclable items.  Moreover, there is a relatively low amount of plastic recycling we actually do and not all plastic items are recyclable or accepted.

Cellophane was the most commonly encountered plastic rubbish and is arguably one of the worst for several reasons.  First, it easily breaks into several pieces thereby exponentially increasing its distribution over the landscape.  Second, it is transparent or translucent and often hard to detect. Third, it resembles marine creatures, such as jellyfish, and can be mistakenly ingested by wildlife.  Finally, this form of plastic is not recyclable.

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Single-use, food-related items such as straws, condiment containers and individually packaged lollies were the second most common item.  These items are difficult to recycle as some are made with mixed materials, dyed/coloured, or cause issues with recycling equipment.  These are also common plastics to find in products being sold and consumed near beaches.

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And two other honourable mentions:

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Balloons – these were commonly encountered and particularly nasty for wildlife.  They are either ingested – mistaken for marine life – or severely entangle animals.

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Plastic drink can rings – many people are aware of the entanglement risks for wildlife and try to do right by cutting up, however, smaller pieces are even harder to manage.  Best to avoid altogether.

So what can we all do about this?  I have a few general recommendations:

  1. Reduce, reduce, reduce.  Try to buy items in bulk or with minimal packaging.  Where packaging is unavoidable, choose fully recycled and recyclable (don’t always trust what is stated on the package) materials.  Ask yourself about the necessity of all consumer items – is there a better alternative for things we can’t live without?  Let convenience be a second priority to mindfulness.
  2. Avoid single-use items.  Especially condiments and disposable cutlery.  Replace low-utility, single-use items with durable, reusable goods.  Say no to these items and kindly return them when provided with food orders.  The plastic fish soy containers are one of my personal pet hates.
  3. Participate.  Only by direct exposure to the spread of our rubbish will we become more aware of both the extent of the issue and what items are most problematic.  For anyone who wants to participate, please refer to the Sea Shepherd Marine Debris Campaign Australia page for a local event near you.  Many other groups run similar operations – a simple Internet search will do.
  4. Educate.  Spread the word about reducing waste.  Encourage people to participate in clean-up events.  Lead by example by changing your lifestyle.

Only together can we make the changes required to combat this serious issue.  The current predictions of plastic ocean pollution are quite alarming!  Moreover, we have yet to determine the full effects of burying all of our rubbish in landfills.  But that topic is for another blog post.  Thanks for reading and have a great day!

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