Tag Archives: plastic pollution

Watch this animated video–you’ll never buy another bottle of water!


There are several really good documentaries about the growing scarcity of water worldwide and the boondoggle that is the bottled water industry–Flow: For Love of Water and Tapped come to mind, and you can watch them online–but The Story of Bottled Water lasts only 8 minutes, so you can share it easily. Start it on your iPad or computer at work and friends and coworkers will stop by to watch. Show it to your children or students. Post it to Facebook or Tweet to reach thousands more. It’s from Annie Leonard, of The Story of Stuff Project. In clever animation of stick figures, it explains how “manufactured demand” pushes a product we don’t need and adds mountains of plastic pollution to our environment.


(You can’t even feel good about recycling the bottles, as they are merely downcycled into lower-quality plastic that ends up in developing countries’ dumps.)

It has villains too–look at this quote by an industry executive:


And it has potential heroes: all of those who decide not only never to buy or consumer bottled water but urge others to stop the waste, too. Did you know that buying a $2 bottle of water is the equivalent of paying $10,000 for a sandwich? That’s because of the cost of extracting the petroleum that goes into making the plastic and bottles as well as transporting it and shipping them.

By all means organize screenings of the other documentaries–it is really important to stop the incredible waste of resources bottled water represents and to advocate, as Leonard says in the video, for access to clean, safe tap water for the 1 billion people who do not have it. They are apparently working–despite the millions the industry spends on making us think tap water tastes bad and that bottled water (frequently tap water itself) is safer, sales are slowing. This video probably helped. It’s had over 2.5 million views on YouTube. Watch it there if you want to be counted.

The Hidden Tsunami of Debris

This is the title of a September Honolulu Weekly article by Stuart Coleman about the plastic plaguing Hawai‘i’s coasts, only some of which is from the Japan tsunami of  2011, including a large concrete dock that appeared north of Molokai. Coleman writes that most of what is left to float here is plastic, because the construction and housing debris was wood and metal and has deteriorated and sunk.

Coleman profiles Dr. Marcus Eriksen, who, since seeing the Pacific Garbage Patch with Captain Charles Moore in 2005, has made the debris that is accumulating in five different gyres in the world’s oceans his cause. He and his wife Anna Cummins formed an environmental nonprofit called the 5 Gyres Institute to try to find solutions to the problem, which threatens our health as well as the environment. Why our health? Coleman explains, “Most plastics are made with chemical additives like bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates, known endocrine-disruptors that can lead to obesity, infertility, cancer and other health problems. Micro-plastics also absorb the toxic chemicals from pesticides, flame-retardants and polluted runoff. When fish and marine creatures mistake these toxic micro-plastics for food, the poison travels up to the food chain to foods we eat.”

The problem is daunting, but one solution being proposed is Extended Producer Responsibility. Explains Coleman, this policy is designed to “make companies more responsible for the life cycle of their products, from design and distribution to recapture and recycling. Eriksen argues that by promoting EPR, companies will design better, safer and less wasteful products.”

Read the full article here. And see earlier posts on marine debris by clicking on that category, or click on these links.

Hawai’i becomes first state to ban plastic bags (by 2015)

I was hoping the statewide throwaway bag bill would pass the state legislature because, even though it was not a ban, it would have reduced the number of both plastic and paper bags clogging our waters and parks and provided funds (from hefty user fees collected) to improve the watershed. But at least the Honolulu City Council passed a bill that will first charge fees and by 2015 ban plastic bags in the City and County of Honolulu, which means that Oahu finally joins the Neighbor Islands (Maui, Molokai, Kaua‘i, and the Big Island), in stopping the distribution of single-use plastic bags by retailers–therefore becoming in effect the first state to “ban the bag.” The news site msnbc.com used that very headline: “Hawaii First State to Ban Plastic Bags at Checkout.” For details on this “first”–such as the fact that Hawai’i County’s ban goes into effect in January 2014–and a complete list of what bags are exempt from the ban, read this green-buzz.net post.

Letters to the Editor

Sierra Club Hawai‘i’s Capitol Watch asked us not only to write testimony in support of the bag bill under consideration at the legislature but to consider writing a letter to the editor of the Star-Advertiser. It’s been on the receiving end of considerable media attention and the team wants to make sure positive responses overwhelm any negative ones. I was inspired by a brief but eloquent letter in the Honolulu Weekly by Diana Sellner, entitled “Protect our ‘aina”:
The time is now to pass plastic and paper bag legislation on Oahu. Plastic and paper bags are not only a nuisance but an eyesore. The bags are so light, they are easily swept up by the wind and blown all over the city, into our streets, parks, streams and onto our beaches.
      “Ua mau ke ea o ka ‘aina I ka pono.” We need to preserve our precious ‘aina, and get rid of these bags!

Mine is somewhat longer, as I tried to suggest that in a cost-benefit analysis, the benefits would predominate:
We need SB 2511, which levies a 10-cent fee on plastic and paper bags, to become law.
       The benefits? Less litter, which looks bad and costs taxpayers to clean up. Fewer plastic bags fouling streams and ditches, causing backup and flooding. Fewer bags to entangle marine animals. Money saved by retailers because people won’t switch to paper bags, which cost more to produce and use up more resources.
       The costs? Produce bags aren’t affected, so you can clean up after your pet for free. You don’t have to pay–you can bring your own, as you do at Costco, and as we used to do before plastic bags were the norm. If you want a few to line your kitchen waste can, the fee is affordable. Besides, the fees will go toward restoring and protecting our valuable watersheds.
        Sounds like a win-win for everyone but the bag manufacturers, who fight throwaway-bag bills everywhere they are proposed.
It’s easy to send a letter to the paper. Email directly or fill out a form online so that you don’t forget to give your name and a daytime telephone number.

Hawai’i’s Single-Use Bag Law Gains Momentum

Bringing it home to Hawai'i legislators

A coalition of environmental groups held a rally at the state capitol Feb. 9 before a senate committee heard testimony in favor of a bill aimed at drastically reducing both plastic and paper bags by charging 10 cents (an “offset fee” rather than a tax or levy) on all single-use bags at checkout. Read about it and see a picture of the plastic-bag monster on the Sierra Club Scrapbook blog. Volunteers littered the Capitol lawn with 400 bags, representing the average number one person uses annually (for less than 15 minutes, on average). It certainly got legislators’ attention (“What’s up with the bags on the lawn?”), and about 50 people testified at the hearing.

As with plastic-bag laws elsewhere, the goal is to change people’s mindset, so that they get used to bringing reusable bags to the grocery store or ABC store. If  they forget their bags, they will take fewer  because of the fee–and refuse all double-bagging. Because this is not a bag ban, revenue will be generated by those who use bags provided by merchants–perhaps as much as $20 million per year, which would go toward restoring and protecting the state’s much-threatened watersheds and rainforest areas. As the  Sierra Club’s Robert Harris points out, if people get used to bringing their own shopping bags, there won’t be as much money available, but that will  be a sign that the law is working and that plastic pollution is being significantly cut. This helps the environment, but in a different way. The law could come to a vote in a few weeks; if it passes, it could become a national model.

Who fights plastic bag laws?

Another way climate change and marine debris are similar problems: it’s hard to pass laws to mitigate the damage they cause  because of the opponents who come forward to work against them. Laws aimed at reducing single-use plastic bags, whether by charging a small fee or banning their use by retailers, seem like an obvious solution to the scourge of the bags, which foul our parks, beaches, rivers, and oceans and enter the food chain when they photodegrade into pieces small enough for fish to ingest. Spurred by Ireland’s success in levying a hefty (33-cent) fee on the bags in 2002–use dropped 94% within weeks–scores of municipalities and perhaps 25% of the world’s countries, including Italy and China, have adopted restrictions or an outright ban. (See the Campaign for Recycling for a list of towns and cities by state that have banned or taxed plastic bags–39 cities and counties in California alone.)

The measures have not always sailed into being. When the Seattle City Council passed a 20-cent fee on plastic bags, the plastics industry spent $1.4 million to get residents to repeal the fee in 2009. The Council responded by passing a bill late in 2011 that outright  bans plastic bags–not just in grocery stores but in most categories of stores, food trucks, and farmers’ markets. (Paper bags, which waste resources, will cost 5 cents.)  In California a group of plastic manufacturers banded together to try to force California municipalities to spend money on an Environmental Impact Review (EIR) of the proposed ordinances, which would have added to costs and delay the legislation.  Although the industry’s reps say that they are have the environment in mind in calling for increased recycling rather than banning or taxing the bags and claim that limiting their use hurts shoppers, retailers, and workers (by threatening manufacturing jobs), why are they spending so much money to defeat the bills? The answer to this question, as to so many “why’s” of the anti-environmental movement, is the profit to be made by the manufacturers of plastic bags. Don’t be fooled by an article at the GreenBiz blog by Marc Gunther titled “In Defense of the Plastic Bag” in December 2011; he simply repeats the industry’s arguments and cites a spokesperson for Hilex Poly, a manufacturer with a website called “Bag the Ban,” to back him up. GreenBiz published a detailed rebuttal within a week, by Stiv Wilson. It lays out the case against single-use plastic bags in such detail that it was picked up by the Huffington Post website.

Despite opposition, the movement to regulate plastic bags continues to pick up speed, with three states (Hawai’i, Oregon, California) currently vying to be the first to pass a state-wide law. The key to successful implementation is to change people’s mindset, as happened in Ireland. The New York Times reported, “Plastic bags were not outlawed, but carrying them became socially unacceptable — on a par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after one’s dog.” In short, the Irish became more like Portlanders, whose  obsessive recycling, re-using, and refusing of single-use plastic is satirized in this clip from Portlandia, a cable series . It’s worth noting that Portland was not an early adopter; the city didn’t even have a plastic-bag law until 2011, but it is a ban, not a charge, and it’s one of a few US cities to have one. The mindset had already changed, so the ban was not a big deal.

To have arguments at hand when you counter someone who thinks bag bans are not necessary, see the Ban the Bag PDX blog or Stiv Wilson’s piece in defense of the bans. He takes care of the industry’s argument that recycling is better in three sentences: “That plastics bags are 100% recyclable isn’t the issue. It’s that by a massive percentage they are not recycled [and the rate of recycling is going down, not up]. Even when they are, we end up with more plastic in the environment instead of less.”

Captain Moore warns of peril from plastic in new book

Visit the website of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to order a signed copy of Plastic Ocean, the new book by Captain Charles Moore, who discovered the North Pacific Garbage Patch. If you’re on Oahu,  Moore will be kicking off a semester of sustainability on the UH Manoa campus center on January 17 at noon. He’ll be talking about his research into the growing amount of plastic marine pollution in the Garbage Patch and the world’s oceans. For Moore’s excellent description of the looming plastic peril he says is a bigger threat to the Earth’s future than climate change, go to Captain Moore on marine plastic pollution, a 7-minute interview that appeared on WGBH Boston in November 2011.

The Algalita Marine Research Foundation is one of two nonprofit groups inviting members of the public to join them on a research trip into the Japanese tsunami debris field in May and June 2012. For details, see “Tracking the Debris from Japan’s Tsunami” on the NYT Green blog. Scientists on the expedition will analyze how fast the debris is breaking down and measure its toxicity and how much is being ingested by marine life. They also hope to be able to predict how much of the debris will reach the west coast of North America, whether Hawai’i will bear the brunt, or whether most will end up in the Garbage Patch. For more on the eventual destination see the December post Japanese Tsunami Debris Headed Our Way.

Two Short Videos about Plastic Pollution & Help for It

Check out these short videos. The first is a 4-minute mock-documentary about the life cycle of a plastic bag. It was made by a group working to stop the significant contribution to marine pollution made by disposable plastic bags, ubiquitous in our throwaway society. They are not only an eyesore; they harm turtles and other marine animals, which can become entangled in them or eat them, along with other forms of plastic.

Laws taxing or outright banning single-use bags by grocery stores and other retailers (“Ban the Bag” laws) are coming to a town or county– or even a state–near you. Help legislators in your area stand up to the plastics manufacturers who benefit from the wasteful practice of sending customers home with their purchases in multiple bags that go into the trash (very few get recycled) after one brief period of use. Remember, the trip home is short, but plastic is forever. It’s easy to convert to reusable bags–keep lightweight cloth or mesh ones in your handbag or backpack and canvas ones in your car. Remember the rule: recycle, reuse, or better yet, refuse plastic bags, and thus reduce the plastic in the marine  environment. For a quick overview of the problems and solutions go to this Australian science-news feature titled No bag, thanks.

The second video, One Plastic Beach, tells the story of a couple, Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang, who regularly visit a northern California beach near their home and take plastic debris to turn into art, thus publicizing the amazing number and varieties of plastic that turn up regularly; see the hanging canvas with glued-on plastic in families in the exhibit called Rising Tide, and check out the post on plastic combs and toothbrushes on their blog. The Langs’ works have been exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Berkeley Art Center, among other places.


Take Individual Action

While there are actions everyone can take to reduce their carbon footprint, it’s not easy to see the results in terms of slowing global temperature rise. But some of the same things you do pay off immediately and visibly in cleaner beaches and near-shore waters. You can refuse, reuse, recycle all plastic. Pick up plastic bags and other litter to keep it from ending up in the ocean. Support laws banning plastic bags or taxing them. Make lists like the following and post them in your office, home, public bulletin boards.

Ten things you can do, as posted on the Algalita blog by Karen Ristuben:
1. Stay informed about our plastic world and environmental toxins.
2. Reduce your use of one-time, single-use plastics.
3. Conduct your own personal trash audit.
4. Creatively reuse and repurpose your plastic products.
5. Refuse to use plastic shopping bags and don’t buy bottled water.
6. Support legislation that increases producer responsibility.
7. Support and try to improve local recycling efforts.
8. Pick a place and pick up the trash there every day.
9. Educate children about responsible use of plastic so they can teach their parents.