ARCHIVE: Plastic Water Bottles and Albatross Birds, What do They Have in Common?

This post is originally from April 2014. 

On March 4, 2014 San Francisco, California became the first large city to ban the sale of plastic water bottles on public property. THIS IS HUGE! San Fran will begin to phase out single use plastic water bottles of 21 ounces or less over the next four years, they have considered large events and have made a waiver available for events, business etc where water would otherwise not be available.

Resistance from water bottle distributors and the American Beverage Association claim that water bottles are recycled after their use and that consumers deserve to drink water in whatever form suits their needs. They have a point. Consumers do have the right to enjoy something as necessary as water whenever and however they’d like, but there is a problem with plastic single use water bottles. They are not getting recycled. According to the EPA only 28% of plastic were recycled in 2012. Of the 14 tons of plastic produced that year, that’s nothing. If consumers were actually disposing of their water bottles properly cities like San Francisco and Concord Massachusetts (also banned plastic water bottles beginning of 2013) would not feel the need to put up such a ban.

These bans get at a larger issue, the behavior and habits of people and how it impacts the environment. In the United States, vast majorities of people are comfortable in their consumption patterns. They buy what they need or want and often don’t give a thought to what happens after they’re done using it.

Photographer Chris Jordan made a name for himself in 2009 when he decided to go to Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean to photograph albatross. As Jordan began taking photos he noticed that the decomposing birds were not dying of natural causes. In the stomachs of these birds Jordan found plastic bottle caps, lighters, bits of left over plastic bottles and other trash that made its way to sea. These birds were choking on the material they or their parents had found out in the Pacific Ocean for them to eat.

Photo by Chris Jordan in his “Midway: Message from the Gyre” collection.

Currently in an area about the size of Texas over 1.9 million bits of plastic per square mile sit in what is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Trash is not only floating on the surface of the water, but heavier pieces of trash are sinking to just below the surface where it is interfering with other marine wildlife such as birds, turtles, whales and fish like tuna. Simply by choosing not to drink water from plastic water bottles or always bringing a reusable bag to the store, we can reduce the amount of waste produced and reduce the amount of trash that ends up in the environment.

Photo by Telegraph Co. in UK. Plastic washed ashore in Hawaii where plastic bits currently out number the grains of sand on the beach. 

Also in 2009, the Climate Leadership Initiative, and a few other contributors, came out with “Climate Communications and Behavior Change” explaining how one of the next challenges in sustainability is not developing the technology, but getting consumers to understand why they should choose sustainability. This article mentioned the “Take-Make-Waste” system that consumers use today. Our taking of resources is happening faster than the natural system can produce resources, our making of products is not lasting long enough to make the taking worthwhile and the waste is contaminating the resources we already have. Worst part is we’re all guilty.

The best part is that we can do something about it. Really? Yes! We’re the problem and so we can fix it! We can use San Francisco and Concord as examples. Take an issue, and these are complex issues, that’s for sure, and think about how you contribute to it. Do you buy water in plastic single-use water bottles? Do you recycle materials that can be recycled? One part of the student organization that I volunteer with is educating people and organizations so they know what items are and are not recyclable (see my discussions here on Beacon for a list of common items and how they should be disposed).

It might be overused, or maybe forgotten, but Reduce- Reuse- Recycle goes a long way. Reduce: the resources we use and that’ll solve a lot of these complex problems. Reuse: making what we do use last longer and go further for us. Recycle: let’s find a way to put materials back into the system. These issues are difficult to handle and might seem daunting at times, but if we take things piece by piece and each of us does our part, the problems will start to unravel and become easier to solve.

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