Plastic Trash in our Sanctuary Reducing use keeps oceans cleaner

| Photo, Adobe Stock

By Johanna Podio

Every day, plastic can get swept away by the ocean very easily. Every piece of plastic can end up in our oceans. Larger pieces left on beaches can be swept into the ocean, traveling through currents, spreading throughout the deep sea, and ending up in huge “plastic islands.” Millions of tiny plastic pieces pollute seawater and  are consumed by fish and sea life. Humans who eat seafood are also unsuspectingly ingesting plastic. How can we solve this growing problem in the oceans? Very simply; reduce and recycle.

Every person who recycles plastic, or chooses not to use plastic, will help keep the oceans cleaner. Recycling a small item, or not using it at all, can lead to big results. A simple act of changing the use of straws has led to big results on the Monterey Peninsula. It started with a ban on plastic straws in restaurants and other service businesses. It is estimated that over 500 million straws are used a day in America. Multiply that number by 365 days, and you can see what an enormous problem this is.

Save Our Shores is a Bay Area organization that has a huge impact on conservation and recycling plastic in the Monterey Bay.  Save Our Shores was established in 1978 and is located in Santa Cruz. Its mission statement is “Steward clean shores, healthy habitats, and living waters. To foster a thriving Monterey Bay and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.”  The organization informs and educates the public about local marine threats and conservation of marine life in the Monterey Bay.

Save Our Shores has started a Sinister Six Plastic Mitigation Campaign to help educate the public about reducing usage on six plastic items: single-use toiletry bottles, water bottles, plastic coffee pods, contact lenses, balloons, and microfiber pollution.

Save Our Shores wants to eliminate these items that are used by the millions and are not recyclable.  The items end up in landfills and oceans and endanger marine life.

Katherine O’Dea, executive director of Save Our Shores,  said that there are four items that her organization would like to see banned from sale or use: single-use beverage bottles, coffee pods, helium-filled balloons and single-use toiletry bottles.

“Our strategies for addressing our ‘sinister six’ plastic items differ,” said O’Dea in an email interview.

  • Beverage bottles: Save Our Shores recommends that single-serve drinks of all kinds be sold only in BPA-free aluminum cans (not boxes/cartons, which are actually more difficult to recycle than PET plastic bottles), while also urging the placement of many more hydration stations throughout communities, which can be used to fill reusable water bottles with water.
  • Coffee pods: Single-serve, non-recyclable and non-compostable K-cup type coffee pods can be replaced with reusable single-serve pods that can be filled with ground coffee beans. Nespresso single-serve pods are acceptable because they are made of aluminum, but they are only recyclable via a takeback program that Nespresso runs in some markets. “However, we would want to see Nespresso required to set up a take-back program in our local communities, if a ban did not include their aluminum pods,” said O’Dea.
  • Helium-filled balloons. “These are completely unnecessary products that don’t even provide a convenience factor,” O’Dea said. There are alternatives to balloons for celebration events, including paper streamers and flowers.
  • Single-use plastic toiletry bottles in the hospitality industry to be replaced with larger refillable, multi-use dispensers.

But some of the Sinister Six need different handling. “Items like microfibers and contact lenses require different strategies,” said O’Dea. “Microfibers slough off synthetic polymer-based clothing and other polymer-based fabrics and textiles. Today, most of our clothing and other types of textiles (sheets, towels, tablecloths, napkins, etc.) sold on the market today are polymer-based. Plastic microfibers fibers slough off when we put our clothing on, when we rub the material in any way and especially when we launder it.

“Microfibers from laundry are a main concern because wastewater treatment facilities are unable to trap these tiny items; so there flow right into our waterways and out into the ocean. Our proposed solution, until new materials can be developed, is to require all new washing machines sold in our jurisdictions to be equipped with a built in microfiber filter.”

Contact lenses are another matter, she said.

Obviously we don’t want to deny sight-impaired individuals the option of disposable contact lenses. However, we do want to prevent the one in five users who currently flush them down the toilet and out into our waterways from continuing to do so. Our proposed solution is to require disposable contact lens manufacturers to institute take back programs by which users can collect several pair in a non-plastic container provided by the manufacturer and then return the used contacts to the manufacturers when the container is full.”

When asked, “Do you hope to pass laws similar to the straw ban that was just passed?”  O’Dea said, “Each law to ban a product differs to some extent. So, while you could say we are seeking to pass laws similar to the straw ban, the system definitions, restrictions, approach, timeline and any fees or fines will likely differ.”

Just how do we get people to stop using these items that are so – convenient to use? O’Dea said, “I think primarily through education and outreach. When people are armed with sufficient information and facts they make better decisions. But laws drive behavior change quicker than education. Sometimes a stick as well as a carrot is required to help people change their convenience habits.”

But O’Dea does not believe higher taxes on these items are the answer. O’Dea said,  “Taxes tend to be regressive and often hurt the people who can least afford to pay them. I also think taxes work better on luxury items — so maybe a high tax on single use non-recyclable and non-compostable coffee pods, for example, could help, but it will not eliminate the waste issue. Anyone willing to pay the tax, and many will complain, but shrug and continue to purchase highly taxed products, still has to dispose of the item. Stopping the sale of ubiquitous plastic items, if widespread enough, will eventually stop production of the items and that’s the only way to completely stop the waste.”

When asked, “Out of all six plastic items – which one would Save Our Shores like to be banned first and why? O’Dea replied, “Well, we’ve already made progress on the single-use plastic toiletry bottles. Santa Cruz County banned their use in the hospitality industry last November. Watsonville followed suit earlier this month. And, there is a state bill AB 1162, authored by Assemblymember Kalra of San Jose, making its way through the legislative process that will ban the use of toiletry items including soap, shampoo and conditioner in single-use bottles in the hospitality industry statewide, but it will still allow the hospitality industry to put small single-use plastic bottles of body lotion in guest rooms. We aren’t excited about the exclusion of lotion from the ban but sometimes compromise and not letting the perfect get in the way of the good is necessary.”

O’Dea says that  banning the sale of beverages in single-use plastic bottles is the most important and would likely have the greatest positive impact.

“But pressure from various industry sectors including the plastics industry, the beverage industry and the retail sector will be fierce. So it is going to be one of the most difficult items to get banned. I’m happy to see the wins related to the single use plastic toiletry bottles. I also think it would be relatively easy and straightforward to require contact lens manufacturers to establish used lens takeback programs. We’ve already got similar legislation for pharmaceuticals and sharps. I hope we’ll see action on disposable lenses soon.”

To read more about the Sinister Six campaign, log onto the Save our Shores website:  Save our Shores is holding its annual California Coastal Cleanup Day on Sept. 21.  Beaches all over the Monterey Bay will be involved in the event. Volunteers are needed to make this event a success.

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Young Voices Media Project teaches Monterey Bay area teens multimedia skills to report the news from their communities. This project was generously supported by the Clare Giannini Fund.