One Word: Plastics

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Mary South

If I’m really honest with myself, my love of boating is deeply entwined — no, totally inseparable — from my love of the sea. I know that because, in my heart’s heart and my mind’s eye, it’s a small wooden sailboat that seems ideal to me. Something beamy, not too much freeboard, small engine off and a full mainsail, face turned up to the sun’s caress and only the quiet rush of parting water, a faint brine carried in the breeze and the occasional cry of seabirds … how could you ever beat that fantasy?

Well, you can beat it (to a pulp) with reality. And I don’t mean the arguments that have kept me tied to an engine all these years, I mean THAT A SINGLE-USE PLASTIC SHOPPING BAG IS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE MARIANA TRENCH, PEOPLE! (Sorry, not sorry, for the all caps.) The Mariana Trench is seven miles down, the deepest part of the ocean … and the plastic bag has been there for at least 20 years.

I know that Soundings is beloved, in part, because it provides a much-needed respite from so much ugly news in the world. Our pastime is a balm, a cherished escape from the incessant political rancor, natural disasters and other scary and infuriating realities — believe me, I get that, and I am dedicated to preserving that refuge for myself, too. But we have to talk about plastic.

“Yet what is any ocean,  but a multitude of drops?”  — David Mitchell

According to a 2015 study published in the journal Science, we are dumping the equivalent of 136 billion milk jugs into the oceans each year. The study (by Jenna R. Jambeck, et al.) linked worldwide data on solid waste, population density, and economic status to estimate the mass of land-based plastic waste entering the ocean. The study’s authors calculated that in 2010, 275 million metric tons of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries, with 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons entering the ocean.

For the last few years, I have been trying very hard to cut back on my personal plastic consumption. I keep cloth totes in the car for shopping; I use the cardboard containers meant for soup when I go to the salad bar, bypassing the plastic clamshells; I decline plastic straws and avoid plastic-wrapped anything when I have other options. I know it’s not enough. It’s a pathetic drop in the plastic-filled ocean.

I was in Italy recently, where this year a law was put into effect mandating the use of eco-friendly biodegradable and compostable single-use shopping bags for fruit, vegetables and baked goods. The bags feel less flimsy than plastic and they’re reusable for all kinds of other purposes, but they won’t take 1,000 years to decompose. Why aren’t we using these?

You could say, It’s highly unlikely mankind will still be here in 1,000 years, so what does it matter? I don’t know about you, but I just can’t go down that road. We know from experience that the effects of pollution can be reversed — ask anyone who remembers the filthy rivers and smoggy skylines of our major cities before the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and pre-EPA intervention in the early 1970s.

Is this particular hill the hill I want to die on? Well, we’re all going to die sometime, but yes, I would rather die now on this lush, grassy knoll than later on a massive landfill heap. If you and I, passionate boaters, are not the stewards of our sea, who will be? Check out The Natural Resources Defense Council (nrdc.org) to help.

Next month, we will return to our regularly scheduled programming. And in the meantime, let’s all get out there and appreciate our gorgeous oceans.

This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue.