by David Prescott, South County Coastkeeper
Plastics have dominated environmental conversations lately. They litter our beaches, pollute our oceans and Bays, contaminate our drinking water. Plastics are everywhere—from our cell phones, to our sunglasses, to our cars, to our homes. Plastics have made our lives easier. However, all plastics eventually break down into smaller and smaller pieces that get mistaken for food by wildlife, attract toxins, and contaminate our water and food supplies. Or they just fill up our landfills. While the plastic issue can be overwhelming, we can do a lot as individuals and as a community.
But sometimes, trying to make the right decision about what to do, how to help, is challenging, and sometimes, even decisions that seem right at first end up potentially being the wrong one. Like trying to unravel the differences between recyclable, compostable and biodegradable. With so many eco-friendly options out there, things can get confusing.
Most of us have been doing it for decades. We take our glass bottles, aluminum cans, plastic containers, and newspapers, magazines, and junk mail and toss them into the recycling bin. From there they are sent to a recycling facility, where they are sorted. For more info on what, exactly, we should be recycling, check out the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation’s website at www.rirrc.org.
These products sound great on the surface. Biodegradable basically means that the product is capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms, and they should be placed in the garbage. However, not all landfills have the bacteria and microorganisms necessary to help break down that product within a reasonable time period.
Compostable products are becoming more and more popular. However, in order to be broken down into the organic matter that makes them so attractive, they have to be sent to an industrial composting facility, which operates at very high temperatures to help break down the compost. You cannot recycle compostable products; a landfill will not break down compostable products; and most backyard composters do not get hot enough to turn them into organic matter.
So, what’s the best option for the environment and our local waters?
BRING YOUR OWN. Whether it is a refillable water bottle, coffee mug, stainless steel straw, canvas shopping bag, or bamboo utensils, each one of these options can be used over and over and over. No filling up trash cans and landfills. No breaking down into tiny plastic pieces. The possibilities for reusable products in place of disposable are endless. And many local businesses have stepped up and have started selling them.
You may be asking, what’s the problem with one extra plastic straw out there? Well, last year alone, Save The Bay and our volunteers collected over 4,500 straws during International Coastal Cleanup in Rhode Island (over 643,000 straws were collected worldwide during the event)—and these were just the straws littering the ground. Imagine how many are taking up space in our landfills! Refusing a straw at your local watering hole can be one small decision that can have a huge impact on the health of our local waters and the animals that live there.
Finally, stay tuned for the launch of our Bay-Friendly Businesses program. We are recognizing restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and other establishments that made the important decisions to protect our environment by eliminating straws, styrofoam containers, plastics bags, and other single-use products in their establishments. Look for the Bay-Friendly Business seal on the window of your favorite spots. Together each one of us can help our local environment by making smart, informed decisions about the products that we purchase.