COMMENTARY: We need to talk about plastic

This past June, the Delaware Center for Inland Bays held its annual Inland Bays Clean-Up. Once again, it was a fantastic event. Over 60 people joined us to hop on boats, zip around the Bays, and explore their shores to pick up over half a ton of trash!

The sun was bright, the temperature was perfect, and it was a beautiful day! What was not so beautiful? The sheer amount of plastic we recovered from the shores of our Inland Bays.

Sure, we picked up other items: lost shoes, lumber, shotgun shells, beer cans, etc. But throughout the day, I was shocked by the sheer amount of plastic that I found: food wrappers, shopping bags, straws, water and soda bottles, bread clips, balloons, foam cups and containers (foam being made of petroleum-based plastic). It. was. all. there.

If you’ve participated in any clean-up events before, this is hardly news. Plastic is ubiquitous in our culture of convenient, single use, plastic wrapped products. We even put in in our facial cleansers and wash it down our drains … although this will thankfully soon be a thing of the past.

Unlike paper and plant-based trash, plastics, by comparison, take much longer to break down — and may never fully go away.

According to NOAA, “Plastics will degrade into small pieces until you can’t see them anymore…[but] most commonly used plastics do not mineralize [break down completely] in the ocean and instead break down into smaller and smaller pieces. We call these pieces ‘microplastics’…”

Microplastics are harmful to wildlife and can even leach chemicals into the water. (CC)

These plastics are much more than an eyesore. Whether they are ingested or merely floating in the water, these rogue plastics can harm wildlife in our Inland Bays. A 2017 article published by UDaily, about the effects of marine micro plastics in neighboring Delaware Bay, explains: “[Marine plastics] can concentrate contaminants such as organic pollutants and metals, and serve as vectors for these contaminants throughout the food web.

So what can you and I do about it?

Sure, I do my best to recycle — but I’m still buying that bottle and then discarding it — albeit into a slightly better place. But we all could be doing better. Here are a few tips to keep in mind that will reduce plastic consumption in your life and help protect our local waterways and keep plastic out of the habitats (and mouths) of our beautiful wildlife:

Sorry to burst your – erm – balloon… (CC)

•Buy a reusable water bottle. Carry it with you to fill up on the go.

•Use a reusable grocery bag. Then repurpose old plastic ones as trash bags or for kitty litter duty.

•Choose products with less plastic packaging. This one’s tricky, but it’s worthwhile to look for paper packaging, avoid putting loose produce in plastic bags, and perhaps try heading to a farmer’s market to avoid pre-packaged produce altogether.

•Say “no” to plastic straws and utensils. Instead, plan to use real utensils when you get home. You might even consider carrying foldable camping utensils in your purse or car for use in a pinch.

•Invest in some reusable sandwich and snack bags. Pro tip: Sew your own baggies from old clothes and velcro, or loose buttons!

•Stop using balloons! Sure they’re fun, but not only do they not break down, if they get loose or wind up in the water, they can choke or strangle marine life and birds.

Katie Young is with the Delaware Center for Inland Bays. For more information, visit www.inlandbays.org.

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