By Berri Moffett, Conservation Specialist, Houston Audubon
Everyone wants clean water to drink and air to breathe. All of us want natural areas free from trash, rivers and streams to swim in and fish in, and beautiful beaches with turquoise waves. We also enjoy modern conveniences and safe food, medical and personal safety (like masks and gloves), and a giant inflatable unicorn in those ocean waves. Much of the time we achieve the second list of goals through use of plastics. The problem with plastics is that they take an extremely long time to break down in the environment; when they do break down, they can release toxic chemicals, and in between they are actively causing harm and death to humans, plants, and animals worldwide.
But we need plastics for a lot of things.
It’s true! Some of the most important medical and technological advancements in the world depend on plastics. Most plastics are made from petrochemicals, which we have a finite supply of in the world. If we want to keep a supply for the most critical plastic use, we will have to make changes to our current rate of depletion.
I recycle all my plastic!
Unfortunately, in the US we are only able to currently recycle about 5% of the plastic waste we generate. Even in the height of plastic recycling, we only managed about 9.5%, and much of that was going overseas. China recently stopped taking plastic waste from the US, but we still send a lot of it to other countries – where it might not be recycled at all.
Wish-cycling is a newer term you might hear, where we diligently sort our plastics into our recycling bin, maybe we even wash them and remove the labels, without actually knowing if our waste removal service is able to handle the material. This unfortunately doesn’t count as recycling and can hinder the recycling of allowed materials. As you probably also have heard, recycling is impacted by other garbage entering the recycling stream – often from well-meaning people trying to keep things out of the landfill.
EPA Plastics: Material-Specific Data
Smithsonian Article: At Least 85 Percent of U.S. Plastic Waste Went to Landfills in 2021
Watch the Frontline episode “Plastic Wars” from March 2020
I heard that corporations are the cause of most pollution, so why should I change?
More and more, we are becoming aware that some of the most prominent campaigns to encourage people to care for the planet were actually marketing efforts to divert attention away from corporate polluters. While industry of all kinds – be it the mills that make our paper, the mines for the metals in our computers, or the food processing plants that bring us our cereal – are a major cause of pollution worldwide, that doesn’t prevent us from taking personal action that can have a significant impact. This is especially true in cities like Houston with waterways that flow directly to the ocean.
ABC13: ‘It’s time to stop’: 700 bags of trash pulled from Buffalo Bayou each week
I have an adaptive need for a single use plastic.
You should be allowed access to that item without shame or conditions. ‘Plastic Free July’ is about identifying and getting rid of optional plastics. Adaptive items are not optional, and this is why we need to conserve the limited resources we have so we can provide these items for many decades into the future. We encourage you to find other types of plastic you might be able to reduce use of!
So what am I supposed to do?
Reduce: The best way to keep plastics from polluting the planet is to just not use them. This is especially true of single-use plastics like any form of styrofoam, water bottles, cling film, and zip-top bags. The less demand there is for the products, the less will be produced overall, so we won’t have to worry about where to put them! Buy alternate materials or at least reusable plastics. Please note that even “biodegradable” and “compostable” items may not actually break down in landfills, so using anything that is disposable should be avoided whenever possible.
NOAA Blog: How to Reduce Your Oil Consumption, Without Ditching Your Car
Reuse: Whenever possible and safe, reuse even “single-use” plastics. Wash out cottage cheese and yogurt containers to store other things instead of buying new plastic storage. Wash and reuse zip-top bags (ones with raw meat should be tossed for safety.) There are unending creative ideas on the internet for turning trash into treasure, just make sure you aren’t buying a bunch of other supporting plastics to make the craft happen!
DIY: Shrinky Dinks out of #6 plastic
Recycle: Don’t stop recycling, but know what you should put in the bin and be CLEAN about it! Houston has started doing spot-checks of their recycling bins and will issue a warning to you if you have disallowed materials. Check your municipal solid waste division for places you can take other materials like household paint, chemicals, motor oil, and tires. In the City of Houston, you can visit one of the solid waste transfer centers to drop off glass, plastic, tires, metals, cardboard, and newspaper.
City of Houston Curbside Recycling information
Earth911: Search a nationwide database of where to recycle specific materials
Clean-ups: Whether in your neighborhood park, your gutter, or on the beach, trash cleanup efforts can make a difference. The simplest thing is to help pick up a blown-over trash bin in your neighborhood even if it isn’t your trash. At a higher level, you can consider helping install a trash boom on a waterway or organize volunteers to clean the neighborhood section of the bayou after a storm.
SPLASh Texas is a multi-agency effort focused on Stopping Plastic and Litter Along Shorelines in the Houston-Galveston waterways
Texas Litter Database: Find cleanups, create your own cleanup, and record types of trash to contribute to community science
Join us for a trash cleanup Edith Moore Nature Sanctuary’s Rummel Creek on July 23rd!
Legislation: Supporting policies and directives like prohibiting balloon releases and rubber duck races, instituting a fee for single use plastic grocery bags, and expanding public transportation.
PBS Article: Canada to ban sale of single use plastics by end of 2023
Texas Tribune Article: Plastic bags are killing horses and cows across the state. What’s Texas to do?
Awareness: Don’t stop at helping to educate others, also think about adjacent actions we can take like carpooling and driving less, repairing items instead of buying new ones, reducing use of electricity and water, and supporting local businesses to reduce shipping of goods – just an overall effort to reduce our impact on the planet and help others do the same.
Learn how washing clothes in cold water saves energy.
EPA: Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Some of the information can be discouraging and overwhelming, but you are not alone and you don’t have to be perfect at every action. It’s a huge task, but we can work together to ensure the future of our city, our wildlife, our health, and our planet.
Consider joining our Plastic Free Houston Facebook group to meet like-minded people, find more resources, and discover new actions you can take! You can learn more and find out what Houston Audubon is doing on our website.
“The problem with plastics is that they take an extremely long time to break down; when they do, they can release toxic chemicals, and in between they are actively causing harm and death to humans, plants, and animals worldwide.”Tweet