Breaking Bad – Habits

 
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CAPTION: Micro-plastics wash up on beaches around the world depending on ocean currents. The most common being blue, white, and green pieces because they blend in with the water. Brighter colors are often eaten by fish and birds.

by Adam Mehan

With each passing day we see news articles, videos, and headlines about our environment taking a nose-dive—animal poaching, global warming, extinction, unsustainable commercial fishing practices, and plastic pollution. Humans have treated our planet with little to no respect for far too long. We’re facing some of the most terrifying and problematic issues ever known to mankind.

So, how can we make a difference? Small changes made by many can have a big impact. Our plastic consumption is something we can address right now just by making different decisions on products we use on a daily basis. You can find recommendations at the end of this article to help reduce the amount of plastic waste you contribute to our environment.

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The Price of Convenience

Items like plastic bags, plastic produce bags, plastic straws and utensils are given out automatically in the name of “good customer service” and only used for a few minutes. Day after day we waste millions of plastic bottles and coffee cups because they’re convenient. It will take each individual item an estimated 150-500 years or longer to break down, depending on the type of plastic.  

In the U.S. we dispose of 1,500 plastic bottles per second—approximately 50 billion per year. Despite being among the easiest products to recycle, they only make their way into a recycling bin 23% of the time. This means 38 billion bottles are thrown in the garbage or elsewhere each year. This accounts for more than 1 billion dollars in wasted plastic. Producing new plastic requires 17 million barrels of oil annually, that amount can power 190,000 homes and fuel 1.3 million cars. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A), the U.S. uses 12 million barrels of oil annually to produce the 380 billion plastic bags which are only recycled 1% of the time. The average family will use 60 plastic bags every four trips to the grocery store. That is a tremendous amount of waste each year, considering an easy solution is to simply bring your own bags.

When it was first introduced, plastic—a lightweight and durable new material—was a revolutionary invention. However, the characteristics that made plastic so revolutionary are the same that cause it to be so destructive to our environment. The lightweight material often blows around when the weather picks up, settling in our green spaces and waterways and its enhanced durability means it will last hundreds of years. Over time, as it is exposed to the elements, plastic will break down into smaller and smaller pieces, creating microplastics, but will never biodegrade. As that breakdown occurs, chemicals begin to leach out into the environment. Wildlife will then ingest the often brightly colored microplastics, mistaking it for food. This can lead to starvation or chemical poisoning as their stomachs fill with plastic.

Microplastics are also finding their way onto our plates. They’re found in our seafood, in dust particles, and in our water. Orb Media, an independent journalism organization, conducted a study spanning 11 bottled water companies and found that 93% of bottled water tested contained microplastics. Recently, microplastics were found in human excrement and a French study found evidence that human remains are now decomposing at a slower rate due to chemicals ingested throughout a lifetime of plastic exposure.

This is our wake-up call. The plastic industry is planning a 30% increase by 2025, which means the cycle will continue if we don’t put a stop to this. The good news? We’ve become more aware of this growing problem and sustainable alternatives are becoming more readily available.

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The Local Impact

The Rozalia Project, conducted in 2014, found that over 7 billion pieces of marine debris potentially exists along Lake Champlain’s shoreline weighing as much as 5.5 tons. Out of the top three types of marine debris cataloged, microplastic and plastic sheeting/tape came in second and third to another environmental offender, microfoam. The highest concentration of these materials exist in the waters and shorelines surrounding both Plattsburgh and Burlington.

The way that we consume single-use plastic has led to a global garbage nightmare. It's time we become aware of our actions and take steps towards change. We have reached a point where, for both the environment and many species—on land and in the sea—it’s judgement day. Humans have become robotic in the way we consume single-use plastic. Over time, we’ve developed bad habits that are contributing to the destruction of our green areas along with our rivers, lakes, and oceans. But, bad habits can be broken.

Recommended Alternatives

Here are a list of alternative products I personally use and can recommend that could help you reduce the amount of plastic waste you produce. As more and more people become aware of the issues we’re facing, we’ll see this industry grow and more products available for purchase.

Water bottles:
Personally, I am a fan of the stainless-steel, double walled, insulated option. They keep your drinks cool in the summer and warm during our cold winters. There are many options out there ranging in price and size—from the 30 oz, $34.99 Yeti Rambler to the 10 oz, $14.99 Batman option from S’ip for kids and some adults. There are always new companies popping up. I personally prefer Hydroflask and Yeti. I do use Miir and Klean Kanteen, but only for my coffee and warm beverages. Glass bottles with silicone wrapping and a bamboo lid are an even more sustainable option, however, they don’t offer the insulation like other bottles. Nalgene bottles have been around forever and are another great option as well.

Coffee Cups/ Iced Coffee:    
Reusable stainless-steel insulated cups, again, are my go-to. Generally running anywhere from $20-$30 for name brands (HydroFlask, Yeti, Miir, Klean Kanteen, S’ip and S’well). There are also options for as low as $9.99 if you don’t mind the knock off, which often works just as well. If you’re a daily coffee drinker, you should be able to recoup that cost in a short amount of time. Many chains offer a $.10 discount if you bring your own reusable mug. Locally, the Bagel Pit only charges $1.00 per coffee when you bring your cup. Cheaper options made from ceramic, glass, and plastic are also available. In a pinch, you can choose to use a paper cup. Really in a bind? Try ordering a medium beverage in a large cup and skip the lid. Just make sure you drive carefully. This goes for your iced coffee, too. Check out this reusable glass tumbler option from Amazon.

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Plastic bags:
Simply don’t take them. Often they are given out automatically. If you were able to carry your purchase to the register, you ought to be able to carry it out. Otherwise, get a reusable bag. Another option is to make one out of an old shirt. Paper bags are an OK option if you’ve forgotten your reusable bags. They are very easy to recycle or can also be reused.

Produce bags:  
As you spend more time trying to limit the plastic in your life, eventually you’ll begin to notice just how much is out there. Produce bags are first on the list of unnecessary plastic products. They serve only to transport your fruits or veggies from your cart to the conveyor belt. That is it. After that it is placed into another bag and then brought home.

Many fruits and vegetables have a natural “bag.” Onions, bananas, mangoes, avocados, pineapple, papaya, all citrus fruit, garlic—each has an outer layer which protects the edible fruit within and must be peeled before eating.

What about germs you ask? I assume you’re speaking of the truly deadly germs at the bottom of the shopping cart? Let’s not forget about the hundreds, if not thousands of miles your produce has traveled to end up in your grocery store of choice. Couple that journey with the number of times it has been felt for ripeness, you may be in for an alarming surprise about the cleanliness of your pepper. You should always wash your produce to protect from chemicals and germs.

What about items like Brussels sprouts and green beans that are loose? Reusable produce bags can be purchased online or in some stores. Bakery bags are also an option as they are almost always made from paper. You also have the option to skip the bag. Not ideal, but it works.

Straws:
Almost always provided automatically, straws have gotten a lot of attention this past year. Plastic straws make up a significant percentage of marine waste. Simply ask for your drink without one. Straws also come in many alternatives like metal, paper, silicone, bamboo, and collapsable, making it easy to take with you.

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Plastic Utensils:
Single-use plastic utensils are often provided in take-out bags. Make it a point to only take them if necessary. Alternatives can be brought with you anywhere in the form of metal utensils from home or these bamboo travel options you can keep with you on the go. You can get kits online and at the local North Country Food Co-op in the back room.

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Plastic Wrap:  
Beeswax cloth works surprisingly well and can be found online and at our local North Country Food Co-op. Made by covering cotton fabric with beeswax—it’s reusable as long as it’s washed using cold water.

To-go Containers:
This suggestion may be a little more on the ambitious side. We have become so accustomed to take-out boxes, we likely haven’t even considered an alternative. It can be very expensive for local businesses to transition to cleaner products. The easiest solution is to bring your own reusable containers if you expect to be bringing home leftovers.  

Plastic Storage Bags:
A bit on the bulky side, but I prefer reusable tupperware style containers. Reusable ziplock bags are also an option.

If you are interested in learning more about the impact plastic is having on our environment, here’s a list of resources:

Documentary: A Plastic Ocean

Podcasts: The Kyle Thiermann show, Ep. 133, Plastic Pollution, Stiv Wilson

Companies Committed to Making a Difference:

Outerknown: Started as a men’s clothing company committed to sustainability. Their first women’s line was just released this month. Shopping tip: wait for the end of season sales, and they almost always have 20% off coupons online!

Patagonia: With deep roots in minimalism, Patagonia is the gold standard for companies working to lessen their carbon footprint. Their commitment to being an environmentally responsible company is making headlines. They quite literally are the “O.G.” of sustainability.

4 Ocean: This amazing organization sells bracelets made from post-consumer waste and reusable bottles to fund their massive ocean clean-ups.

Billabong: Billabong recently committed to making all of their board shorts from here on out using textiles made out of recycled plastic bottles.

Roxy: Roxy, like Billabong, is doing the same with their new Pop line.