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ON THE SCENE: Getting beyond plastics to save the Earth

July 26, 2019
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

The fish of the world are drowning in oceans filled with plastic.

Fourteen billion pounds of trash, mostly comprised of plastic, is dumped in the oceans every year. By 2025, for every three pounds of fish in the oceans, there will be one pound of plastic. If plastic packaging is not drastically reduced, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans by weight than fish.

The Garden Club of Lake Placid and the Adirondack Garden Club co-hosted the presentation, "Plastics, the trash that will not go away," by Judith Enck, former regional EPA administrator and adjunct professor at Bennington College - held Wednesday afternoon, Tuesday, July 16, at the Lake Placid Conference Center. Breakout sessions followed Enck's talk. Attendees were invited to devise strategies for reducing the use of plastic by residents of our region, local businesses and local and state government officials.

Article Photos

Here are Debbie Rice, who organized the breakout sessions, Carol Blakeslee-Collin, co-chair of the Adirondack Garden Club Conservation Committee, and speaker Judith Enck, former regional EPA administrator, adjunct professor at Bennington College, and founder of Beyond Plastics.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Garden clubs tackling environmental issues is not new. Back in 1982, clubs across New York state worked to pass the bottle bill that tacked on a nickel deposit to the cost of each beverage container. The outcome of the collective effort is that today, 77 percent of beer and 68 percent of soft drink containers are recycled.

Enck began by asking the more than 100 people attending to raise their hands if they didn't want little bits of micro-plastic entering their body and if they wanted fewer toxic chemicals used to create consumer products. All agreed. Enck said the bad news is plastic pollution is a giant public environmental and health threat that very few people are addressing. She said the good news is that people can have an impact on reducing the scope of the problem.

Enck is the founder of "Beyond Plastics," a project she developed in 2018 with Bennington students and community leaders around the country to reduce plastic pollution. Enck outlined the scope of the problem saying the bulk of the plastic comes from litter that enters through storm drains into rivers that empty into the oceans. Gaining attention of late are islands of floating plastic such as the Great North Pacific Garbage Gyre, a spinning mass of plastic and other garbage that has grown to three times the size of France.

Massive though this and other large gyres located in the Indian, North and South Atlantic oceans, South Pacific, and the Mediterranean Sea are they represent a small amount of the plastic in the oceans. Enck said that the vast majority of plastic entering the ocean is ground up by wave actions and settling on the ocean floor. There, the plastic pieces never go away; they pile up and get smaller.

Increasingly, the bits of plastic become consumed by plankton, the tiny plants, and animals at the base of the ocean food chain. The animals that consume plankton, from clams and mussels to shrimp and herring, to tuna and whales, are ingesting plastic and passing it on to us. We also consume plastic through the table salt we sprinkle on our food, 90 percent of which contains microplastics.

The amount of plastic in the oceans is devastating wildlife. A sea turtle found off Hawaii had more than 1,000 pieces of plastics in its intestines, and another with a plastic straw lodged deep in one nostril. Fulmars, a seabird, have been found to have more than 30 pieces of plastic in their stomachs. The U.N. has documented more than 660 different species that have been directly impacted by plastic. Illustrating the problem with a YouTube video this past May, famed Mexican chef Richardo Zurita, pulled many bottle caps, pieces of a plastic comb, and other trash out of a large fish's digestive system he had been preparing to cook.

Enck said that she's not against all plastic, but that the bulk of the plastic in the oceans is single-use plastics, with the lead three being plastic bags, straws and the use of Styrofoam. Others include the tiny plastic clips used attach labels to clothing and plastic storage bags used for food or to protect laundry coming back from the dry cleaners. Single-use plastic also includes food wrap, plastic bottles, cups, coffee lids, plates and utensils, and takeout containers.

Plastics are made from fossil fuels, for many years from oil, but now increasingly from ethylene, a waste product from hydrofracking. Currently, ethylene cracker facilities are being built at a rapid rate across the United States, which will drive down the cost of single-use plastic leading to expanded use if not checked, said Enck. Two hundred and fifty cracker plants have been proposed for construction in the United States, she warned.

"Your personal choices are essential, but they're not enough," said Enck. "We need all of you to jump in on this issue. We don't have a lot of time to solve it." She pointed out that when people use takeout food, the plastic bag, cups, straws and utensils will be around for centuries if not longer for a lunch people eat in 5 or 10 minutes. Furthermore, any food or beverage in a plastic container, most especially if the food or drink is warm, absorbs a bit of the plastic we then ingest.

"We cannot recycle our way out of this problem," said Enck. "We need to change the paradigm. We need to get companies to change the way they package their products. We need to work together on the local level to reduce plastic packaging."

She urged people to start by reducing the use of single-use plastic bags and straws and Styrofoam containers at home, in their civic organizations, by business, and to advocate for laws that end the single-use plastics.

Attendees were divided into groups, one taking on government and another business action, and two addressing consumer action. They were given 40 minutes to develop practical strategies, and then report out. The room was abuzz, and a multitude of approaches were proposed which the garden clubs gathered up to evaluate, prioritize, and work on.

"I was impressed by the turnout," said Lake Placid High School Environmental Club adviser Tammy Morgan. "I think this was a great fit for the garden clubs. I was excited to see so many people working together collaboratively and coming up with many very different unique ideas for tackling single-use plastics."

"I would like to see Essex County pass legislation to end single-use plastics," said Linda Friedlander, president of the Lake Placid Garden Club. "I think a lot of people are now willing to help in the effort because we had a lot more than discussion. I think the breakout groups were very successful. My only disappointment was so few local political leaders attended. We have to stop being the throwaway nation."



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