Volker Nobbe, an old friend from Switzerland, came to mind on our recent trip through the SE quadrant of the country, for years ago on one of his trips to the States he continually shook his head in disgust at the amount of roadside trash he found here. He then surprised us on a road trip through Switzerland when he suddenly pulled off onto the shoulder somewhere between Basel and Bern to exclaim: “Look! No trash!” His arms were raised as if encompassing the breadth of the small country. “Our highways are clean! We Swiss have pride for our country!”
Classic Volker! He would have lost his voice on our recent trip along the “plastic trail” through Iowa and Kansas, down to Texas, across to Savanna, and eventually up to Richmond and back, for we hardly drove a single mile in the 5,500 without seeing some form of plastic trash. So many single use grocery carryouts caught in weeds and branches that the possibility of counting them was useless. Drink containers flipped from cars and trucks. Occasionally there were even garbage bags with refuge laying in the median or along the shoulder. It was such a mess that we had to ask: “Can we ever do away with our dependence on plastics?” And I’m not even talking about plastic straws.
Sometimes I wonder. This morning at the local supermarket there were rolls upon rolls of pull-off single-use thinly manufactured bags throughout the produce section to conveniently use for tomatoes, grapefruit, avocados and other unpackaged fruits and vegetables. Further along the produce aisle were prepackaged leafy greens and salad mixes in plastic tubs or bags. In the coolers across the way all the cheeses and other dairy-based products were in plastic containers. Skin tight, shrink-wrapped or in tubs and cartons. All the meats were nestled flat in Styrofoam trays covered with tightly sealed plastic wrap. Breads and spices? Same thing.
Check out the convenience stores, bait shops and the big box stores. Several weeks ago some of us volunteered to package take home goods for needy students at school. Using what? Single use plastic bags donated to the cause.
You can’t get away from plastic, it seems. Or, can you?
“I thought it was bad only in the oceans,” I said at one point, recalling images of a huge “island” of floating plastics floating somewhere in the vast Pacific. Estimates say that every single day approximately eight million pieces of plastic pollution find its way into our oceans. There may now be around 5.25 trillion macro and micro-plastic pieces floating in the open ocean. Weighing up to 269,000 tons. The United Nations Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution (GESAMP) estimates that land-based sources account for up to 80 percent of the world’s marine pollution … with 60 to 95 percent of the waste being plastics debris.
Its no better on terra firma. In Ohio, state employees, inmates and Adopt A Highway volunteers took more than 157,000 hours to collect 396,000 bags of roadside trash, including plastics in 2018. That’s 19,723 full work days that cost Ohio taxpayers $4.1 million. Alabama litter crews gathered more than 113 tons of roadside litter in the Tuscaloosa area in 2019, according to reports. If the litter were measured in plastic bottles, it would stretch from Tuscaloosa to Dallas “with a few miles to spare,” said John McWilliams, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Transportation’s West Central Region. The state’s costs to clean up roadside litter reached $200,000 in Tuscaloosa County alone, and $6.8 million statewide.
And in Washington state, a two-year study by the state’s DOT disposed of 6,075 tons of litter and debris from major roadsides across the state. The Department of Ecology estimates another 4,400 tons were collected on state and county roads at the same time.
Sea or land. We’re making a damned mess of it. In fact, we might be choking our existence with plastic debris.
What is being done about it? Not much. Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New York and Vermont have passed laws banning disposable bags that are set to go into effect in 2020 or 2021. Interestingly, more state legislatures, including Minnesota, have passed laws “banning the ban” of single-use plastic bags than those that have regulated against using them. South Dakota just narrowly defeated a bill that would have banned the one-use plastics before reconsidering. Rather than a narrow vote the “ban on the ban” overwhelming passed the second time through from both parties and it is now in front of the SD governor, Kristi Noem, for her signature.
It seems rather apparent that if we humans want to live in a world unchoked by single use plastics we’ll have to do it ourselves. One person at a time. And this isn’t the seemingly silly plastic straw brigade. We won’t wean ourselves totally off plastics, but we can significantly reduce our dependence. That said, I’ll admit to not being perfect for, yes, although I typically carry cloth or nylon bags to the grocery when I shop, there are times I forget and leave them in the car. My bags came from a promotion to join the Sierra Club a few years back, and they’re much roomier than the cloth bags I had previously used and much easier to stuff in a pocket going into the store.
My use of cloth or nylon bags dates back several years, and follows a trip I had made to Sweden. And, later to Germany. In both countries I found most shoppers were bringing their own reusable cloth and woven plastic bags to carry home their groceries. Indeed, our local food co-op installed pegs for extra cloth bags volunteered by members for those who didn’t have them. Recently I asked a former exchange student who now lives and works in Berlin if the use of “carry in” bags was still in practice. Apparently it is. “Either we place groceries in our backpacks or use cloth bags we bring to the store. For vegetables we use the mesh bags that used to be used in former East Germany,” she said.
This prompted me to order mesh bags for that very purpose since I’m still pulling single-use bags off the roll for my grapefruit and avocados. To discard that convenient plastic, though, I use a trick taught to me by a South Korean exchange student, Jenyoung Hwang, who told me that in her country plastic bags were knotted to prevent them from blowing.
Beyond the single-use plastic, there are other excellent ideas. A friend carries a reusable square of aluminum foil in her purse for take home from restaurants, while a woman I know in Colorado actually carries a sandwich-sized, lid-locking Tupperware container in her purse for the same purpose. Both are great ideas. If only I had a purse!
Water and coffee drinkers can use refillable containers. The ideas and lists of alternatives to plastic use continue to grow. And, this is what it will take … one person, one step at a time. The plastic problem is all around us; single use, lightweight bags blowing free in the wind, water and juice containers being flipped from cars and trucks, a random garbage bag that has perhaps fallen en route to the dump or dumpster, cigarette butts and yes, perhaps even straws. It would be ridiculous to suggest we can ever live plastic free, and that isn’t my point.
We can certainly reduce our dependence on plastics, especially single use bags. For what we observed along the highways on our trip was mostly avoidable — beyond just being sloppy. It takes some initiative, and certainly some perseverance, to change to more earth friendly habits. I’m game, and hope you are as well. For I would love to calm ol’ Volker down!