SARANAC LAKE — How much plastic have you come into contact with today?
“The key is that we’re producing a lot plastic waste,” Michael Michael Trumbower, school programs coordinator for the Wild Center said Thursday in a talk at the Saranac Lake Free Library. “Ending up in the ocean through streams, through wind, through being discarded — but also through having recycling facilities that may not be able to deal with the load of recycling, or landfills that may have that plastic then blow away and end up in the ocean.”
Trumbower said the purpose of his talk Thursday at the Saranac Lake Free Library was to suggest ways forward, from individual and community levels to reduce the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans overall.
How it gets there, what happens
Most plastic in the ocean comes from the coast, Trumbower said.
“Most of the plastic ending up in the ocean isn’t necessarily people taking their water bottle and just throwing it in the ocean and having it go from there,” Trumbower said. “A lot of this is by accident. A lot of it is mismanagement, and ends up there just based on the pure volume of plastic we use in our everyday life.”
The rest comes from commercial vessels, cruise ships, and the shipping of goods around the planet.
Once the plastic is in the ocean, some of it floats — some of it sinks. What remains on the surface breaks down into smaller and more fragile pieces, Trumbower said.
“The really big factor to breaking down plastic is sunlight. Sunlight photo-degrades. It breaks it apart. It’s like plastic getting a sunburn. The bits of plastic will break off into pieces,” Trumbower said. “permeating the ocean and finding their way into the food web at multiple levels.”
Affecting animals, affecting us
While an animal may not perceive a small piece of plastic as food, it might once the plastic becomes coated with, for example, some kind of algae. This is essentially breading around an inedible core, Trumbower said.
“You have microbes around this piece of plastic,” Trumbower said. “Then plankton, like copepods, eat those microbes, and you get more pieces of plastic within the copepod.”
Small fish eat the copepods, with plastic microparticles spreading through the food web, “ultimately, possibly getting to us if we’re eating things like shellfish or such that are filter feeding other organisms out of the water as well,” Trumbower said.
Recycling is not an easy answer the problem. The U.S. used to ship millions of tons of its recyclables to China, and was hardly unique in that regard. About half of the world’s plastics had been sent to China for recycling since the United Nations Comtrade Database began recording in 1992.
However, to curb emissions and increase air and water quality within China, the country adopted the National Sword policy, effective Jan. 1 2018, severely cutting down on the recyclables it would accept.
“But that also leaves countries like the U.S., where we’ve been sending plastic elsewhere for recycling — we have a lot of extra plastic that we then have to figure out how to recycle ourselves,” Trumbower said.
According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, 92.2 percent less plastics have been exported to China — from 280,850 metric tons in April 2017, to 27,679 in April 2018.
This has had global shockwaves, including here in New York. Waste Dive, which tracks solid waste and recycling news, reported that recycling programs in the state are being cut back and losing money. It cited reporting like that out of the Watertown Daily Times in June 2018 — that St. Lawrence County sustained a $127,000 budget shortfall because of higher recycling costs.
Trumbower said that if recycling may not be the way to go about it, the solution may come down to the lesser known, fourth ‘R’ of the old “reduce reuse recycle” mantra — refuse.
According to the Deep-Sea Database, a collection of videos and photos from 5,010 dives from research surveys over the past 30 years, 89 percent of the plastic in the ocean depths comes from single-use plastics.
The key, Trumbower said, is to refuse single-use plastics. He brought a collection of long-term alternatives to the Cantwell Room of the library: durable plastic bottles, containers for liquids and leftovers and reusable produce bags to use when grocery shopping.
“There are so many different ways to attack this, and ways to innovate,” Trumbower said, “going back to a way where we weren’t using plastic to everything.”
On a consumer level, he cited efforts by Saltwater Brewery in Florida, which sells its six-packs in biodegradable, edible barley and wheat ribbon rings, and Adidas’ line of Ultraboost sneakers made of 95 percent ocean plastic.
“While it may be great for me to have my reusable bag — I’m just one person,” Trumbower said. “We at the Wild Center and at the (New England Aquarium), like to think of working with a community to enact larger change.”
He pointed to school cafeterias changing over from plastic utensils to metal, and instituting recycling programs in the area.
“So not all of the issues that they’re tackling affect plastics, but many of them do, and maybe on a local scale have global consequences,” Trumbower said. “That’s what we can do, if we work as a community, whether it’s with your family, towns, state, community of faith and so on. We can have larger impacts.”