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Plastics have major impact on our environment

One thing that distinguishes human beings from other species, according to human beings anyway, is our use of tools. There are a few other animals that use primitive tools, but they are quite limited in number and scope.

We, on the other hand, are so damn smart! Not only did we invent shovels, we used them to dig up stuff that could power the shovels so we didn’t have to hurt our feet anymore. We found fossil fuels and ushered in the Age of Oil.

Sometimes shovels break. For the last two months, we’ve watched oil spew from the ruptured seabed in the Gulf of Mexico. The media has focused on this unfolding event and the blame game is in full swing. Everyone would like things to get back to normal. Even the CEO of BP said he would like his life back.

For a moment, let’s assume that the shovel did not break and the oil, rather than spewing forth uncontrollably into the sea, was instead sent to a refinery and turned into “useful products.” Roughly 80 percent of the oil is burned as gasoline and other fuels to move people and stuff around. The rest is used in thousands of ways to make millions of household items: everything from tires to deodorant and from crayons to bubble gum. Many of those things are made from another byproduct of captured oil: plastic.

Just about everything made from oil still ends up “out there” in the environment. Burned fuel releases millions of tons of carbon (dioxide and monoxide), sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, volatile organic compounds, particulates, etc. Almost all the other stuff eventually gets thrown “away” (which is nice, except that there really is no “away”). What we collectively think of as “away” are usually either landfills, incinerators that send it into the atmosphere or the oceans. Plastic is especially insidious because it lasts almost forever.

The point of all of this is that when we release stored carbon from within the earth, there are always consequences. A big oil leak gets a lot of attention but the day-to-day impacts of using oil products are barely noticed, even though in the end they still pollute our environment. Our homes act as a conduit for a lot of plastic that is also having a major impact on the ocean.

Plastic doesn’t biodegrade but it does break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Our oceans are becoming a mix of plastic soup and it’s entering the food chain from the bottom up. No one has documented this more poignantly than photographer Chris Jordan (chrisjordan.com). In “Midway: Message From the Gyre,” his heart-wrenching photographs show the impact of our throwaway society on thousands of albatross chicks.

There’s no such thing as organic wild-caught fish anymore. Everything has been contaminated. It can’t be cleaned up. Can we honestly say that this is any better than what’s happening in the Gulf? The best we can do, what we must do, is to stop the contamination from getting worse.

So much of what we buy and bring home is either made of or packed in plastic. Reducing our use of plastic is a priority and then we must recycle what we do use.

For example, if you haven’t done so already, please stop using plastic bags at the supermarket. Get some sturdy cloth bags that can be reused over and over. I keep several in my car and they’ve lasted for years, and I have smaller reusable bags for veggies and fruit.

Buy in bulk when you can. Look for products that minimize packaging or that use green options.

A company called Be Green Packaging manufactures high-quality compostable packaging that has a Cradle to Cradle certification. It may not be common yet, so talk to your store manager about it.

We all have a voice and together we can influence businesses to make more responsible decisions to reinforce the ones we’re learning to make every day.

Steve Rypka is a green living consultant and president of GreenDream Enterprises, a company committed to helping people live lighter on the planet. Steve can be reached via e-mail at steve@greendream.biz. More information relating to this column is posted at www.greendream.biz.

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