Welcome back to the saga of Plastic: the Plight of Pollution! In Part 1- The Plight of Plastics we discussed why plastic is a danger to the environment. Part 2- How Trash Travels explained how trash from one area of the world can migrate far from where it started and why this is problematic. In this segment, Think Globally Act Locally, we begin by spotlighting initiatives humans are already embarking on around the world to clean up our waterways. That is followed by a list of tips and tricks we can implement in our daily lives to minimize waste from single use plastics, one of the biggest culprits of waterway pollution. Let’s dive in!

Image I: This the Interceptor 002 in Malaysia that was engineered and built by The Ocean Cleanup, a Norwegian non-profit whose mission it is to rid our waterways of plastic. Photo courtesy of The ocean Cleanup.

Norwegian non-profit organization The Ocean Cleanup is undertaking some of the biggest engineering projects to date in an effort to rid our waterways of plastic. They have created the “Interceptor” and deployed it in the Cengkareng Drain in Indonesia and the Klang River in Malaysia which struggle with some of the largest population densities and trash accumulation in the world. The Interceptor uses a system of barriers and conveyor belts to siphon trash from river systems into their collection receptacle. In very polluted rivers, the Interceptor has been seen to extract up to 50,000 kg (about 110,231 lbs) of trash per day. The following video shows how this works in their Indonesian location

Their marine sector is working to clean up the giant trash patches that freckle our oceans, namely the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that resides in the gyre between Hawaii and California as seen in Image II. This is a patch of garbage stretching 1.6 million square kilometers (about 994,193 square miles, or about the size of Texas…twice) and holds somewhere between 1.15 million to 2.41 million tons of trash.

Image II: This is an image of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that can be found in the gyre between Hawaii and California.

To clean this up, The Ocean Cleanup have engineered the System 002, projected to roll out in 2021. It will be a system of multiple buoy walls and sinkers that hold up a net is attached to an underwater parachute. The components work with the natural forces of the currents and wind to passively collect trash, minimizing the labor hours necessary to operate it. Image III shows what this system will look like and how the forces will act upon it.

They have run two prototypes of this configuration, System 001 in 2018 and System 001/B in 2019. Through these two missions they noted that marine life was seemingly unaffected and boat traffic unimpeded by their work. In Video II, you can see what just ONE bag of trash collected during the System 001/B voyage included. The two prototypes informed the team well enough that they feel comfortable embarking on System 002, the hopeful, final iteration. The Ocean Cleanup claims that “After fleets of systems are deployed into every ocean gyre, combined with source reduction, The Ocean Cleanup projects to be able to remove 90% of ocean plastic by 2040.”

Image III: System configuration of The Ocean Cleanup’s System 001/B. Photo courtesy of The Ocean Cleanup.

Ninety percent is a huge amount of plastic and it will be amazing if The Ocean Cleanup can do this, but the important part of their message is that they cannot do it alone; source reduction has to happen. But what does that actually mean? It means that humans reduce their use of plastic by finding alternatives, conscientiously shopping and also through businesses minimizing their use of plastic in products and packaging. 

Clean up the world is not just an environmentalist’s mantra, it is a whole network of environmentalists coming together to….Clean up the world! Clean Up the World is a partner with the United Nations Environment Programme and they work to bring together an estimated 35 million volunteers from 133 countries across the globe who work together in their communities to care for the environment. In their 26 year history they have facilitated 46,205 clean up projects on 6 continents. These included cleaning up trash, removing invasive species, or planting native species to name a few. Using the link above, you can see what projects are being done close to your home town or learn how to organize your very own project!

These are all admirable acts undertaken by people to clean up our world and that is great! But, most of us won’t be engineering ground breaking technology or organize millions of people worldwide THAT IS OKAY! There are still countless ways  each of us can pitch in to do our part in cleaning up the oceans, and the best part is that most of it is preventative, meaning the trash will never even find its way there in the first place. 

Trash surrounds us, and it is very hard, if not, impossible, to get away from it. It is involved in almost every purchase we make, so being aware of the long term effects of what we decide to buy (and what it is wrapped in) is crucial to changing the way people think about our trash. The following tips and considerations have been compiled to help you navigate the world of trash and to help you make informed, conscious decisions every day. 

Restaurant Tips:

  1. Take a reusable container for leftovers instead of using the restaurants’.  
  2. Take a reusable straw so you do not need to use their plastic straws or if you don’t have a reusable straw…… Just skip it! 
  3. When going to fast food restaurants or gas stations, take your own reusable mug and skip the extra cup (make sure to know the size of your mug to tell the employees). If you don’t have a reusable mug, save a jar from your groceries. Spaghetti sauce jars or any other mason jar are great options (I use this method myself)!
  4. Skip the plastic utensils. There are fancy travel kits you can get that have spoons, forks, knives, even chopsticks, but you don’t have to buy those. Just take some silverware from your kitchen drawer when you leave to go eat!

Shopping Tips:

  1. Take reusable bags with you to bag your groceries so you do not have to use their plastic bags, or if you don’t have reusable bags, ask for paper. It recycles much easier and breaks down faster than plastic. This is especially important for produce. Instead of using the plastic bags they provide for each individual fruit or vegetable, you can take a reusable sack and limit a lot of plastic use.
  2. In this case, packaging matters! If you have a choice of products you can buy, choose a product that is packaged in paper or cardboard, as it is much easier to break down than plastic. For instance, choose powdered laundry detergent that comes in a box rather than liquid from a bottle. Body soap comes in shower gel plastic bottles or bar soap that is packaged in cardboard, so bar soap is more ecological. Some products come in glass or plastic bottles, by choosing glass, you are choosing a more readily recycled or reused packaging. 
  3. Replace some of your typical single use products with reusable products. For instance, cloth diapers can be cleaned and reused and reduces a lot of plastic in landfills that won’t break down. Tupperware containers or aluminum foil can be used for leftovers or lunches instead of plastic bags. Plastic disposable razors can be replaced by metal, reusable blades and toothbrushes are made that have a reusable handle so you only have to replace the head of the brush, reducing plastic waste potentially over an entire lifetime.
  4. Some items you can buy from bulk bins, such as cereals, nuts or candies instead of buying them packaged. Meats and cheeses can be bought from the deli counter at your grocery store or butchers. In each of these cases you can bring your own reusable containers from home to pick them up rather than relying on prepackaged products that often have plastic wrappers. Be sure to weigh your bins at the store before you fill them so you don’t overpay on your goodies.

General Life Decisions:

  1. Be Conscious. Be Conscientious. Be aware of the products AND their packaging you are buying and be sure you really want it to begin with. By limiting the amount of impulsive purchases we make, we minimize how much “junk” we create unnecessarily that we end up throwing away. Research the companies and stores you are supporting with your business. Support businesses that limit their own use of plastic and hold themselves to stringent environmentally protective standards and try to avoid those that cut corners or have lax “green” policies.
  2. Reuse product wrappers- jars, food containers from things like tubbed butter or sour cream. I personally keep all my jars and use them as storage containers for my arts and crafts materials and I also use jars for drinking glasses. I do not need to spend money buying glasses, and if one breaks, I just grab another from the groceries. Glass jars have A LOT of potential to be reused and are safe to do so.
  3. Participate in public clean-ups. Lots of protected areas like beaches, forests and even highways organize clean-ups. You can check their websites or call them for information. There are also many groups of people that volunteer for these clean-ups, such as Clean Up the World, a network in which you can organize your very own clean up in your neighborhood!
  4. You can compost your food scraps and yard waste. Composting is the breaking down of organic materials and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, we could decrease the trash that enters landfills by about 28% if everyone composted all of our food scraps. To learn how to get started composting at home, visit the Environmental Protection Agency.
  5. Of course, Recycle. If you live in an apartment building like me or if you live in a situation where recycling services are not possible, this link can provide you information on how to start a recycling program in your town and resources to help you create a recycling plan that fits in your lifestyle. If you do not know where your community’s recycling center is, this link will help you find recycling centers near you and provide you with even more information and resources about recycling practices around the world.
  6. Educate yourself and then spread that knowledge! Knowledge is power and being an informed member of society can help you make healthier decisions both for yourself and the rest of the world. Think Globally Act Locally.

But do NOT stop here. Get creative! If you have ideas on how to Reduce Your Use or innovative replacements for single use plastics, share them with us on our FaceBook!

Remember, that while recycling is helpful and a necessary component of cleaning up the Earth, this action alone will NOT fix the prolific accumulation of trash on the planet. We would not have to find trash solutions if we simply created less trash. We the humans of the Earth, need to actually REDUCE what we are producing and putting out in the world. As a consumer, you have a tremendous power to direct the way the market goes by supporting companies and products that are ecologically sustainable. However, choosing boxed laundry detergent instead of bottled does not stop companies from creating bottles. So there is one last thing you can do.

Please, take this time to write to your government officials asking for stricter, environmentally friendly laws. This can include (but is not limited to) putting limits on the kinds materials companies can use in their packaging or putting restrictions on how much waste a company can generate or to ensure there are sustainable options to manage trash in your town. Please read this article for information on how to contact and interact with your local officials

The government’s job is to cater to the needs of the people and cleaning up the Earth is among the most important issues that all of humanity is facing at this time. We are at a crucial point in what will someday be history, so it is important to make every voice heard, especially in these unprecedented times. 

Still feeling overwhelmed about this mounting situation? Remember you are not alone! The following resources and all of the resources embedded in this blog provide more information on how we as an integrated, global community can face the Plight of Pollution, together.

Zero Waste Initiative

Live Greener

51 Ways to Reduce Plastic Use or Completely Eliminate It

Waste Reduction Challenge

About the Author: Hi WonderWorld! I am Sam Couch and I am the Animal Exhibits Manager at WonderLab Museum. I have written A LOT about trash on our blog and some may wonder why. Growing up, I never noticed trash. Not because it wasn’t there, but because it was such a part of my everyday life it just didn’t register anymore. I didn’t realize how sad this was until I worked through my Bachelors of Science in Biology and Animal Behavior Certificate from Indiana University. Through my time there I did field work, labs, met scientists and environmentalists, and had really tough discussions with some very smart people. With every conversation, I noticed a little bit more trash until one day I started taking trash bags for what I would find on my hikes. The more I learned, the more I wanted to make a difference and these blog posts are my effort to help conservancy along. The more everyone knows, the more we notice these things and with that acknowledgment we also realize there is more that we can do. Keep learning, keep talking, and keep doing. This is our blue home and it is all of our responsibility to take care of it.