Our Ocean-Friendly Island - Boroughs Take a Great First Step in Reducing Plastic Pollution
By Dr. Lenore Tedesco, Executive Director of The Wetlands Institute
As most of the regulars to this column know, I tend to ponder the world around us. I mostly look for the good and work to identify how we can collectively make things better. I am so happy to say that our island community has taken a remarkable and bold step to do a lot better and I am proud that we did.
I am talking about the new ordinances addressing single-use plastics that go into effect in both Avalon and Stone Harbor later this spring. The boroughs worked together on the mirror ordinances to effect change island-wide and collectively help reduce pollution entering our waters and protecting marine life. Seven Mile Beach has effectively passed two of the most comprehensive single-use plastic ordinances in the state and has taken on a leadership role in this regard. With our help, we can enhance the effectiveness of these measures, and effect change here – and elsewhere, too.
The ordinances are focused around the concept that our disposable society is creating huge problems for the planet, and locally for our municipal waste-management systems and our coastal ecosystems. The ordinances effectively ban the distribution of single-use plastic bags by merchants, vendors, and the boroughs themselves. It bans Styrofoam products from being sold or distributed and limits the type of takeout containers and other packaging dispensed for takeout food products to compostable or recyclable materials. Finally, it requires that straws be paper or self-provided.
Thankfully, many merchants here are aware of the issues and many had already begun to make changes. Both boroughs had meetings with merchants and the Chambers of Commerce while they were crafting the ordinances and delayed the start date to allow merchants to adjust their product lines and packaging purchases. Many food establishments have already stopped using Styrofoam takeout containers. Others had already moved away from plastic boxes and are instead using recycled and recyclable cardboard containers. Some had already switched to paper straws or provide straws only upon request.
The ordinances will help the island community contribute less to the problem of plastics pollution, and it’s a great step. That said, it’s a small step in a huge problem. Plastic pollution has rapidly become a global problem. Estimates are that after we’ve incinerated, recycled or buried them, a staggering 5.5 billion tons of plastics remain. The remains take centuries or longer to break down – and breaking down often means breaking into smaller pieces and not truly going away. Those same estimates indicate that half the plastic ever made was produced in the past 15 years. Each year, 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals die from ingesting plastic. It happens right here – ospreys decorating their nests with plastic grocery bags that entangle chicks, or seals on our beaches entangled in plastics. A 2016 study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicted the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050 if no actions are taken to reduce the flow of plastics into waterways. The press has been publicizing this more recently, so that awareness has grown dramatically.
The facts are staggering and numbing, the boroughs have acted, and now we have an opportunity to really do something about it. The ordinances are a great effort that can be effective at reducing the amount of plastics we all use. However, it’s really only the tip of the iceberg. Every one of us has a role, and it will take every one of us changing our behavior to really make a difference.
The root of the problem is our disposable ways. The most important step is to REDUCE our use and need for single-use disposable plastics. Many steps are really easy. Start with a reusable bag for all your shopping and bring your own. Canvas or cotton are by far the best way to go. Some of us have gotten pretty good at taking them to the grocery store or farmers market. We also need to take them into the clothing and hardware stores. Just say no to those single-use bags if they are offered. You won’t be able to get them from island vendors, so plan ahead and bring your own. If you do end up with some of those bags from off the island – recycle them! They don’t go in the regular recycling bin – so it takes an extra step to return them to the chain grocery store. This is probably why fewer than 3 percent are recycled nationally. To help with this, the boroughs are adding specialized recycling bins around town specifically for single-use bags. Look for them outside the Wawa stores, and at municipal drop-off points. Acme and ShopRite also have places to recycle them. Make an effort to have a lot less of them and to properly recycle the ones you do have.
Plastic water bottles are another incredible convenience that confuses me. The water from the tap is actually better regulated and guaranteed safer than many brands of bottled water, or it’s simply tap water put in a bottle. Investing in a reusable bottle and filling it with tap water is a great way to help cut down on single-use plastic. Many folks think it’s OK to use disposable plastic water bottles because they recycle them. Unfortunately, recycling is getting tougher and tougher and the amount of “recycled” materials that end up in the landfill is remarkably high. The slightest amount of contamination of the recycling bin with nonrecyclable material results in the entire bin going to the landfill. Lids of every kind are not recyclable. If you toss that plastic water bottle in the recycle bin with the lid on it – none of it gets recycled! This severely limits the effectiveness of recycling. To make things worse, China is no longer accepting materials from the recycling stream from the U.S. and it was the biggest buyer. The economics of recycling have shifted dramatically, so the best approach is to reduce our use of single-use products and shift to reusable products.
While you are working to consider how to reduce your footprint, think about ways to reduce the opportunities for things you use to end up as pollution. Reduce the amount of plastics that go with you to the beach. The unintentional loss of trash into the marine environment can be reduced by removing opportunities for its loss. Take it out – bring it back. When you find you have plastics – or any other recyclable item – recycle it! Learn what is recyclable in your area and recycle correctly. Don’t take a vacation from recycling, and learn how to be more effective at recycling.
Finally, consider the future. The numbers speak for themselves. Most of us remember back to the time before all the convenience of single-use plastics, and it doesn’t take that much effort to get back to that lifestyle. The Wetlands Institute has a sustainability initiative and works very hard to reduce our use of single-use plastics, and recycles or composts what we can. We have a water-bottle refilling station and sell reusable water bottles and reusable bags. We work with children in our education programs to move them toward reducing and reusing to make it a normal way of life.
A great way to think about this is to ask: What do we want our legacy to be? A sea of plastic pollution? Or a community that took bold and dramatic steps to make a difference? The municipalities took a big step. Let’s get on board and go above and beyond. Let’s all use a lot fewer single-use items and switch to a reusable lifestyle. Something worth teaching our kids and changing our lifestyle to achieve.
Celebrating 50 Years of Research, Conservation and Education
Native Plants for Sale
May 10-12, 9:30am to 4:30pm
On May 10, 11 and 12, the Institute will hold its annual native perennial plant sale. It has selected a beautiful array of plants that will bloom throughout the season and provide all the various food resources that butterflies, songbirds, hummingbirds, and other pollinators need in order to thrive.
Pre-order deadline May 3 | Pre-order plant pickup May 10-12
(pick up between 9:30am and 4:30pm Friday, Saturday and Sunday)
For plants and sale information, visit wetlandsinstitute.org/native-plants
Spring Shorebird and Horseshoe Crab Festival
Saturday and Sunday May 18 and 19, 9:30am-4:30pm
Join The Wetlands Institute for a festival that celebrates the wonders of the shorebird migration and horseshoe-crab spawning season that can only be seen right here, in Cape May County.
Back Bay Kayak Tours • Birding and Wildlife Cruises • Horseshoe Crab Rescue Walks • Guided Wildlife Viewing
Horseshoe Crab Aquaculture Tours • Guided Shorebird Viewing Walks • and more!
Tickets available for purchase online at wetlandsinstitute.org/SSHC.
Save the date for our 50th Anniversary Celebration Weekend Festival, June 22-23.
FREE ADMISSION. Details at wetlandsinstitute.org/50
Spring 2019 Articles: