By Carol L. Armstrong, Ph.D., ABN, Friends of Heinz Refuge, Board of Directors
Cover Photo by Jennifer Mathes
Did you know that right here in our region, we have a wildland that supports over 300 species of birds, of which you will see and hear over 40 on any day? The marshes at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge spanned almost 6,000 acres in the time of Lenape stewardship of the land, and now it consists of 1,000 acres where massive biodiversity exists, some endangered species survive, and beautiful streams flow into tidal wetlands. It is a place where you can feel you can get lost, all the time being but a stone’s throw from Philadelphia and the dense suburbs of Delaware County. But there is a hidden problem: plastic debris is inundating the Refuge (Photo copyright: Kim Sheridan).
To manage the plastic debris, the Refuge has both public and non-public clean-ups throughout the year. Volunteers help Refuge staff to remove the hundreds of tires, layers of plastic debris on flood plains, plastic stuck in the riparian trees and shrubs after a storm, and thick accumulation of plastics in coves, marsh, and aquatic plants. The problem is most apparent at low tide (photo copyright: Mary Trzeciak).
How do we prevent this sort of pollution? Personal evolution comes from reading about the problem, watching the webinars from the Friends of Heinz Refuge (see videos on our Facebook), reading the Friends of Heinz Refuge e-Newsletter, and joining our Plastics Working Group meetings, held monthly.
One of our Board members, whose career was in business and not involved in environmental restoration, recently admitted that his view of plastic had changed completely since he joined the Board, and now he “can’t stand plastic.” He is horrified at the stuff, and now refuses to purchase plastic drinking containers.
In three of the public cleanups at the Refuge, volunteers sorted the types and number of debris using the Ocean Conservancy’s data form. Of plastics, metal, glass, and paper debris, more than 99% were some form of plastic, which, over the next hundreds of years, will flake off microplastics and leach into the water the chemicals that make plastic have the features producers want (e.g., color, flexibility, weight, heat/light resistance), long before the plastic actually decomposes back into organic matter. Plastics begin to break down into microplastics and leach chemicals as soon as they are in the environment.
It’s difficult to make the paradigm shift that this board member made, because we are so accustomed to thinking that we cannot live without plastics. The 4% increase in the production of plastics each year means that it is increasing due to supply and not due to demand. The increasing number of items that are packaged in plastic can be witnessed in any store, often in multiple layers of plastic. For example, cheeses are sold in see-through plastic boxes rather than wrapped in paper, bakery items are all packaged in some amount of plastic, condiments and drinks leave few choices in glass rather than plastic, and organic produce is difficult to find without plastic packaging. There are zero waste businesses dedicated to transforming industries to reusable containers or alternate materials, and they find the uphill road very steep.
In the U.S., plastic that is recycled has declined from 7 to 9% to 5 to 6%, according to the most recent reports from the EPA and the U. S. Department of Energy. 100% of plastic waste is incinerated in some towns such as Harrisburg, and this practice is increasing in many cities. Some “chemical recycling” is emerging from burning plastics for energy, which increases the demand for plastic waste, results in more toxic air pollution, and increases greenhouse gas emissions. By 2050, humans will have produced more than 28.5 billion tons of plastic, and we will be dealing with four times more plastic production than currently exists. Borrowing from L-M Miranda’s Hamilton: “Do you support this Earth? Of course. Then defend it.”
The key is to remember that there is always something that each person can do:
- Make purchasing decisions based on the presence or relative amount of plastic in the packaging;
- Do your own home assessment of the sources and amounts of your waste versus recycling (now in Pennsylvania mainly limited to clear or white #1 and #2). The EPA and California provide online instructions for zero waste practices, and a simple site for home is: https://www.thezerowastecollective.com/post/how-to-do-a-trash-audit-at-home;
- Work towards cutting in half (or more) the amount that you put out in trash and recyclables;
- Avoid plastic sheeting and synthetic textiles used in landscaping, sediment/erosion control, blankets and rugs, and personal clothing as these plastics are filling our air, soil, and water, and there are alternatives for all. The presence of plastics in our indoor air is disturbing at estimates of 30% of dust;
- Give up thin, single-use plastic bags and drinking containers forever; and
- Ask your town to ban single-use plastics.
— By Carol L. Armstrong, Ph.D., ABN, Friends of Heinz Refuge, Board of Directors