Yesterday was a beautiful and warm day in New England, so we decided to go to the seaside and explore the areas where we possibly want to buy our dream house. Or the house before the dream house. We were walking on the sandy and rocky beaches. I, as usual, was scanning the possible litter and plastics to pick up. Suddenly a seagull dived through the air, picked up something, and in few seconds dropped it again. It was not their “break the crab” drop. I went to check what it was.
What I found was a small and almost white superball! Maybe it had been one of those fluorescent ones. Superballs are those extremely bouncy small synthetic balls that kids love to throw around – usually where they should not. The gull had thought it was an egg but luckily figured out its mistake before swallowing it. I felt frustrated and thought about all those turtles who try to digest plastic bags. They do so because the bags look like medusas to them. And all those birds who suffer and die after swallowing horrendous amounts of pieces of plastic. I took the ball to the trash can and felt frustrated and kind of stupid at the same time. That is how I feel every time I collect trash from the beaches and take them to the nearest bin. Why? I cleaned up, what is the problem?
Picking up trash from the beach or coastal line has its immediate and far-reaching benefits. It prevents the particles – usually plastics – from ending up in the water where marine animals might digest them, choke, or get injured. The same positive impact applies to the land and the animals living there, of course. The pieces do not become microplastics during the years, and they won’t end up in our food chain that way. There are a lot of good things happening when we clean up the beaches.
But there is no “away.” The trash is in that bin now, but problems have not disappeared.
What are the odds that the trash bin at the beach gets overflown and the pieces spread around again? Surprisingly great, especially during the summer months. We have all seen those. In some places, animals or irresponsible people can create the same mess as well.
When the bin gets emptied, will the items be sorted and everything recycled? The odds are not great for that. So the destination is a waste management facility. The waste may get incinerated or buried, or dumped in the landfill. In the first case, if we are lucky, the heat from the burning process will be turned into energy. However, the toxic fumes and ash are left. It depends on the facility, legislation, and politics, how efficiently the toxins are eliminated – as far as it is possible to do so. If the waste load ends up in the landfill, the organic material will turn into greenhouse gases – it won’t decompose like in compost – and the rest will ruin the soil and water-systems around. It’s like we have really unfortunate, quite disappointing, and almost good but not quite options here.
All this negativity – is it necessary? No one wants the bad news being rubbed on their faces when trying to do something good.
Just keep reading. It might get worse.
How about when we clean up more desired plastic pieces or items – such as water bottles – from the beaches or somewhere from nature? We might get lucky and find a recycling bin – or not. However, sometimes the waste gets sorted, and the recyclables will get sent to the recycling centers. That is almost great, right? Especially if we are talking about aluminum cans. But a significant share of our recyclable plastics gets shipped to other countries. And the quality of waste management in those countries? Not usually worth of hooray. Maybe the piece that was once a threat for the animals on the East coast of the USA becomes a problem for birds in Malaysia? It is very much possible the whole shipping container ends up in the ocean. The ship itself pollutes the oceans and air – just for transporting a problem – the waste – back and forth. Does it bother us if the plastic gets burned far away? Yes, and additionally, it harms the people who burn it for cooking and heat.
There is also a possibility that everything goes well. The plastic toy or accessory that no-one honestly ever needed or wanted gets perfectly recycled. Only the manufacturing process, all the transportation, and recycling process have stolen energy and caused emissions. But – it got recycled – so all good?
Should I just let them be next time if nothing helps anyway?
No, because by picking the trash up there is at least a possibility to decrease the harm.
How could this be turned into better? What can we do, and where lies our power to fix this? It is pretty simple, to be honest, even though it will take time. Do you guess already what I am thinking? Consumption, material choices, recycling, our values, waste management… We have a lot of control over these. Manufacturers are responding to our demand. If we stop asking for futility and begin to support better, more sustainable options, the markets will change. Better support from the governments and legislation would be great with this cause, but while waiting and asking for more from that side, let’s take action. Let’s not wait for someone else to fix this because there is absolutely no need to play powerless when we are not. All the sustainable choices we make, and the action we take, will benefit not only the planet but future generations – our children – as well.