By John Christopher Fine
PLEASE, please, please be more careful with plastic bags and Styrofoam cups. Do not let helium balloons loose. The photograph I took underwater on my last dive tells more than any article I write about plastic debris. PLEASE. You can do it. This comes from a person who uses plastic all the time. It is not natural, is not something found in nature, and it cannot easily be degraded by natural processes. All that you have heard before. Like me, you recognize the importance of plastic in our lives and use the convenience every day.
Everything is wrapped in plastic. It preserves and keeps food and medical supplies clean and sterile. Plastic lets us take things and wrap them safely away from moisture and dust. That you also know. It is all part of everyday life. I have used the same plastic bag that I received in a store package to protect my camera for a year now. The plastic is still good, still keeps my camera safe from rain, and seals it from the environment when I am not using it. A whole year and going strong. I did not use a new plastic bag, and I did not throw the one I received with my package away.
The obvious we see everywhere results from slovenly conduct. We get something wrapped in plastic and throw the waste out. It goes into landfills. Ever pass a landfill? See all the plastic waste, some flying in the wind, some sticking out of mounds a worker is trying to cover with a bulldozer, some in moats floating around the landfill.
Store signage proclaims they will recycle plastic bags. I wondered about that, so I went behind one store that promoted recycling. Sure enough, the plastic bags they collected were in gigantic plastic bags in their dumpster, landfill bound.
We enjoy the fun of having helium-filled balloons. Great for parties, with colorful faces, pictures, graphics wishing happy everything to celebrate occasions. They go up, eventually deflate, then go down. Often helium balloons drift over the ocean and become plastic debris. They may not look like jellyfish to you. They do look like a meal to marine turtles. Once ingested, the plastic becomes stuck in turtles’ intestines, and the victimized endangered species dies a tortured death. If you get a helium-filled balloon, use it carefully and dispose of it properly. Do not let it get away or release it into the air.
Styrofoam cups keep beverages hot or cold, they allow us take-away and are disposable. I received a Styrofoam cup with a COVID-19 takeaway meal. It contained my hot beverage, and another larger one contained soup. I consumed the product, rinsed the cups and continue to use them in the kitchen and bathroom. So far, three weeks each. It saves me washing glasses, and thus wasting water that has been treated and purified. This also puts something to use many times beyond what manufacturers consider a one-time disposable product.
What happens to Styrofoam once it gets into the ocean? It floats around for a long time, thrown about by waves, storms, and wind. It gathers tar that has been released into the ocean either by natural deposits coming out of the Earth or from fuel leaks, then Styrofoam eventually breaks up into tiny marbles that went into making the cup. The result is a tasty-looking cupcake for fish. Harmful and fatal to marine life. Do not take Styrofoam cups on board boats. Simple as that. Despite good intentions, they blow overboard and add to plastic debris.
Plastic bags again: Dive Instructor and owner of Key Dives in Islamorada, Florida Mike Goldberg, along with Key Dives Operations Manager, Jason Adams, and many volunteers initiated a program to give away permanent shopping bags at local stores. Yes, they stood at check-out counters for hours giving away red bags, urging customers to take them for free, use them over and over again to bag their groceries rather than plastic bags. Mike paid for 5,000 bags himself. It worked. I remember shopping in Europe, where stores did not provide bags. Shoppers brought mesh bags, checked out, paid, and put their groceries into their permanent shopping bags.
Plastic chokes coral. It covers the living organism, preventing light penetration, preventing coral polyps from extending and feeding. There is 3- to 5-percent live coral coverage in the Florida Keys. When I was diving there as a kid, there was 90 percent live coral coverage. Disease is wiping out hard corals. Do not add to the dilemma by letting plastic bags loose in the ocean.