Opinion submission: Choking to death on plastic

By Tara Prestholdt | April 23, 2018 5:18pm

Tara Prestholdt (right) and her husband (left). Photo courtesy of Tara Prestholdt.

In 2017 my husband and I rode our motorcycles 20,000 km from Portland to Patagonia. Pretty much nothing was as we expected, and while that ultimately ended up being very educational and emotionally fulfilling, one particularly unexpected aspect was the plastic waste. 

The amount of plastic debris in the streets, jungles, rivers, and seas was more consistent than the Spanish. In Mexico, we saw the truth about organic bananas: without chemicals for protection, farmers wrap each individual banana bunch in a plastic bag. On the bus in Panama we saw a man collect food wrappers with his feet, play with them like a soccer player practicing his footwork, then enthusiastically kick it all out at the next stop. 

In Uyuni, Bolivia the streets are wide enough for the garbage to be swept up into huge piles at intersections, essentially functioning like traffic circles. Some women swept the garbage from their homes to the intersection, and others threw it out the window as they drove by. In Lima, Peru the plastic went three-dimensional; plastic bags and wrappers got caught in wind vertices and swirled above our heads like a flock of pelicans hundreds of feet in the air. On our last day, flying home from Ushuaia, Argentina, we could have paid a few dollars to get all our luggage wrapped in single use, dyed, non-recyclable plastic to avoid it getting wet on the short journey from the terminal to the belly of the plane. 

Turns out it isn’t just the Americas that are choking to death on plastic, it’s our entire planet. Over ten million tons of garbage enters the ocean every year, and over 90% of it is plastic. Most fish have plastic in their system and half of all seabirds have tested positive for plastic. A young sperm whale was found this month with 64 pounds of plastic in its stomach, and plastic is light. The average water bottle weighs .03 lbs., or 33 bottles per pound. The equivalent for this whale would be over 2,000 water bottles. 

There are at least five giant ocean garbage patches, and while the total amount and size of the plastic in them is currently unknown, we know they are growing, moving, and complicated. The largest ocean garbage patch, the one in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, is ~1.6 million km2; it spans most of the distance between North America and Hawaii. The ocean is downhill from all waste, and there are now more pieces of plastic in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way. 

In the last ten years we have made more plastic than we did the entire 20th century, and currently 40% of it is single use, meaning it is not made of post-consumer plastics and it is likely un-recyclable due to the most common types of curb-side recycling programs. And the U.S. consumes more than any other country; we generate over twice as much waste per person per day than China (5.7 lbs. vs. 2.4, respectively). 

Before our trip I thought I was doing ok as far as respecting the Earth. I drive a Subaru, buy fair trade coffee, religiously use reusable bags, etc. Now I see that I can’t possibly consider myself an environmentalist if I drink Diet Coke out of plastic bottles, regularly order from Amazon Prime, or use facial scrubs that release tens of thousands of microplastics in a single wash.

I returned from our Overland experience desperate for change, both within my own habits and then reaching out to my community. So as the resident marine biologist, I decided one of the best places to start is with our campus. I approached Kirk Mustain of Bon Appetit and thanks to him and Steve Kolmes of Environmental Studies, my little dream of getting rid of plastic straws has come true. Starting next year, every freshman incoming class will be a part of saving over 50,000 plastic straws during their academic careers.

I know many students on campus are well on their way to being life-long stewards of the environment, and I hope a straw-free campus inspires everyone to change one thing about their behavior when it comes to consuming plastic. Every little bit we do, or don’t do, will make a difference. Thanks again to Bon Appetit and all UP students for helping to save our oceans, one sucky thing at a time. 

Tara Prestholdt is an associate professor of Biology and Environmental Studies and can be reached at holdt@up.edu.