Recent news depicts marine animals ingesting, getting caught in, or inhaling harmful plastic waste which causes extreme distress and health problems that could result in death, but waste is not supposed to end up in the ocean. So how does this trash end up in places it is not supposed to be in the first place?

Around the world, people live their lives with concern for only what is in their line of sight, a completely natural and constant human response. Sometimes, what people do to respond to what is in their line of sight is detrimental to their fellow beings and the Earth itself. Recently, the pollution problem is depicted by showing heartbreaking images of beached whales’ stomachs filled with plastics or a team of rescuers pulling a straw out of a sea turtle’s nose.  The question is how does garbage end up in the ocean in the first place? In the United States, one of the world’s largest contributors to pollution, there are five options for where trash should end up and the ocean is not one of those places.

Where Does Trash Go?

About fifty-two percent of the trash in the United States ends up in landfills, those large plots of land traversed by tractors that bury trash under mountains of soil. A significant amount of what ends up in these landfills are not supposed to be there. Unfortunately, many citizens do not recycle or compost as needed. Much of this has to do with a lack of education about what is recyclable or compostable. This lack of education is often subverted by myths about what is and is not recyclable. Another problem with landfills is that a significant amount of what goes into them is toxic to the surrounding environment. Despite the quantity of landfills that exists for different types of waste, not all of it can end up where it is supposed to be. People are careless about what they put in their trash and trash at landfills does not get sorted, it just ends up in the ground.

The second most likely place for waste to end up is a recycling center. Recycling centers rely on a complex system of computerized and robotized technologies that sift through recycled materials. These materials are then compressed into squares that recycling centers then sell to be repurposed.  Unfortunately, anything that has a trace of grease, cheese, sauce, or other kinds of food grime on it is automatically unrecyclable regardless of the product. Much of what is recyclable are usually hard plastics, as a general rule. However, while many soft plastic items could be recycled, they are hard to sell and repurpose which is why many facilities do not accept recycled soft plastics. Recyclables used to end up in countries like China, Malaysia, Thailand, The Philippines, and Vietnam. Unfortunately, sending the waste somewhere else does not make it disappear. Now that less and less of these countries are accepting other countries’ recyclable materials, western countries are finding it harder to find out what to do with their recyclable materials, especially when plastic is easier to produce than repurpose. Recyclable materials that do not go through repurposing or never end up at recycling plants have devastating consequences on the environment.

Waste to Energy Plants is the next most likely place for trash to end up. These plants rely on recyclable, compostable, and waste materials. The idea is that these products are burned and the heat produced is used to create steam that generates electricity or heat; boil water with a fire that uses any thrown out or recycled material as kindling. These plants count for a significant portion of the total energy output in the United States.

The least likely place for trash to end up is in compost. Many biomass materials such as paper, cardboard, food waste, grass clippings, leaves, wood, and leather products are able to be composted. These are an organic product that, when added to the soil, help grow plants that can produce food. However, for reasons such as a lack of education and for convenience sake, many choose to throw compostable materials into the trash or recycling without a second thought. Composting seems to be the most eco-friendly out of all the ways to reduce waste. There are not many composting centers around the world or in the United States and it is an added cost for composting sites to come pick up compostable materials. New York City began to use food and waste collection bins beside recycling and trash bins, but this program has not evolved country-wide. Individuals are encouraged to start their own compost gardens at home, which is easy to do and affordable.

How Does Plastic End Up In The Ocean and Hurt Sea Creatures?

Trash naturally contaminates and threatens, causing a decline in the health and safety of all living things. Due to the fact that recyclable materials often either do not get recycled or repurposed, many of these products end up in the middle of the ocean due to trash overflow. Simply put, people use more recyclable material than anyone is willing to repurpose. More trash is used than can be reasonably decomposed and a significant amount of trash cannot decompose such as hard plastics.

The amount of trash that ends up littered around the world is unknown. Most of the littered material in the world are plastic products: toothbrushes, straws, six pack rings, plastic wrap, and glass and plastic containers. While the United States outlawed the use of bodies of water as a way of disposing of trash, other countries still do and the fact that it is illegal does not stop trash from finding its way into the sea. While storms and natural disasters are also large reasons for why trash ends up in the ocean, littering is also a large contributor to the ocean’s pollution problem. By sending trash to other countries, the world wide trash problem only worsens and makes it more likely that trash will continue to end up in the ocean.

It is up to individuals to try and reduce what non-combustible products they use and reuse. Avoiding single-use plastic bags and plastic straws, only using reusable containers, composting, and other individually targeted ways to reduce pollution are extremely important steps that can reduce the amount of garbage making its way into our oceans but it will take more than this to solve the problem.

However, there are companies who profit off of the plastic that ends up in the stomachs of countless sea creatures and ultimately ends their lives. If, for example, single-use plastic containers are outlawed, the companies that create them will go out of business unless they can create a more biodegradable product which benefits the environment. People would probably still buy products in more environmentally friendly containers. Today, when this packaging is sent outside of the country of consumption, it creates trash piles in countries who could not possibly keep up with the demands of repurposing, burning, composting, or creating landfills for that amount of trash. Not even The United States could keep up with that level of trash import so how can we expect others to continue to take on our dirty work.

Imagine if the only thing that needed to be thrown out was the product consumed, not the packaging around it? Or, what if the packaging was all reasonably biodegradable? Reasonably biodegradable meaning that the product can decompose in under ten years, not stick around for hundreds. The move to packageless, non-plastic packaging, or reasonably biodegradable plastics is unfortunately not happening fast enough to save lives and it needs to happen if there is any chance to save what remains of our marine life and the planet as a whole.

Margaret Valenti is the Editor of Generation Z Voice at The Pavlovic Today. 

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