Some Thoughts on Earth Day

In honor of Earth Day weekend, it’s a perfect time to reflect on our environmental stewardship efforts, both personally and where we work/volunteer. The majority of staff and volunteers at OWCN Member Organizations are already way ahead of the field when it comes to caring about our planet, and many are role models in their families, workplaces, and communities for sustainability, waste reduction, and “greening” their lives. However, it’s important for even the most conscientious environmentalists to regularly check in about new technology, changes in regulations and policies, and recommended best practices.

The inspiration for this blog post was two-fold. First, to inform everyone that the OWCN Green Response Working Group, which formed during the 2015 OWCN Summit, is still meeting regularly and working to reduce the environmental impacts of wildlife response and care activities during oil spills. Second, to provide information to the OWCN community about the implications of the recent changes to international recycled materials markets. Marie Travers wrote a thorough, thoughtful, and informative essay about the activities of our working group for Earth Day last year (click here to read that post), so I’m going to focus this on the second topic.

Many of you have likely heard in the news that China recently implemented a “recycling ban,” but details have been scarce about how that will affect recycling options at a local level. In July 2017 China announced that as of Jan 1, 2018, it would stop accepting 24 types of foreign solid waste, including plastics, unsorted paper, and waste textiles. They cited concern for human health and safety and the environment, due to the pervasiveness of contamination of the solid waste, as the reason for the ban (full article here). According to NPR, about 1/3 of materials collected as “recycling” in the U.S. get exported to other countries, with about half of the materials going to China. With the elimination of that market, many recycling collectors in the U.S. are scrambling to figure out what to do with all that solid waste, which is currently being diverted to landfills or being bundled and stored until other solutions are found.

I wanted to find out how my local recycling collectors were responding to the changes, so I contacted our 2 local landfills/recycling centers, 3 local curb-side pick-up service providers, and a local non-profit recycling center. My greatest concern was what was happening with plastics (#1-7), and the answers varied from “diverted to landfill” to “no-longer accepting” to “still accepting-receiving markets already lined up or under investigation.” Although I was relieved to learn that I could still recycle these items curbside at my residence, learning that some formerly recyclable plastics are ending up in our County landfill, and realizing that this issue is likely to grow, I feel that we can’t just hope that new markets become available to accept our recyclables. To me, the best solution is to focus on reducing, and when possible, eliminating, the amount of single-use plastic we buy and use in the first place.

Cutting out single-use plastics requires effort and an initial financial investment. The first step is identifying which single-use plastics we use. Water bottles, straws, bags, hygiene product bottles, and food containers (to-go and in the grocery store) are some of the easiest to identify. A more careful look around your home or workplace will probably reveal many others, such as plastic buckets, cleaning product containers, and children’s toys. The next step is determining which of these items we really need, and what suitable alternatives are available. The last step is procuring the alternatives and remembering to bring/use them.

Reusable item photo montage

Although many “eco” products, such as beeswax wrap, wood/bamboo utensils, glass or stainless-steel containers and straws, and cloth bags, are more expensive initially, their re-usability can often make them cheaper in the long run than repeatedly buying the plastic alternative. Furthermore, the long-term benefits of reducing plastics for human health and the health of the environment should be ample justification for making such investments. The website, Live Without Plastics offers a fantastic guide on identifying plastic types, the toxicity and safety of each plastic type, and suggested alternatives.

As we celebrate this Earth Day, please join me in taking time to assess what changes we can make in our personal lives and suggest at our workplace/OWCN Member Organization to help reduce our day-to-day use of single-use plastics. For plastics that can’t be eliminated, let’s get creative to figure out ways that we, or others, can re-use or re-purpose plastics so they don’t end up in the landfill. Finally, let’s all commit to staying current on what we can recycle at home and at work, and do our best to follow our local recycling guidelines to ensure that everything we put into the bin has the best chance of actually being recycled.

Happy Earth Day!

-Colleen*

Colleen-Young-Monterey-Bay_Featured-Scientist*Guest blogger, Colleen Young is an Environmental Scientist for CDFW’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center in Santa Cruz. Her primary job duties include oil spill contingency planning for sea otters and other marine wildlife, maintaining response equipment and working as part of the Wildlife Recovery team during spills.

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