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Merit McCrea – WHEELHOUSE SCOOP

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Thursday, July 25, 2019
Currently speaking
Wednesday, August 14, 2019
Second day advantage pays off


Plastiqa
Silver Jet had a briefly popular song called Plastiqa —“Collagen, plastic, silicone... soon they’ll be making girls out of Styrofoam.”

The gist was a jab at popular culture as “plastic” and “fake.” When it comes to plastic in the marine environment, it’s a real problem. We see those Mylar balloons scattered about the ocean in surprising abundance.


But is our response to plastic pollution real or fake? While much of coastal California has acted to ban single-use plastic bags and plastic straws, that same demographic seems to consist of the very individuals who have most embraced the now ubiquitous “K-cup.”


Those little plastic packs of one cup’s worth of coffee grounds are at least as litter producing as plastic straws. Yet, they’re somehow exempt from criticism on account of their cool factor.


While we’ve taken the position the problem is industry and our single-use society, the real problem with plastic bag and straw pollution is actually littering.


Worst of all, it seems we’ve been gaining that good green feeling by simply turfing the dirty work off on others in foreign lands — others who lack our worker protections — our environmental protections.


While we’ve been stuffing our blue bins and feeling oh so noble in our environmental consciousness, fake recycling has been making the system work by cashing in on the CRV, then shipping all the stuff overseas.


There it’s auctioned. Buyers employ the impoverished, paying pennies per day for them to scavenge the good and clean from the rest. It’s acres of picked-over piles of trash with no plan for disposal — no landfill, no effective laws against leaving it lay to blow away, into the river and out to sea.


“E-waste” is scavenged for lead and such using the most rudimentary technology as its vapors poison their air instead of ours. The trash piles have accreted to such a degree that now China has said, “no more!”


Here we are now seeing the results of this as PSAs and posters saying, “plastic bags are trash.” Basically, Asian nations won’t take our mixed dirty plastic garbage any more. Here in the U.S., the economics of re­cycling are much, much different of course, and so mixed plastic is mostly trash.


Here at home, people have better things to do than wash and sort their trash. Workers and safe handling measures cost more than the resulting materials are worth.


But the solutions are simple. We’ve just been a bit too green and righteous to embrace them. Don’t litter. It’s not plastic straws or plastic bags as much as it’s letting them blow away in the breeze.


Our plastic trash is simply fossil fuel chemically linked in novel ways. You can see it in the names — polyethylene, polypropylene. That floating line on your hoop nets is essentially the same stuff as the propane that fires your backyard barbecue, linked end to middle in chains.


Instead of recovering the plastic, recover the energy and substitute it back into the system. “Waste-to-energy” works. If coal and fuel oil exhaust can be scrubbed... Burn the contents of the blue bins and use that heat to generate power. Leave a little extra oil and coal in the ground by it.


Drain off the aluminum. Aluminum is all about energy also — electrical energy. The raw ore is hyper-abundant but the power to convert it is not.


Iceland has an over abundance of geothermal and hydro-electric power. But exporting the excess across the Atlantic is impractical. However, what they do is import bauxite — aluminum ore — and make aluminum instead.


That’s how they export their green electrical energy. It reduces the use of fossil fuels elsewhere. Recycling aluminum works and is actually all about saving the tremendous amount of energy it takes to produce it new.


Plastic products — yes, even the single-use kind — have been instrumental in improving sanitation, keeping filth-based diseases at bay. The degree to which plastics facilitate safe food storage and transportation cannot be underestimated.


While photos of dead charismatic marine mega fauna stuffed with and entangled by plastic trash have driven public sentiments to the extreme, our most popular solutions may not be very realistic, cost effective, sanitary or necessary.


Here we need to own our own trash, not close our eyes as we ship it off to the third world where crooks promise good green handling, then process or dump our waste in ways that are strictly illegal here.


What we’ve been doing is handing off our trash to anyone who will tell us a happy lie, as they litter the earth with it. We need to suck it up and own our environmental costs, adopt ways other than this recycling boondoggle.


Reducing wasteful use works. Packing pounds of coffee into individual two tablespoon plastic cups is an elitist waste.


Re-use works, giving plastic products a second or third life in other duties, from making scoops and funnels from bleach bottles, to re-using those plastic bags until they fall apart, to refilling gallon water bottles — you name it.


Discards don’t have to be biodegradable to be green to bury. In fact, inert may be much better in the long run.


Getting all teary-eyed about some trash item lasting forever in the dirt once buried is ridiculous. It’s actually better than burying a rotting mess that will off-gas for decades, settling and compacting and making that land unstable and unusable.


Own it. Old arrowheads and waste piles of chipped chert and flint lasting for multiple millennia have not been a problem. Neither have entire cities buried in the jungle. Heck, there are entire cities buried under cities.


Unless you’re intent on recovering phosphates and nitrates for the next season’s crops, the inherent goodness of the biodegradable does not apply. As sinful as it sounds, burying plastic sequesters its carbon, while biodegrading, or what they used to call rotting, releases it back into the biosphere.


But in the end, it’s simply all about littering. Don’t leave stuff where it is unsightly. Don’t dispose of it where it can become dangerous for wildlife or people. Letting your balloons float off after a party is littering.


Don’t turf your responsibility onto others you should know better than to trust — especially if you’re running a waste management system for an entire city. Don’t make laws that require unrealistic results and simply displace our environmental cost onto foreign nations and peoples who lack any environmental or worker protections at all.


* * *


Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California party boat captain, he is a marine research scientist with the Dr. Milton Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He can be reached at: merit@wonews.com.


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