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AK: Plastics

Some say that after climate warming, plastic is the biggest environmental problem we face. And unlike climate warming, no one argues over who is responsible for the plastic in our oceans – we are. After researching and reporting on it, Johanna Eurich wanted to do her part to reduce plastic trash. The task is daunting. She started at home, in her tiny log cabin in Spenard.

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I am sorting my trash and logging the plastic that has come into my life this week. It is all packaging.

When I was born, there was very little plastic around. Now, more than half a century later, there is tons of it floating around in the world’s ocean. Most of it comes from land. And it’s stuff from our cupboards and trash bins.

(Photo courtesy Johanna Eurich)

(Photo courtesy Johanna Eurich)

Unlike the long molecules that nature makes, the plastics we produce last forever. None of it rots the way natural cellulose does. Instead it breaks down into smaller, less visible pieces and becomes even more dangerous in the environment. Some of Alaska’s most remote beaches are covered with confetti of it.

The plastic issue makes me confront the limits of consumer choice. What I can easily, I am already doing. We don’t use plastic shopping bags anymore.

But I still suffer from plastic guilt. Then I meet someone like Kylee Singh working at the Alaska Center for the Environment. She comes at the plastic issue from a public health perspective.

“I just continually was trying to wrap my head around something that we had just created like plastic water bottles,” Singh said. “If I was drinking out of a plastic water bottle and drinking out of it for weeks at a time – I was living in the desert at the time – there has to be something leaching out of that plastic.”

She was in college when she got to help lead an effort to stop the use of bottled water on campus.

“A year after I graduated we found out that we had lobbied hard enough to put the bad on bottled water on Humboldt State,” Singh said. “So we became the first public university to ban plastic bottled water on campus.”

My plastic campaign isn’t all doom and gloom. Some of it’s fun. I’m making yogurt in a glass jar so I don’t have to buy the stuff in the plastic containers. The result is cheaper and tastier. I wrap the jar of lukewarm milk with a spoonful of yogurt in it and put it in the oven to incubate. The old pilot light keeps it warm.

Every little bit helps.

Dave Bass takes his own containers to restaurants when he buys take-out. He remembers the reaction the first time.

(Photo courtesy Johanna Eurich)

(Photo courtesy Johanna Eurich)

“The person who took the containers wasn’t even sure it was an option,” Bass said. “They had to go back to check to see if that was possible; they were confused but they eventually did it.”

Now local restaurants expect Dave to show up a few minutes early with glass Tupperware. It doesn’t save a ton of trash, but he says the thought of the unnecessary Styrofoam used to make it hard to take his food to go.

“The tastiness and convenience is nearly overshadowed by being forced to accept responsibility for several stupid Styrofoam containers that are going to be floating around in the ocean for the next billion years,” Bass said.

When I lived off the road system, I would buy large quantities to keep prices down, but everything came wrapped in plastic. That’s why rural dumps are stuffed with plastic. We bury it and hope for the best. But the amount in village dumps pales compared to the quantities that wash up on our shores from Asia. The man on the front line is Chris Pallister at Gulf of Alaska Keeper.

“We’re working on shorelines now that have up to 30 tons of plastic per mile on them,” he said.

Chris thinks the price of plastic should include all the external costs, like cleaning it up.

“Other things like glass will be cost effective then,” Pallister said. “We can make it here and reuse it here. And we could do that everywhere.”

“I don’t understand why people are opposed to internalizing costs and letting the consumers pay for it.”

Finally, I want to show you where I go when the plastic gets overwhelming. Welcome to my garden compost heap. This is the temple of rot and my husband Steven is the priest. He waters it and turns it to make it heat up.

Compost is entropy transformed and transcended. The heroes are worms and microbes. They break down and recycle all the long molecules made by nature. We will all rot someday. If I’m lucky, my chemistry will make more food, more blossoms like the sweet black compost from this heap.

After we are all long gone the plastic we have already made will still be here. It is a huge and growing pile and there are no simple answers. All I can do is start with my own pile and look for others willing to do the same.

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