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Plastic Is Killing our Oceans – The Issues, Facts, and Possible Solutions

By Wendy Lipscomb @ itsafishthing.com

Approximately 40% of the world’s 7.6 billion people live within 62 miles (100km) of an ocean coast. For the other 60%, some of whom may never have even seen an ocean, the seas still play a vital role in their lives.

Oil and consumer goods are moved around the world on vast ships, keeping the wheels of commerce, and vehicles, turning. Most importantly, the ocean is vital to the food chain.

Unfortunately, we collectively treat the oceans worse than most of us treat the inside of our cars. Every year, anywhere from about 8 to 12 million US tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans.

For perspective, that’s close to three times as heavy as all the elephants on Earth combined.

Close up of a ton of plastic floating in the oceanThe scale of the problem is enormous, but it’s not a lost cause. Just like when your dentist says you can avoid further problems with your gums if you brush better and floss often, a change in how we live could be the catalyst for cleaner oceans in the future.

Read on to learn about the true scope of the issue, why plastics in our oceans are such a problem, why we at itsafishthing.com are so concerned, and why you should be too.

We’ll finish by looking at some of the methods currently in use for ocean cleanup, what the future may hold, and what you and I can do to help put the brakes on plastic pollution.

READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE HERE

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EcoWise: For a Festive and Eco-Friendly Party, Bypass Balloons

By Cathy Taylor

In this season of graduations and summer celebrations, it’s a good time to think about alternatives to that most popular of party decorations: balloons.

Unfortunately, balloons are harmful to the environment on three fronts. First, just like single-use plastic bags and straws, discarded balloons – particularly those that are released into the air — make their way into the environment where they do not biodegrade.

Pieces of balloons have been found nearly everywhere – including in the digestive tracts of animals, blocking their ability to absorb nutrients and slowly killing them. The texture and color can be particularly deceiving for marine animals, which can mistake them for food.

Second, balloon strings and ribbons can prove dangerous to animals, who routinely get tangled in them.

Third, party balloons are often inflated with helium, which is not a renewable resource and has more important uses, such as in the treatment of emphysema, the production of MRI scans and the manufacturing of semiconductor chips.

Unfortunately, balloons that are not made of plastic also miss the mark. Mylar, which has become a popular material for making balloons, comes with its own environmental hazards. Made of synthetic nylon with a metallic coating, it is not biodegradable.

Also beware of the many stores and sites that market “biodegradable” latex balloons. While natural latex is biodegradable, by the time the latex is treated with chemicals, plasticizers and dyes, the final product’s biodegradability slips. During that time, these so-called biodegradable alternatives can do plenty of damage to the environment.

But EcoWise doesn’t want to be a party pooper. Fortunately, there are many festive eco-friendly alternatives. Here are just a few:

Tissue paper flowers: These are easy to make and can be created in as much variety as there are colors of tissue paper.

Pinwheels: Part of the fun of having balloons at an outdoor gathering is watching them dance in the wind. Paper pinwheels can have the same effect without the environmental hazards.

Kites: If you’re tempted to do a balloon release, think of flying kites instead. It’s another way to get that uplifting feeling – but in an eco-friendly, reusable manner.

Flags: String small paper flags across the party area and watch them flutter in the wind.

Crepe paper: Crepe paper can be used in a number of different ways, not just as streamers.

Bunting: Bunting can be made out of a number of materials, from construction paper to fabric, and it’s an interesting way to tie a party theme into whatever you create.

Plants: Flowering plants make for great décor and are a particularly wonderful alternative if party-goers can plant them afterwards.

Painted rocks: These can be placed all over the party setting, adding color and imagination.

The Internet is full of balloon-free decorating ideas that can spur your imagination. Enjoy this season of celebration, and try looking beyond balloons.

 

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EcoWise: Huguenot Says No to Waste

By Cathy Taylor

Huguenot Memorial Church went zero waste last month, which means the entire building is now recycling, reusing or composting all discarded items, from apple cores to plates, cups to paper towels.

The initiative also includes the Huguenot Nursery School and Spotlight Gymnastics, which operate out of Huguenot. “It only made sense if it was the whole campus and the whole facility,” said Lynne Dintrone, a member of Huguenot’s Building and Grounds Committee.

The Committee voted in favor of the move in early January. The organization officially shifted to zero waste on April 25 at Huguenot Cabaret, an annual fundraiser for the church’s mission work that is one of its most well-attended events of the year, drawing almost 240 people.

For Cabaret, Dintrone ordered cups that looked like plastic but were actually compostable, used the church’s reusable dishware and utensils, and strategically placed blue bins for recycling of glass and paper and green bins for cups and food scraps. A humorous sketch during the show instructed attendees on how to dispose of everything.

A successful zero waste dinner last fall for Huguenot’s youth group helped move the larger initiative forward. Associate Pastor Jacob Bolton realized then that if the church could go zero waste for a small event it could do so on a larger scale.

Huguenot received extensive guidance from Michelle Sterling and Ron Schulhof of Scarsdale, the duo who started the food scrap recycling program there and also helped make Westchester Reform Temple the first zero-waste house of worship in the county. “They were phenomenal,” Bolton said. “They held our hands through this entire thing.”

Along with giving frequent consultations, the two did a full walk-through of Huguenot’s 35,000-square-foot building to figure out how zero waste could work for a facility that size.

The biggest challenge was implementing food composting, which is not offered by garbage services in either Pelham Village or Pelham Manor. The church contracted with CRP Sanitation, which transports the material to a composting facility in Ulster County. The topsoil produced is then sold throughout the Hudson Valley.

The decision to go full-out zero waste was years in the making. In 2012, the church launched its Sustainable Huguenot campaign by converting the entire building to a geothermal heating and cooling system and later buying a refurbished organ when the old one needed to be replaced.

Also in 2012, youth group members learned how to perform an eco-audit, sorting through trash and figuring out what could be recycled, composted, and so forth; the group also performed audits for houses of worship throughout Pelham.

But the idea of becoming a zero-waste facility sprouted anew last September when Bolton and just-hired Pastor Paul Seelman attended a zero-waste event for the Hudson River Presbytery, which guides 79 regional Presbyterian congregations.

Seeleman gave the green light to move forward on a dream Bolton had held for a long time. For Huguenot, this is a major step forward in living out its faith in caring for the earth.

(Disclosure: The author is an active member of Huguenot Church.)

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EcoWise: A Way for Educators to Embrace Earth Day

By Cathy Taylor

This year’s Earth Day, on Sunday, April 22, is focusing on a theme familiar to readers of EcoWise: ending plastic pollution. In fact, Earth Day organizers want it gone by 2020, which, not coincidentally, is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

That’s not a lot of time to rid the world of a scourge that’s poisoning our environment. So we’d like to take this column to urge local educators to incorporate lessons about it into Climate Education Week, which begins on Monday, April 16 and ends on Earth Day. Earthday.org has interactive educational toolkits for elementary school, middle school and high school, but if you can’t work plastic pollution into the curriculum that week, the lessons can be helpful at any time.

First, let’s discuss why there is such urgency about plastic – and specifically single-use plastics, such as straws and plastic bags.

Even though some plastic is recyclable, plastic pollution has become a global crisis because it doesn’t degrade and much of it makes its way – eternally — into the environment. Once there, it poisons and injures animals, particularly in the oceans; disrupts human hormones; litters our landscapes, and clogs landfills. According to a story last month in The New York Times, the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, “is four to 16 times bigger than previously thought, occupying an area roughly four times the size of California and comprising an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of rubbish.” The vast majority of it is plastic, from hard hats to water bottles.

Here are some of the suggestions for educators at earthday.org. (Check out the site to figure out what is age appropriate.)

  1. Have your class list all of the plastics they use, and then have students brainstorm a about ways of shortening the list.
  2. Take a quick field trip to one of the neighborhood storm drains to illustrate how plastic travels down them and ends in waterways.
  3. Watch a short film, such as the PBS video featuring Jean-Michel Cousteau’s trip to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or a National Geographic video that discusses the connection between plastic pollution and the foods that we eat.
  4. Hold a low-waste lunch day.
  5. Test the recycling IQ of your students – before and after they’ve learned more about plastic pollution.
  6. Teach the class about composting, which is a great jumping off point for discussing decomposition and the nutrient cycle.
  7. Focus a lesson on microplastics, which are what larger plastics become when they break down in our oceans.

There are also plenty of resources at the site if you’d like to help your family end plastic pollution, such as a calculator for adding up your household’s plastic pollution, and suggestions for alternatives. Let’s all celebrate the earth on April 22 — and every day, for that matter.

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EcoWise: Affordable Solar Energy Set to Come to Pelham

Discounted solar energy is finally coming to the Town of Pelham through the Solarize Westchester program. The deadline for homeowners to sign a solar contract is June 4.

The model takes advantage of economies of scale in individual municipalities to bring down the installation cost of solar for interested residents and commercial property owners.

“[Solarize Pelham] is a way to be more responsible to our planet, our community, and each other,” said Town Supervisor Pete DiPaola.

Since it began operation in 2015, Solarize Westchester has conducted 11 Solarize campaigns in 20 Westchester municipalities, resulting in 500 solar installations. It is currently rolling out new efforts in Pelham and Croton, among other communities. “The municipalities we worked with have been very positive about the program,” said Nina Orville, principal of Abundant Efficiency, a sustainable consulting company that administers the overall program and coordinates between municipalities and solar contractors.

The selection of Pelham as a new Solarize market followed an extensive vetting process. Pelham first had to submit an application to Sustainable Westchester, which looks for a number of attributes, including whether the population is big enough to qualify for discount.

According to Pelham resident Lindsay Preftakes, who served as team lead on Solarize Pelham, “We also had to show that we had support through dedicated community members to run the campaign and civic organizations such as EcoPel.”

Village of Pelham Trustee and EcoPel liaison Ariel Spira-Cohen coordinated the municipal application process between Pelham and Sustainable Westchester. Pelham residents Kevin Healy and Maryann Joyce worked with former Pelhamite and EcoPel board member Christian Privat to initiate the application process last year.

Sustainable Westchester also promotes the opportunity to participate in Solarize Westchester with its municipal members and issues the requests for proposal to solar installers. Additionally, solar installers are pre-screened by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). Pelham chose Ross Solar, a ConEdison Solutions Company, for the Solarize Pelham campaign, which has been the contractor for 21 other Solarize campaigns.

How big are the potential savings? Excluding the long-term reduction in energy costs, once the estimated 20 percent group discount is applied, along with a mix of rebates and tax credits, the price of a solar installation can drop by as much as two-thirds off the average market price of $28,000. Payment plans are also available through Ross.

An initial kickoff workshop was held on March 7, organized by the Solarize Pelham team with a presentation will by Ross. Other forums are being planned, including one focused on commercial property owners. While homeowners have until June 4 to sign a solar contract, commercial property owners can register for site visits until June 4 and wait until October to sign a contract.

For more information, go to http://www.solarizewestchester.com/pelham/.

 

 

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Let’s Bag Plastic Bags

This op-ed piece was published on Mar. 3, 2018 in The New York Times:

All it had taken was a moment’s distraction. In a well-practiced sleight of hand, the cashier had double-bagged in plastic a dozen eggs, which were already encased in two protective layers of plastic. I briefly contemplated appealing for the liberation of my groceries but chose the path of least resistance. The deed was done, and the purveyors of plastic had been victorious on this occasion.

It was not always thus. In the late 1970s, single-use plastic bags were seldom available in grocery stores. Since then they have become an omnipresent part of the exchange of merchandise for money, a “free” offering to consecrate the ritual. An estimated one trillion bags are used each year globally, but they are so seamlessly ingrained into our daily routines that we hardly notice. It is difficult to imagine life without them.

The average American throws away about 10 single-use plastic bags per week, but New Yorkers use twice the national average. Some 23 billion are used across the state each year — more than enough, when tied together, to stretch to the moon and back 13 times. In the short trip from store to home the utility of these bags is spent, but the bags themselves can take millions of times longer to break down in landfill.

Yes, you are correct. This is crazy and entirely unnecessary. In Ireland, my home country, plastic bags were once an essential part of daily life. They were often found polluting waterways and littering the countryside, fluttering in trees and hedges. After a 15 euro cent fee was introduced in 2002, however, annual use dropped from an estimated 328 to 14 per person by 2014. Within a year of the fee’s imposition, a national survey found that 90 percent of shoppers were using reusable bagslitter had also been reduced significantly.

Other countries have followed suit, though in a trickle, not a flood. But now political momentum is gathering across the globe to address the problems that plastics pose for the planet. Last year, Kenya banned plastic bags, becoming the latest of more than two dozen countries to either prohibit them or impose a fee for their use.

In the United States, California is the only state to have imposed a comprehensive solution to the plastic bag problem, banning single-use plastic bags in stores in 2014, an action then endorsed by voters in a statewide referendum in 2016. Dozens of municipalities have banned plastic bags or imposed fees to discourage their use, including Austin, Tex.; Chicago; and Seattle. New York State and Massachusetts may well find themselves on the front lines of the plastic bag war this year.

In January, the European Union responded with its first Europe-wide strategy on plastics, which aims to clamp down on single-use plastic items and ensure that they are fully recyclable by 2030.

All of this is part of a growing realization that our feckless use of plastics is out of control. This has become particularly evident in what is happening to the world’s oceans. In December, an important milestone was reached when 193 countries signed a United Nations resolution to monitor plastics disposal in the oceans and 39 countries committed to reducing the quantity of plastics going into the sea.

The United Nations Environment Program estimates that some eight million tons of plastic waste end up in the oceans each year, while a 2016 World Economic Forum report projects that there will be more plastic than fish by weight in the oceans by 2050 if current trends continue. Plastic production and disposal also generates around 400 million tons of carbon dioxide a year globally, more than total annual emissions from Britain.

Millions of whales, birds, seals and turtles die because they mistake plastic bags for food or because they become ensnared in nets, packing bands and other items. Trillions of microplasticsend up in the ocean, with seafood eaters ingesting an estimated 11,000 tiny pieces annually. Plastic fibers have also been foundin tap water around the world; in one study, researchers found that 94 percent of water samples in the United Stateswere affected. The impact on human health from direct exposure to microplastics is unknown.

One of the most direct ways to begin to address this problem is by taking on the single-use plastic bag.

Following in the footsteps of California, Massachusetts may attempt this year to impose a statewide solution to the plastic bag problem. In December, Boston’s mayor, Martin Walsh, signed an ordinance banning single-use plastic bags in city stores. With around 60 other municipalities in the state restricting or imposing fees on these bags, the State Legislature is considering banning them.

New York is another potential battleground. Efforts by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and by Mayor Bill de Blasio to introduce a bag fee have been stymied in part by opposition from the “big plastic” lobby.

Last year Gov. Andrew Cuomo blocked a law that would have imposed a 5-cent fee on plastic bags in New York City and called instead for a statewide solution. The task force he established identified eight options in a report released in January, including voluntary initiatives, outright bans and fees. But it makes no specific recommendations.

In choosing a solution, it is important to understand the real cause of the plastic bag problem: the myth of free plastic. Retailers pay up to 5 cents per plastic bag, but the cost is hidden, passed on to shoppers through higher grocery prices. This is, no doubt, a brilliant business model for plastic manufacturers, but it has had a devastating impact on the planet.

Fees charged to consumers for each plastic bag undermine the foundation of this myth. They have a long track record of success, and not just across American cities. They have been effective in DenmarkHong KongSouth AfricaBritain and Botswana. The average Dane, for example, now uses just four single-use plastic bags a year, after the introduction of a fee in 1994.

Some see fees as a regressive tax on seniors, the sick or the poor, but these arguments do not hold water. It is unjust to charge more for staples like food so that discretionary plastic items can be offered free, especially when there are alternatives. In any case, reusable bags can be provided for those in need.

Fees set above 15 cents that flow to an environmental fund strike a good balance between flexibility and effectiveness. They can be more politically acceptable than outright bans. For example, a survey of Irish citizens revealed that a remarkable 91 percent welcomed the fee because they witnessed the drop in litter and found reusable bags more suitable for carrying groceries.

The cultural impact can be game changing. As was the case with smoking indoors, the use of plastic bags becomes less socially acceptable over time once the government moves to restrict them. Reusable bags become the norm quicker than one might imagine, and shoppers seamlessly adapt their daily routines to the new reality. Action aimed at plastic bags can pave the way for further measures to address free coffee cups, lids, stirrers, cutlery, straws and takeout packaging.

When achieved, these small changes to our daily routines can be surprisingly empowering.

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EcoWise: Don’t Just Recycle…Reduce

The recent decision by the Village of Pelham to return to weekly from biweekly recycling pickup – after residents asked for the change in the new garbage contract – is just one indication that most households in the broader Town of Pelham dutifully recycle their plastic, paper and metal.

Recycling is to be encouraged. But next time you’re hauling out your bin full of plastic bottles, you might take a moment to think about things differently. How? By figuring out how to lessen both garbage and recycling – by buying items that have minimal packaging, using refillable water bottles instead of buying the kind that can eventually be recycled, or refusing a straw with your soda.

If that sounds like a big ask, you could first focus just on reducing use of plastic, particularly single-use items. (And if you’re buying items like ketchup and detergent for the house, buy them in bulk; it cuts down on packaging.)

Why single out plastic? Because even after it’s recycled, it never really goes away. Virtually all of the plastic that has ever been made is still on the planet in some fashion. A plastic bottle takes over 400 years to decompose — a plastic straw about 200 years.

The fact is that is the United Nations has termed plastic pollution “a planetary crisis” and there’s no sign – yet — that demand for plastic is slowing down. Some 311 millions tons of plastic is produced each year, and that amount is supposed to quadruple by 2050, according to the European Environmental Bureau. Especially given that everyday items such as plastic bags and straws can’t easily be recycled, this is not a problem that can be handled solely by recycling.

And, unfortunately, there’s an even bigger issue on the horizon: whether items that are meant to be recycled will actually end up being recycled. A December story from Bloomberg News detailed a change in policy in China that is having global implications for the recycling business. The country – the biggest buyer of the world’s waste – is getting much more finicky about what recycling it will accept. The story explains: “The country is trying to curb rampant pollution with new restrictions on waste imports and shutting old industrial plants, including mills that process foreign scrap into reusable raw materials.”

While it’s unclear right now how or if this change will affect the much smaller world of Pelham recycling, the best way to adjust to an ever-changing landscape is simple: don’t just recycle, but refuse, reduce, reuse — and then recycle.

 

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EcoWise: Village of Pelham Moves Closer to Environmental Sustainability Commitment

One of EcoPel’s bedrock goals is to raise the environmental consciousness of local government officials in support of policies that promote a greener, cleaner Pelham.

Recently, the Village of Pelham has moved steps closer to that goal as its Board of Trustees explores the creation of a sustainability advisory board (SAB). Such a body would develop programs and recommend policies that contribute to the environmental, economic, and social sustainability of the Village.

“A sustainability board can provide more than green window dressing,” said VOP Trustee Ariel Spira-Cohen, who is spearheading the effort with Trustee Xaira Ferrara. “Municipalities that meet a number of environmental goals can receive grants for their efforts, in addition to enhancing their towns going forward.”

Though still in the exploratory stages, the board would potentially be made up of six members appointed by the mayor with trustee approval, along with a liaison from the Village government. Sustainability members might come from like-minded civic organizations such as EcoPel.

Generally speaking, sustainability boards provide non-binding advice and expertise. For instance, while residents may express interest in food-scrap composting, to put that into practice requires a relationship with local governing bodies. “We have a great civic organization here, EcoPel, but we don’t currently have a sustainability committee that is very aligned or integrated into village government like some of the other Westchester municipalities,” Spira-Cohen said.

For an example of how a sustainability advisory board might work, EcoWise reached out to Steve Wolk, chairman of the Town of New Castle SAB. In recent years, it has helped establish a town-wide plastic bag ban and coordinated a shift from dual stream recycling – which requires that paper products be sorted separately from other recyclables — to single-stream recycling, which is more efficient.

Spira-Cohen said the idea of a Pelham SAB has come up for a number of reasons, including a desire by the trustees to modernize the tree committee that is currently part of the Village code. (The duties of the tree committee are largely carried out by the Village’s private contractor.) “An SAB is more beneficial than one-off initiatives,” she noted, “because it focuses on a long-term working relationship towards a set of goals.”

Pelham Manor isn’t currently discussing the creation of a formal advisory board, according to Manor Trustee Michelle DeLillo. But she noted that the Village is serious about sustainability, as evidenced by its robust recycling and waste management program that includes electronics recycling and curbside collection for leaf composting. It is also a member, as is the Village and the Town of Pelham, in Sustainable Westchester.

Interest in sustainability and environmentally-friendly policy is growing in Westchester, and an SAB can serve as a crucial linchpin, connecting the ideas and desires of citizens to improve their communities with the municipalities that can help enact them.

Village of Pelham residents interested in serving on the proposed SAB can contact  ariel.spiracohen@pelhamgov.com or xaira.ferrara@pelhamgov.com.

 

 

 

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EcoWise: How to Winnow the Waste Out of Your Holidays

In October, the youth group at Huguenot Memorial Church planned an event for 50 people with a key goal in mind: to generate zero waste.

According to Associate Pastor Jacob Bolton (above), the organizers asked the caterer – Modern Restaurant in New Rochelle — to deliver the food in recyclable foil tins and avoid using plastic wrap.

They clearly marked bins for recycling, composting, and regular trash. They even enlisted the help of Scarsdale’s composting activists to haul away the food scraps, since Pelham Manor does not have its own community food composting program. “What everyone realized throughout the night was nothing was going in the garbage,” Bolton said.

As we enter this month of gifts, galas — and garbage, you might give some thought to planning your own zero-waste gatherings.

The Environmental Protection Agency says Americans create 25 percent more waste during the holiday season than they do the rest of the year. While it’s hard to completely eliminate wrapping paper, boxes, and holiday cards, at least they’re recyclable.

EcoPel has culled a few handy tips to get you close to achieving that zero-waste goal:

  1. Use e-vites instead of paper invitations.
  2. Hang LED Christmas lights instead of incandescent lights, which use ten times more energy. Also consider reusable or natural decorations. Those pinecones littering your lawn could make the perfect centerpiece.
  3. Set the table with cloth napkins, china, and regular silverware – nothing plastic or paper.
  4. Serve hot beverages in ceramic mugs, rather than paper hot cups that actually aren’t recyclable because they are lined with a thin plastic coating.
  5. Turn down the heat. Once the guests arrive, they’ll warm up the house for you.
  6. Let your guests in on the zero-waste theme early. If they are bringing food, they, too, can use eco-friendly containers.
  7. Give the leftovers to your guests or to someone in need. Before tossing out those picked-over poultry carcasses and ham bones, squeeze out more nourishment by making soup stocks.
  8. Compost, if possible. If you have a bin in the backyard or other eco-solution for disposing of food scraps, paper towels, and coffee grinds, you have a much better chance of hitting the zero-waste mark.