The Last Straw

The campaign for this year’s Earth Day is to end the global crisis of mounting toxic plastic pollution. According to environmentalist Marcus Eriksen, so much plastic has been dumped in the oceans that now more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic waste, collectively weighing over 250,000 tons, are afloat at sea.

Some nations have already implemented important legislation to address this alarming situation.

For example, France’s Energy Transition for Green Growth Act will ban disposable plastic cups and plates by 2020.

In Kenya, producing, selling or using plastic bags will lead to a fine of $40,000 or four years in jail.

As you probably know, at Harvard-Westlake we have begun our own single-use plastic elimination program, starting with plastic straws. Based on a rough count, we have eliminated approximately 45 straws per day, totaling 8,000 per school year, and we have shifted to using 81% compostable straws rather than plastic straws—good job, Wolverines!

Building on this success and in honor of Earth Day, let’s consider what more we can do to reduce plastic pollution.

Here are five relatively simple steps that can make a real difference in our plastic pollution footprint on campus and in our daily lives:

1. Ditch the straw. At Starbucks or any other coffee place, when ordering a cold drink, request the server to keep the plastic top and straw. After all, we don’t need the straw to enjoy the drink, and we don’t need the plastic cap for a cold beverage. Also, if you see someone near you reach for a straw, try spreading the message. They may not know the detrimental effect plastic straws have on the environment. (One million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed annually from plastic in our oceans).

2. Shop in style. Keep one or two canvas shopping bags accessible so that when you shop somewhere plastic bags are used, you will have an environmentally friendly alternative. (Annually, approximately 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide.)

3. Use smart packaging. Instead of using plastic wraps or other plastic packaging, employ reusable containers so that you do not create more single-use plastic trash. (Plastic can never be broken down; every particle of plastic that has ever been created still exists in a form toxic to all terrestrial and marine life.)

4. Reuse. One of the biggest sources of plastic waste in our community is the plastic water bottles that we throw away each day. If everyone brought their own water bottle to school, we would enormously cut down our plastic pollution as a campus community. Eventually, the cafeteria would not need to stock its shelves with wasteful plastic. (Americans throw away over 35 billion plastic water bottles every year!)

5. Dine elegantly. When you order take-out or fast-food, tell the restaurant that you don’t need the plastic cutlery and plastic plates. Instead, use what you have at home.
It is up to our generation to take control of this crisis. According to EcoWatch, “in the Los Angeles area alone, 10 metric tons of plastic fragments — like grocery bags, straws and soda bottles — are carried into the Pacific Ocean every day.”

Further, the organization reports that “it takes 500 to 1,000 years for plastic to degrade.” As a community, let’s do our part to save our fish, our oceans and our planet. The Earth’s fate is quite literally in our hands. To many happy and meaningful Earth Days!