By Helena Bachmann
When we think of a sea or an ocean, images of a vibrant marine life come to mind: Coral reefs, shells, various sea creatures big and small, as well as thousands of species of plants and tiny drifting organisms.
However, the reality is not always this sexy. In some places, this natural aquatic biodiversity is disturbed by a truly alarming man-made phenomenon: Trash.
It may come as a shock to many people to learn that what lies beneath the northern Pacific Ocean, in an area of slow-moving sea currents, is the world’s largest landfill. How big is this aquatic dumpster? It is so massive that it consists of two separate areas: The Eastern Garbage Patch between Hawaii and California is connected by a trash-filled 6,000-mile stretch to the Western Patch that spreads from Hawaii to Japan. Needless to say, this underwater waste bin has killed off all marine life.
Where did all this litter come from? Marine biologists believe that the vast majority of it is being dumped directly into the waterways or is blown into the ocean-feeding rivers from all corners of the earth.
Unfortunately, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as this place is known, is one of millions of landfills around the world, some more regulated by laws than others. It is no secret – and, in fact, a source of growing concern - that the sometimes-toxic waste emanating from all that garbage contaminates our air, soil, and water, creating serious health hazards, including cancer.
Question is – how can we dispose of our trash safely? Fortunately, the answer is fairly simple: we have to generate less waste by recycling as much as possible.
Thrashing the planet
Despite what many people may think, the notion of recycling is not a new phenomenon.
There is evidence to suggest that as early as 200 B.C. the Chinese recycled old fishing nets into paper. Later on, in other parts of the world, swords and other metal objects were melted down so that new items such as coins could be made.
Things started to seriously deteriorate in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. While this period of intense development of the agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and technology was undoubtedly good for the economy, it was (and continues to be) disastrous for the eco-system. All these growing industries have been polluting our land, water, and air. At the same time, natural resources are being depleted with little regard for the environment.
As our knowledge of the potential health and environmental hazards of un-recycled refuse grows, we get a better understanding of what approaches we should take to protect ourselves and the earth from these dangers.
The three “Rs”
Think about it: When was the last time you tossed away a plastic bag or a paper cup? In our culture, “disposable” means “convenient,” and chances are that you discard these items routinely, without giving it a second thought. The idea that these objects might end up floating in the Pacific Ocean probably never entered your mind, right?
Fact is, we all create garbage. It is what we do with it that will make either a positive or a negative impact on the environment.
This is where the three “R’s” – reduce, reuse, and recycle - can make a world of difference.
• Reduce the amount and toxicity of trash you throw away by consuming less. For example, buy products in bulk because they require less packaging and last longer; avoid disposable goods such as paper plates and cups. Using cloth napkins and towels instead of paper ones may seem like a burden, but you will soon see advantages of these actions, both in terms of garbage you generate and the money you save.
• Reuse whatever items you can. For instance, use the same sturdy paper or cloth bags for groceries over and over again. Reuse aluminum foil or plastic wrap before recycling it. Instead of buying disposable batteries that will emit traces of harmful mercury and other toxins into the soil and water supply when you discard them, opt for rechargeable ones, which can be used hundreds of times. And when you can no longer use them, don’t just toss them away. Many communities have permanent collection sites for hazardous household materials such as batteries.
• Recycle! Not only should you separate such household items as aluminum cans, metal pots and pans, plastic and glass bottles, milk and juice containers, paper, carton, and corrugated cardboard from your regular trash, but you should also dispose of them in appropriate recycling bins available in your town or community.
A positive difference
If you are not yet accustomed to reducing, reusing, and recycling, it’s never too late (or too early) to start. It may take a while for this habit to become part of your daily routine, but once it will, you are going to be part of the solution, not the cause of the problem.
Never forget why recycling should be second nature to you:
It saves precious resources. Recycling paper, for example, preserves trees and forests, which provide oxygen for us to breathe and eliminate harmful carbon dioxide from the air. Recycling plastic water and soda bottles, as well as milk and juice containers, also reduces the need for petroleum used to make new plastic products.
It lowers the energy output that is required to manufacture new products. This means that less greenhouse gases and waste by-products are polluting the environment.
It reduces landfills and contamination. Waste that is not biodegradable can remain in landfills for centuries (yes, CENTURIES), often emitting substances that are harmful to our health and the environment.
Become an aware consumer and citizen of the world. Find out all you can about recycling, join the trend, and encourage those around you to do the same. Remember: If you reduce, reuse and recycle in a consistent and continuous manner, you will be making a positive and meaningful impact on your (and everyone else’s) life.
To rephrase the often-quoted saying: “Let there be clean and eco-friendly world, and let it begin with me.”
If we all live by this mentality, maybe in time the whale songs, toadfish calls and other sounds of a thriving marine life will replace the swishing of garbage as it makes its way to its final resting place in the Pacific Ocean.
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