by Jeanette Garcia Polasky, Department of Public Works

image of trash floating in ocean

You’ve probably heard the saying, “Everything’s bigger in Texas.” It makes sense, given that Texas is our nation’s largest state in “the lower 48.” But the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is bigger…much bigger. In fact, it’s twice the size of the Lone Star State and continues to grow. And it is estimated that its four siblingsthe South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic and Indian Ocean garbage patchescover at least two million square miles, collectively. All five oceanic garbage patches contain high concentrations of plastic, some of which has disintegrated into the smaller pieces that we refer to as microplastics. The smaller the pieces, the harder they are to clean up and the easier they are for marine life to ingest.

Scientists are still learning about how these garbage patches affect the environment, marine life and human health, but we frequently see examples of the negative impacts of plastic pollution in the news and on social media, such as videos of birds and turtles that have gotten tangled up in plastic, or stories about dead fish and other marine life being found with lots of plastic in their stomachs. It’s not hard to imagine those problems on a much larger scale.

image of turtle in waters polluted with trash

However, the ocean’s five garbage patches are really only the tip of the iceberg. According to the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, more than five trillion pieces of plastic litter the ocean. That means we have a lot of cleaning up to do, as will our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. It also means we must learn to be much more careful about the use of plastic in our everyday lives.

April is Earth Month, and like last year, 2019’s theme focuses on beating plastic pollution. Here are 15 tips to help you get started.​ 

  1. Help save the turtles and our materials recovery facility: Use reusable shopping bags instead of single-use plastic bags. If you forget to bring a reusable bag, buy one or ask for “paper, not plastic.” If you must use a single-use plastic bag, recycle it through your local retailer.
  2. Choose products packaged in cardboard, paper, metal and glass over plastic (including polystyrene) whenever possible. Go the extra mile and reuse your glass jars as cups or to store food and small household items. 
  3. Shop in bulk to reduce packaging waste. Buying coffee pods by the thousand doesn’t count.
  4. Refuse single-use plastic straws. If you need a straw in order to drink, consider using a stainless steel straw or some other more sustainable option.
  5. Americans buy about 50 billion water bottles each year. All that convenience carries a hefty price tag. Drink from a reusable water bottle instead of buying bottled water.
  6. Bring a thermos when you’re on the go instead of buying beverages in single-use containers.
  7. Use reusable cups, plates and cutlery in lieu of the single-use plastic options.
  8. Having a party? Opt for reusable linens and decorations instead of single-use plastic.
  9. Store food in reusable containers instead of plastic food storage bags and cling wrap.
  10. Purchase cleaners and other household items in refillable containers. Soon you will have more options to do so!
  11. In the bathroom: Buy soap, shampoo and other personal care products in bar form or refillable packaging. Try using a bamboo toothbrush. Use razors with metal handles, not plastic. Also, beat the micro-bead.
  12. Clothing care: Use wire hangers instead of plastic ones. And refuse conventional dry cleaning bags. If your dry cleaner will agree to use it, bring in a reusable garment bag when you drop off your dry cleaning.
  13. Parentsconsider using cloth diapers.
  14. Stop buying or accepting plastic freebies, promotional items, party favors, trinkets and other novelty items you don’t need. They create clutter and eventually end up in a landfill, or worse, polluting lands and waterways.
  15. Close the loop: If you must buy plastic, look for products that are made from recycled material.

Want to get an idea of how much plastic you use? Calculate your plastic footprint using the Earth Day Network’s calculator.

Photographs by Caroline Power Photography.