Published on
The Capital Times (Madison, Wis.)

Reduce Your Plastic Footprint

Wallace J. Nichols

This may be a bad time to ask, being the holiday season and all, but what's your plastic footprint?

You know what I mean -- the amount of disposable plastic stuff your lifestyle generates over the course of a day, a week, a year.

Plastic stuff that you may use for a few seconds or minutes. Then discard into the bin, sending it off into the world where it lasts essentially forever. A small fraction gets recycled into low-grade plastic things, but then lasts forever in that form.

Full disclosure: My plastic footprint is adult-sized. I bring my own bag, avoid drinks in plastic bottles, shun plastic foam and generally work hard to shrink my plastic consumption. But what goes into the recycling bin still amazes me. And the unrecyclable stuff bugs me even more.

There are food containers, wrappers, tabs from glass bottles, and all that stuff that still slips into the house or was sent to us by others -- kindly gifted by the uninitiated.

I guard the perimeter of our household against attacks by random plastic toys, packaging and bubble wrap. But it still gets in. Then there are the pen caps, doll shoes, and unidentified parts and pieces to previously fun playthings. We have a useless stockpile of them in our house, just like many of you.

The thing is these same items show up on remote El Salvadorian sea turtle beaches, in the stomachs of dead albatrosses on Midway Island, and on riverbanks around the world.

It's the flotsam and jetsam of our modern lives. And there are literally millions of tons of it swirling around out there being eaten by wildlife, breaking into ever smaller pieces and just sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

So here's what we need to do. Consider your plastic footprint every time you touch anything plastic.


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This isn't about getting completely bummed out or laying a major guilt trip on you (maybe just a little one) as the holiday plastic consumption frenzy consumes the world. It's about thinking this problem through and making smart changes to how we live.

Living like we love the ocean, because we do.

Ocean protection groups like Save Our Shores and Surfrider are hard at work removing plastic from our beaches and riverbanks, limiting the new stuff by championing polystyrene bans and taxes, and launching clever "bring your own bag" awareness campaigns. But we all have to help too.

Here's how:

1. Alternatives to plastics are on the way and many biodegradable and reusable items that work as well or BETTER than their plastic counterparts are on the shelves now. When you see them, choose them over plastic. When you don't see them, ask for them.

2. Use non-disposable items when possible and reuse plastic items when there is no alternative: Buying used toys, baby gear, and sports stuff will save you money and put what you do spend in your neighbor's pocket.

3. Talk about it with your kids, friends and strangers. Friends don't let friends use disposable plastic -- it's so 2008.

Ten years from now we'll look back on how big, ugly and smelly our plastic footprints really were, and revel in how small and clean they have become.

Wallace J. Nichols, of Davenport, Calif., is a research associate with the California Academy of Sciences and co-director of

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