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Plastics don't make it possible

The Sound of Sustainability



On Wednesday we headed out into the snow. It was falling fast, deepening underfoot, and barely anyone was out. We walked toward the marsh, eager to see our familiar Lowcountry landscape covered in white. And we noticed how quiet it was. We could hear the squeak of boots in the snow, the call of an out-of-sorts osprey, even the tamp of flakes against our jackets.

We reached the marsh and could not see much. An ibis flew overhead and was lost in a flurry. We shivered as the wind swept over the tidal basin. It was uncommonly beautiful. Walking back we spoke in hushed tones, cold snow stinging our cheeks. Again, it was quiet. Until we heard a strange sound. It was the pop of plastic underfoot.

Yes, even in a snowstorm on the marsh, one of us stepped on a single-use plastic bottle. It was jarring to have such a pure moment interrupted by pollution. And it brought to mind something I've been worrying about for a long time. One of the great environmental catastrophes we face is the use of unsustainable products and packages, particularly those made of plastic, and the ways that plastic seems to find its way to the water. It should have been no surprise that we stepped on plastic in a snowstorm. It's everywhere.

Plastic has become a mainstay of American life, but very little of it is ever reused. Researchers tell us that 95 percent of plastic packaging is single-use. The carrier bags from the grocery store, for example, or the water bottles we drain and quickly discard. Most of our plastic waste ends up in landfills or in the watershed, where it stays without degrading for generations. In other words, the plastic we throw out now will be there for our grandchildren to pick up the next time it snows in the Lowcountry. That is, if sea turtles don't eat it first.

Marine biologists note that plastics are especially harmful to sea life. Turtles mistake bags for prey, eat them, and die as a result. Microplastics are consumed by smaller sea animals and make their way into the food chain. Some of these contain chemicals like Bisphenol A, which we then ingest while eating fish. Bisphenol A is an endocrine disrupter and clearly not something that is good for our bodies. So prevalent is plastic pollution in the ocean that we now find plastic trash on the most remote Pacific Islands and in the farthest reaches of the Arctic. British scientists tell us that, at the rate we are going, by the year 2050 the weight of plastic in the sea will be greater than the weight of fish. To bring it closer to home, Citadel researchers inform us that on any given day Charleston Harbor is home to 7 tons of plastic waste. Yet this is an easy problem to solve.

Most of us who live in the Lowcountry love the water and wish to protect and preserve it. We'd be happy to do what needs to be done to take care of this place we love. In fact, when the City of Charleston conducted a survey of thousands of local residents and business leaders, 96 percent of respondents said they would favor banning single-use plastic bags. These bags end up in the water, but we don't need them. Our family switched to cloth bags more than 10 years ago. It took about a week. When we visit relatives in Hawaii and California, we marvel at how entire cities and states that depend on the ocean easily banned plastic bags without missing a beat. In Hawaii, for example, cloth bags are ubiquitous, and if you don't have one you can pay a few cents for paper. Since California banned single-use plastic bags, officials estimate that more than 13 billion of them have been kept out of the environment annually. State cleanup crews have noted the difference: they are picking up half as many plastic bags on the beach.

Many of our coastal communities in South Carolina have already reached a consensus on banning single-use plastic bags. Hilton Head, Beaufort, Charleston, and Aiken are among the places where polls show overwhelming support for moving away from plastic bags to sustainable canvas or recyclable paper. Yet the issue never feels urgent and never comes up for a vote. This year, let's ask our public officials to lead the way in banning materials that harm our environment, our wildlife, and our bodies. As we do, let's commit ourselves to using canvas bags, carrying reusable water bottles, leaving off straws and lids, and minimizing our own impact on this place we love. Let's begin the year with the consensus we already have: we don't need more plastic, we need to protect our beautiful Lowcountry home. Maybe if we do this, then the next time a snowstorm comes, we won't hear the pop of plastic underfoot. We can just listen to the sound of sustainability.

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