According to several news stories over the last few months, scientists have confirmed second giant ocean garbage patch, or patches, in the Atlantic Ocean (the first was discovered in the Pacific Ocean in 1997). In an area known as the North Atlantic Subtropical Convergence Zone, trails of seaweed mix with plastic bags and bottles, crates and other debris, trapping wildlife and gradually breaking up into a fine particle soup just below the surface of the water. According to the United Nations Environmental Program, 80 percent of this ocean trash originates on land.
The title of this post, taken directly from The Onion, vividly illustrates the challenge of addressing an environmental problem one person at a time on a planet of 6 billion. (But don’t be one of the satirist’s 30 million; pledge to Rise Above Plastics and Protect Water Quality on Care2.)
Incentives for Changing Environmental Behavior
Earlier this month the Gallup polling company announced: “Green Behaviors Common in U.S., but Not Increasing.” Based on three rather limited indicators of environmentalism – likelihood of recycling household trash, conserving energy, and buying “green” products – the pollsters found no statistically significant increase in green behaviors over the last decade. At the same time, the Washington Post reported that the DC bag tax appears to have resulted in more than an 85 percent decrease in plastic bag use in the nation’s capital.
Wow. Maybe people need an incentive to change behavior?
This shouldn’t be terribly shocking. Millions of people still smoke cigarettes in spite of the indisputable evidence of a high probability of long-term negative consequences of doing so. Many common smoking cessation techniques involve creating immediate incentives or disincentives.
Bottle Bills Create an Incentive to Recycle
Several states in Canada and the United States have promoted a dramatic decrease in littering by placing a nominal ($0.05 or so) refundable fee on beer and soda containers. Not only did this create an immediate disincentive for dropping a can out a car window, it created an incentive for picking up those dropped by others. Enormous opposition by bottling companies and retailers combined with faith that curbside recycling would solve the problem without onerous fees stalled the U.S. effort to take bottle bills nationwide. And, unfortunately, bottle bills don’t capture bottle caps (a big part of both the Pacific and Atlantic gyre trash) and generally don’t cover beverages that were not popular when the laws were enacted but are ubiquitous now: juices, teas, bottled water, and other non-carbonated beverages.
Depending on household curbside recycling to alleviate litter and prompt recycling of single-serve bottles reveals a disconnect between policy and consumer behavior it hopes to affect. Where’s the incentive for a consumer who purchases and drinks a bottle of tea, water, or juice away from the home, where most single-serve beverages are consumed, to carry that bottle home and recycle it? And, while 90 percent of Gallup respondents claimed to recycle, there’s no where near that proportion of even commonly recyclable household trash getting collected in curbside pickups.
Big Problem of Giant Garbage Patch Will Require Multiple Solutions
I’m obviously in support of bottle bills, bag fees and similar measures to keep trash out of our oceans. What would you like to see done about the problem? What are you doing in your community to stop trash at the source? Please share in the comments.
**More Care2 Earth Day Coverage**
ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING EARTH DAY:
HOW ARE ANIMALS AFFECTED?
THINGS TO PONDER
THOSE MAKING A DIFFERENCE
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