The Bottle and the Bag
By Janice Van Dyke Walden
Plastic in Paradise is a three-part series on the prevalence of plastic in the Gulf Coast’s marine life, and how it affects the food we eat and the water we drink. Speaking to local groups who deal with it everyday, they tell us how prevalent plastic pollution is along the Gulf Coast, and what we can do to reduce it and to eliminate it from our lives.
As much as 90% of floating marine debris may be plastic. And that doesn’t account for all the plastic that sinks to the bottom of the ocean, settling in sediment for thousands of years. Researchers estimate that 70% of plastic pollution will never be seen because it sinks out of sight.
While a definitive study on the impact of plastic on the Gulf of Mexico has not be conducted, institutions along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas are now banding together to collect, quantify and analyze plastic samples found along our shores.
A study published in 2014 estimates that 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris possibly float in the world’s oceans. Because the Gulf of Mexico was not included in that study, there’s no telling what our Gulf would contribute to the plastic count. But on the surface, here’s what some Gulf Coast residents are finding. It’s affects their livelihood. It affects the way we live:
The cost to fishermen
It’s the sound that no captain wants to hear: an alarm onboard goes off while you’re ten miles offshore.
That’s what happened last August to Captain Shane Cantrell aboard his charter vessel, Sharecropper. The boat was full of paying clients, ready for a day of fishing. They had cleared the Galveston jetty and were well out of site of land. Something triggered the overhead alarm on the intake. Cantrell stopped everything to open up the engine hatch and take a look. Inside he saw convenience wrapped around his gear case: a plastic ice bag either thrown overboard or allowed to get loose by someone. Ten miles offshore, a single bag had sucked up in his engine and blocked off the intake for the water pump that keeps the engine cool. Sharecropper’s twin engines were overheating and could have failed, leaving Cantrell stranded in the Gulf of Mexico with a boatload of clients.
A single 2 cent bag could have cost Cantrell $80,000. If he had lost both engines, Cantrell figures their replacement would have cost up to $30,000, and his downtime in high season could have meant $50,000 in lost revenue.
Encountering plastic offshore is nothing new to Cantrell. Most often in May and June when he’s out in depths up to 1,000 feet of water, he’ll see mylar balloons floating in the sargassum. The balloons are from the season’s graduation parties and ceremonies that have been released and floated away. Their shiny mylar plastic lodges in the floating beds of sea grass that are food for the Gulf’s juvenile turtles. “I’ve seen everything from hard hats to plastic bottles out in the sargassum,” he says. “But, the most common debris apart from the balloons is the single-use bottle and bags.”
Floating global: plastic bottles
Long-time San Leon resident Stennie Meadors shares that same observation. She speaks with over 30 years in the field of environmental management. For ten years till 2001 she was an emergency response manager for Texas Commission on Environmental Quality handling response units for spills. She worked on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and before that, she conducted hazardous waste inspections in the Houston area. A turning point for her came in 2007 when her grandson brought her the skeleton of a brown pelican with a plastic bottle lodged in its pelvic area. The bottle may have come from across the ocean, or it may have been deposited locally.
For three years, Meadors fought to ban plastic bottles in her area. To this day, there’s no law banning the bottle. Now she focuses on grassroots clean ups and consumer awareness in the shoreline process. She and her group of volunteers for Plastic Pollution Partnership comb the beaches from San Luis to Bolivar and from Morgan’s Point to the Texas City Prairie Preserve picking up plastic on a regular basis. “We see plastic straws,” Meador says, “They are a problem, but we don’t see them as often as we see water bottles.”
Meadors tells of the plastic bottles that washed up recently at Bolivar: about 50 bottles were found – small, yellow and worn-out, the product of Industrias Macier SA. The bottles were also punctured with holes. Meadors discovered they were bite holes of juvenile turtles. The bottles had floated across the Gulf from the Dominican Republic and drifted onto the beaches of Texas and Louisiana. Filled with vinegar or bleach, the contents had been used to distill water in the Dominican Republic. “They sell for 10 cents a bottle, get discarded and then get caught up in the Gulf Stream and land on our shores,” Meador says. She has given some of the turtle-bitten bottles to Joanie Steinhaus to display. Steinhaus runs the Galveston office of the Turtle Island Restoration Network, and uses samples like these to bring awareness to the public and to students they work with in Galveston’s schools.
“The plastic is so sharp that it can perforate on the way down,” says Steinhaus’ colleague, Theresa Morris, who is part of the coastal research team. The turtles “have these spikes in their throat that makes sure the food goes down, and so it will actually force food down in their guts, and the plastic will cut them up on the way down. Sometimes they can pass it, but you’re talking about very small pieces of plastic, and depending on what they’re made of, the plastics will be leaching chemicals that could cause physiological disruptions.”
Although bottles are among the top ten plastic items trashing the Gulf Coast, Steinhaus’ biggest plastic peeve is the single use bag, also among the top 10. “We live on an island,” she says. “Single use bags have a shelf life of maybe, 12 minutes. Less than 5% of them are recycled. They end up in the water. We live on an island. They’re blowing down the streets. They’re going to end up in the Gulf.”
A world of convenience
At Galveston’s Walmart on the Seawall at 64th Street, it’s easy to see how this happens. The parking lot is full at noon with shoppers pushing cartloads of purchases in plastic bags. Most of the items are double-sacked. Within five minutes, 80 plastic bags leave the store. Outside, a plastic bag floats by a woman waiting for a ride. “That wasn’t mine,” she says, “It was here when I got here.”
That attitude prevails in North America and Western Europe which use 80% of the 4 trillion plastic bags produced each year.
Some kind of fight
For Steinhaus, “It’s one simple change, and people fight it.” People like Gov. Greg Abbott. He opposes individual cities banning the plastic bag, claiming that Texas is being “California-ized.” Also opposing city ordinances to ban the bag is Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. He’s asked the Texas Supreme Court to affirm the Fourth Court of Appeals decision that declared Laredo’s plastic bag ban unlawful. Paxton is calling a bag ban by individual cities unlawful because it violates state law, the Texas Health and Safety Code, which forbids municipalities from making rules to “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.
Last year, resistance came on another level, Steinhaus says, when after working with a team of Galveston city officials to draft an ordinance on the marine environment, City Attorney Don Glywasky received a call from a South Carolina law firm with the intent to sue if Galveston passed its bag ban.
The Texas Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Laredo’s case on Jan. 11. The court’s ruling will have implications for Houston, Galveston and all other Texas cities that want to determine their own bag law. In the meantime, businesses and individuals are choosing alternatives to the plastic bag.
Galveston businesses take voluntary actions
“For hotels, it was easy for them to eliminate them,” says Steinhaus, “They have very limited use; their gift shops – especially the places like the Tremont, The Galvez or the Hilton, their clientele doesn’t mind. Most of them use paper bags or sell bags.” For the island’s smaller shops where price margins matter more, Steinhaus is in favor of forming a bag coop to lower the cost of paper bags for individual shop owners.
Either way, these local residents all agree it comes down to personal choice. Plastic “is something that we can have more control over,” says Cantrell. “It’s not coming from any other source but human. People don’t think about it, and people don’t intend to throw into the ocean, but it’s there.”
What can you do?
- Refuse the bag; bring your own bag and bottle.
- Bundle your plastic bags and deposit them at recycling receptacles located at the front of most grocery stores.
- Buy your own re-useable bags and keep them in your car. If you don’t yet have a collection of re-useable bags, use paper bags.
- Tell the store manager you’ll shop elsewhere unless they provide an alternative bag, like a paper bag or one you can buy and re-use.
- Recycle any plastic bottles you find or purchase.
- Instead of buying bottled water for home consumption, buy a Brita or other water filter, and filter your own water. Drink for drink, it’s less expensive, too.
- Tell your city, county and state representatives what you want done about the plastic bag and bottle.
- Join a local advocacy group. Help with clean ups. Spread awareness and good habits. You can do it every day or once a year.
Texas Local Advocacy Groups
Plastic Pollution Reporting for Galveston/Harris Counties
firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook
Galveston Bay Foundation
NOAA Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment Program
Turtle Island Restoration Network
Texans for Clean Water
Adopt a Beach