GREEN JUNCTION: WHAT have you not substituted yet? BY JULIE PELLER PH.D

Sr. Melinda Roper (Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns) recently wrote, “I have read and heard comments that the effects of the coronavirus have been good news for much of the non-human community as well for the atmosphere, the earth, and water systems. This is attributed to the radical changes in human behavior.” While the drop in human activities was healing for nature in many ways, the uptick in plastic consumption was damaging. Before the pandemic, experts estimated that humans were consuming tens of thousands of microplastics each year. The increase in packaging and protective materials, mostly plastic-based, has added to the plastic waste and exposure problem. 

The production of plastic materials continues to rise, even as we face enormous and rising amounts of plastic waste worldwide and few solutions on the horizon. Plastic waste is primarily a consequence of lifestyles based on throwaway materials in the advanced nations combined with the non-biodegradable property of plastics. This pollution is as far-reaching and long-lasting as you can imagine.  

Over the past year, my colleague and her students analyzed 26 vacated birds’ nests. The ones collected near a big box store contained a significant amount of plastic. One nest was composed of 26% plastic by mass. A few months ago, researchers reported finding 2000 plastic bags in the stomach of a camel. I watch each day as birds retrieve “plastic food” from my backyard vegetable garden, which is unfortunately loaded with microplastics from the soil delivered by a landscape company or the county compost. I recently observed the devastation of a wetland by a company that illegally discharged millions of tiny pieces of plastic waste. Wildlife is subjected daily to this pollution.

 What kind of radical changes in human behavior can we imagine to reduce this plastic pollution? I do not view my journey to remove significant plastic from my life, especially single-use plastic, as a radical change. I view it as a morally responsible decision, especially given my understanding of this problem. Further, it is healthy to minimize plastics for the earth and all living creatures. While most people and businesses recognize the massive waste associated with plastics, overly packaged goods and other unnecessary plastics continue to be part of our daily, maybe even hourly, lives. If you have not yet substituted plastic bags, utensils, straws, water bottles, or reduced other consumption of plastic products, maybe it is time for that radical – but not radical – conversion. Join me on this journey and share your modifications and experiences with others.

Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental wor

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