Plastic Waste: Some Fish Can’t Seem to Lay Off It

There’s a lot of plastic waste out there in our oceans, and fish are eating a disturbingly high amount of it. And, it turns out, a good bit of that consumption may not entirely be by accident.

A recent article in Popular Science magazine describes research that Matthew Savoca, a California Sea Grant State Fellow at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries Science Center, conducted to help us understand better why fish appear to be attracted to plastics, and don’t merely consume them unwittingly as they eat other foods contaminated with tiny bits of plastic. It may have something to do with smell.

Savoca and his team, including researchers at the University of California-Davis and Aquarium of the Bay, actually began by looking into data on sea birds and how they pursue the food they eat. Some birds appear to be attracted to the smell of a compound in algae called dimethyl sulfide, and those birds that are drawn to this compound eat much more plastic than birds and other animals that don’t rely on it to detect the presence of available food.

Dimethyl sulfide often emerges when the cell walls of algae die, and the compound can infuse plastic materials with its aroma. Algae like to attach to hard, smooth surfaces, and as they float to the surface of the ocean to collect sunlight, they attach to bits of plastic that are floating around with the garbage we human beings negligently discharge into the ocean in large quantities.

What’s this got to do with fish? Savoca and his team turned to anchovies to see if they were attracted to dimethyl sulfide in the same way that certain sea birds are. To make a long story short, it turns out they are. Then, of course, these smaller aquatic animals are eaten by larger fish, and then by humans (and we eat anchovies ourselves).

So it seems that, as the article in Popular Science put it, “something happens to plastic in water that turns it from junk into junk food.” Of course, there’s still more work to do to find out whether other fish are attracted to plastic in this way. I leave it to you to read the article for the full story.

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Plastic Bag Ordinance Gains Support at Farmer’s Market

By George Stubbs

Are single-use plastic bags on the way out in Melrose? Very possibly, if the patrons of Sally Franks Farmers Market are any indication.

The Melrose Recycling Committee made an appearance at the market on Thursday, August 10, to promote its BYOBag (“bring your own bag”) initiative, a campaign to place restrictions on the use of single-use plastic bags in the city. The committee not only received significant support for the initiative from the attendees at the market; it found that many shoppers were backing up their beliefs in practice, by bringing their own reusable bags to take home produce and other goods.

The Recycling Committee sought to entice people to its table at the market by raffling a recycling toter—donated by Whittemore Hardware of Melrose—but the offer may not have been decisive in luring people to express their support for an ordinance limiting single-use plastic bags, committee volunteers observed. Some 80 market attendees put their names on a sign-up sheet and checked a box to indicate that they are in favor of a plastic bag ordinance. The committee offered the signatories a free reusable bag, but many of these people turned down the offer; they had plenty of such bags already.

A handful of people balked at idea of Melrose passing a new law limiting the use of plastic bags, saying they needed to study the issue more. Others were relieved to hear that such an ordinance would not impose penalties on shoppers but would rather target vendors while incentivizing consumers to use reusable bags (and what better incentive than giving the bags away, as the Recycling Committee has been doing, thanks to a generous donation by Melrose Bank). Still other people suggested that stores should post signs encouraging people to bring reusable bags when they shop.

As of this summer, 55 Massachusetts cities and towns have passed ordinances restricting the use of single-use plastic bags in one way or another. The Melrose Recycling Committee is aiming to work with the city’s Board of Aldermen and the Office of the Mayor in developing an ordinance that is right for the city. The committee encourages Melrose residents to contact their alderman (or alderwoman) and express their views on this issue.

The Recycling Committee estimates that Melrose residents use 9 million plastic bags per year or more. These bags are a major source of litter, and fewer than 5% of them are recycled. Furthermore, when recycled improperly—that is, when they are thrown into our recycling bins for pickup by JRM—that can cause havoc at the recycling facility, getting stuck in the machinery and forcing the shutdown of operations while workers perform the hazardous job of removing the bags. And of course, they are harmful to the environment: They don’t biodegrade; they choke, strangle, and entangle marine life; and they require hundreds of millions of gallons of petroleum to produce.

For further information, go to the Single Use Bags  page on this website.

My Life without Plastic Bags

by Michelle Desveaux

It’s been years since I began refusing single use plastic bags when shopping for groceries, and quite a while since I’ve been bringing my cloth bags wherever I shop, whether it be for clothing or hardware. It took a bit of time for me to remember to always bring my bags, but now it’s second nature: grab my keys, grab my bags….

Consequently, you would be hard pressed to find a plastic carry-out bag in our house. There may be one lingering in some dark corner, but I really couldn’t tell you where, and yet somehow life goes on quite comfortably without them!

First of all, it’s so refreshing not having to dedicate a drawer or other spot to smash all those plastic bags into for possible future use and then, with much environmental guilt, throw half of them away because they’re piling up faster than I can find uses for them! Sure, I recycle them, but the truth is, only a very tiny fraction (5%) ever make it to the recycling plant, and besides, recycling means using more fossil fuels to transport them and to make them into a final product that is almost always (99.9% of the time) not further recyclable. So, the bags that we do recycle never biodegrade no matter what form they take, and they will remain for our children’s children and beyond! We are simply making way for more trash and continue to squander our precious resources on an unnecessary item that we often use for as little as 10 minutes!

Life at our house is quite simple and comfortable. We use only one 13 gallon plastic kitchen bag for trash most weeks. All other trash bins (bathrooms, bedrooms, etc.) go bag-less and are emptied into our kitchen bag once a week or as needed. Once in a while, we may feel the need to wash the bathroom trash bins, but not very often.

Also, because we have a sweet, old, black lab, we have a poop situation! We purchase small, corn based compostable bags, which I don’t feel great about, but at least we are using far less “plastic” per poop! If you’re dead against purchasing bags for such purposes, there are tons of options that come into your home daily: bread and bun bags, cold cut bags, newspaper bags, veggie bags, cereal bags, snack bags, the bags that rubber gloves come in and all the other gazillion bags that enter your world! If you have friends that don’t have a dog, ask them to keep their bread bags for you. They are also the perfect size for packing shoes for travel, storing veggies in the fridge, carrying or disposing of something messy and more. Lastly, when I have the need to transport something to a friend (“just leave it in a bag on the porch”), I use the nice sturdy-handled paper bags that I get from gift shops and such. I do accept a nice paper bag from shops now and then…!

In all the years that I’ve been using cloth bags for my groceries, including meat purchases, I have not once taken ill from this habit (we do wash them when needed). I do, however, have a warm and fuzzy feeling knowing that I am doing my part to eliminate waste and pollution for this generation and beyond.