Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Lesson in Conservation - Plastic Grocery Bags

Going through the check-out stand the other day, my reusable grocery bags in tow, the cashier said something about not understanding "what we're saving by encouraging these".  I empathetically said, "I know, they're a bit of a hassle aren't they?" but my tone was truly about empathising, not agreeing. I followed that statement with, "Plastics are made with petroleum and they take a lot of energy to make, but the problem is really what happens to them after we use them."

Then, I apparently had her hooked and while she was actually finished bagging the few things I was purchasing, she didn't hand my two bags to me.  Instead, she asked, "What's the problem?  I mean, I know they look ugly hanging on fences but. . . "  I hadn't really meant to start campaigning or anything - its that naturally existing teacher within me.  I can't help it.  So, knowing the two customers behind me wanted things to move on.  I handed her a card about this blog and told her to give me a week and then look it up on my blog and she would find more information.  I knew Alice had just received quite an education about this through a couple of the marine ecology activities and lessons she had participated in, so I answered the cashier briefly with, "we're killing shore birds and marine wildlife with them."  So here it is.

So What is Happening?

To put it briefly, almost every where on land, (the Great Basin of the Southwest is the only exception in the US), all water goes downhill and to the ocean.  Even in the great basin the water flows downhill untill it is trapped in a lake and filters into the water table.  That means that all our trash and liquid and solid pollution that manages to escape containment in a landfill will also eventually head down stream.
The thing about plastics is that they take such a long time to decompose that they are collecting in areas of the ocean where the currents converge in such a way as to create vast areas littered with partially floating (but not quite on the surface) bits of plastic.  It is a bit like a stew where all the vegetables and meats are different bits of plastic and the ocean is the broth.  One of the biggest of these areas is in the North Pacific.

Resources to Learn More:

If you'd like to read more about it without the "lesson components" I'll be adding, here are a few articles that provide good background information for teachers and learning coaches:

Great Pacific Garbage Patch (article associated with the map image used at top).
(makes all issues SUPER CLEAR - I DO NOT recommend this for young kids, but watch for your own background information and to SEE the problem for yourself.)

A Summary of Why these Garbage Patches are a Problem for Marine Ecosystems:

If you've seen Happy Feet, you've seen a depiction of how plastic can get caught around an animal's neck and cause problems.  What about entanglement around their wings or feet preventing movement?  What about filter feeders for whom it prevents filtering?  As if the problem of clogging up a filter feeder's filters (or suffocating marine animals) weren't enough.  What is harder to see - or photograph is the amount of plastic that winds up inside the animal's stomachs.  The non-digestible plastic then sits there clogging up the digestive tract of the animal (this is particularly problematic for shorebird hatchlings and young albatross).  The animals then don't get enough to eat and starve to death.  When the animal dies, it decomposes and the plastic is re-released into the ocean to kill again.

Additionally, contrary to popular belief, the rainforests are NOT our biggest source of fresh oxygen.  Phytoplankton are.  These phytoplankton live in the first few surface feet (depth of life is dependent upon turbidity and temperature of the water, so depth changes depending on location) of our oceans and photosynthesize using the sun's energy just like plants do.  This enormous amount of microscopic creatures is what feeds the smallest marine organisms which are what feed the slightly larger organisms and so on up the chain.  Where these garbage flotillas are, fewer of these phytoplankton can survive because there is less sunlight getting beneath the garbage.  This has implications for the entire food chain as the garbage islands become increasingly larger and larger.

A Summary of why this is a Problem for You and Me:

"So what?" you say?  Well, even if you don't care about the harm done to the animals, fish stocks are already down.  Many of the poorest people around the world depend on fish for their main protein source.  We depend on these marine ecosystems to feed us - and fish are ecologically the most efficient source of protein humans have (when fished in sustainable ways).  What happens when people start not getting enough fish because they aren't there to eat?

Also, as the plastic SLOWLY decomposes it is releasing toxins into the fish (and other marine mammals) that will slowly build up and add themselves to any one who eats anything that has come into contact with these toxic plastics.  Just one more way our own pollution is coming back to haunt us.  We wonder why certain ailments seem to be on the rise, but scientists know that many cancers and others of the ailments are due IN PART to exposure to certain toxins.  So, while I hadn't yet felt the need to teach Alice about all of this, it was presented to her at a couple of the activities and outings we did over the month of August.


I would generally consider this topic more suited to children who are fifth grade or older.  Getting too deeply into environmental problems too soon with kids can actually have an opposite effect to what teachers and parents who introduce these things early are intending and create a sense of hopelessness and apathy in kids.  Whatever age your kids are, make sure you give them hope.  Leave them feeling empowered by actions they can take to make a difference.  However, kids CAN learn to conserve without all the gory details.

Important Vocabulary:  

Flotsam and Jetsam
Convergence Zone

Important Concepts to Understand:

Watch this video about how plastic bags are made.  You could look up any number of plastic products like drinking bottles and their caps or DVD's to see what goes into making the product in the first place  (Although even this video leaves out the waste and processes involved in extracting the raw materials used at the beginning.  With older kids, ask them to do the research of how the raw materials are actually aquired).

Kids learning about the Great Garbage Patch will also need to know quite a bit more about Ocean Currents.  Here are some related activities for the background knowledge kids will need to really understand why these "collections" exist in the ocean.

Tides - which also cause currents
Creating a Halocline - Salt water is denser than fresh.  This causes mixing in deeper water similar to that demonstrated in the "Currents" lesson.  

After they know what currents are and what causes them, hop into a jacuzzi (or other device with water jets if available) and watch how the bubbles seem to gather in one spot.  This same thing happens to floating debris in our oceans.  If you don't have access to a jacuzzi, Use a large pot and make a current spinning around the edge of the pot.  Sprinkle in some basil or other flaky substance and watch how the flakes collect largely in one spot in the pot.

Of course, it is possible to teach kids about the hazards of plastics without needing to describe and instruct about the Garbage Patch.  The best ANSWER to the problem we have at this time is to more fully embrace"The Three R's".  If working with younger kids, like Alice, all they really need to learn is that plastic hurts our marine ecosystems and then to learn about "Reduce, Reuse and Recycle". 

Reduce, Reuse and Recycle:  What they all REALLY mean:

In the popular vernacular, recycle has come to mean reuse as well as recycle and reduce has been all but forgotten by many.  So here is a reclarification of these three important ACTIONS one can take to help with this issue as well as many others.

In order of importance:

REDUCE:  This is the most important thing we can do in general - it will even help our personal pocketbooks.  Reduce means simply using less.  Buy fewer clothes, toys, wear fewer different shoes (and wear each pair more often).  The idea here being, less is more.  Why do we need new phones every two years - can't a way to update what we already have be part of the program? . . . 

REUSE:  This one actually helps us reduce as well because by reusing things new stuff isn't having to be made to replace the stuff we are reusing.  Reuse means, use it again.  Instead of using plastic or paper plates use the dishes you wash.  Then, use them again.  Hand clothes down and use hand - me- downs (again, helps the pocket book).  Purchase classics and have MOST of your wardrobe be items that won't need replacing next season when the next trendy thing is on the shelves.  Put up with the old TV or Computer for as long as you possibly can.  Reuse gift bags, tubs and containers. . . you get the idea.  At our house when we pack sandwiches we use tupperware specifically designed for holding sandwiches.  Then, we wash the containers and use them again next time - no need for zip-locs (again, this saves money in the long run too).  Use trash in your projects, crafts and other things.  You can weave plastic grocery bags into hats, purses, even throw rugs and other useful items (I've even seen some re-used products that look pretty good.  My purse is partially woven soda pop-top tabs)

RECYCLE: Turn things in to be recycled and use products made from recycled goods.  This actually means the product gets broken down and remade entirely.  For example, Plastic Bottles and diapers are melted down and made into plastic decking planks.  The thing that makes recycling different from reusing is that you won't recognize the originally recycled product in its newer form.  It also requires a lot of energy and THAT is why Recycling alone isn't the answer.  In an ideal situation, Reduce and Reuse are the first steps and happen the most.  Recycle and Compost should be the last resorts for nearly all of the trash we use and only done when the other two can't be done.  People understood this until the 1940's and reusing was the way of life for most throughout The Great Depression and even leading up to it.  The advent of recycling has come to repair the damage done by the throw-away society we have become.  While recycling is a good thing, it does not replace reducing and reusing first.

A Few Activities You Can Try:
Next time you get groceries and need more bag space, ask for paper instead of plastic.  Then, make a journal out the paper bag by folding it around some sheets of paper you would have recycled and filling it with paper made from recycled materials, or paper that has only been used on one side.  Have your kids fill their journal with pictures about their experiences with special habitats and organisms in nature they'd like to help preserve.

This picture is Alice's way of showing how big blue whales are.
Make a bunch of plastic grocery bags into a reusable bag:  We haven't done this yet, but it is on the list.  We will be doing ours using a weaving technique (which is just more appropriate for a six year old than the tougher alternatives out there).  For now, you'll have to rely only on the AWESOME and clear instructions on this link for bags that are knitted or crocheted.

Participate in International Coastal Cleanup Day on Sep. 15th.  Even if you don't live anywhere near the ocean, almost everywhere in the world all things head downhill and eventually wind up in the ocean anyway.  If you can't sign up for an organized coastal clean-up activity on the beach, sign up for one along a river or lake OR if you can't participate on the 15th, pick a safe area near home where you know trash tends to collect.  Enlist your neighbors, friends and homeschool cooperative families to join you and collect!  Of course, mind safety considerations while you're at it.

Do a Plastics Survey:  Go around your house (or school) and find all the plastic you can (I guarantee this one will take a while and unless you are already super conscious about it, you'll find something in every room).  Tally how many of those items are meant to be used for years and how many are meant to only be used for transporting or storing other things one time.  For the things that are only meant to be used once, brainstorm what you could use instead that is reusable.  Start using these reusable options as soon as you can.

Have kids survey your trash for plastic products.  How many Styrofoam meat trays, plastic wrappers and other plastic items are you throwing away?  Have them wash their hands REALLY well.  Then, let your kids do some research to find out if those same products can be purchased from companies using less packaging or biodegradable packaging.  Start consuming differently as much as you can (where this is affordable) and re-using and recycling more where alternatives are not possible.

Locations and Resources for Learning More With your Kids:
At the Whale Museum Pod Nod the kids were shown around the museum.  There is a display there about plastics and the harm they are doing to marine wildlife.  Moreover, the kids rearticulated the skeleton of a baby blue whale that had died because of plastic trash he had eaten.  I don't know how much time  they spent discussing the display and the cause of "Stinky Bill's" demise, but Alice came home speaking about avoiding using plastics.  She has since stopped asking me to give her plastic water bottles (prefilled, not made to be reusable ones) at the store, and is being more conscientious about using the reusable one she has and making sure she has it with her.  Even more impressively, she reminds me to grab our reusable grocery bags when she knows we are headed to the store.

Then, when we went to the Redwoods and the Monterey Bay Aquarium the first couple of days in September.  Both locations had information about the problem, but the Monterey Bay Aquarium's was especially well done.  The display is quite beautiful actually.  An artist has taken found plastic items and sculpted some of the marine organisms the plastic most seriously affects out of the found objects.  Alice found a docent at the aquarium and spoke at great length with this docent about it.  While you may not be near any of these places, The aquarium nearest you is likely to at least have some information about the problem.  Call ahead and find out.

Guest Speakers Resources, Lesson Plan Idea Links, Finding Resources Near You
(best resource for lesson ideas)

Ocean Conservancy


Nightline First is an article about an idea for a solution.  Scroll to bottom for video.

NatGeo Blog and two slides from National Geographic

What is the Garbage Patch and Where Did it Come From?

28,000 Rubber Ducks

If you are Reading This, You Might also be Interested In Other Ocean Resources and Activities From Pinch of Everything and the Links provided on those blarticles too.

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