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Plastic reduction needed for climate

Earth Matters

The Galapagos Islands, famous for its role in Charles Darwin’s studies on evolution a century and a half ago, was in the news this past month for a very different reason.

Just a half degree of latitude south of the equator, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the islands were the site of Darwin’s early studies of evolution, beginning in 1835. Darwin had actually begun his studies examining the volcanic geology of the Galapagos, but noticed differences among the flora and fauna from island to island.

Darwin theorized that the physical separation of the islands meant that the birds he observed had evolved differently because of the slight environmental variations from island to island. His painstaking studies gave rise to his legendary volume “On the Origin of the Species,” first published in 1859.

The archipelago is made up of more than 120 islands, islets and rock features, but only 19 of the islands are of a notable size. Four are inhabited and are home to about 25,000 people. All but 3% of the islands were made into a national park in 1959.

The islands have been a source of scientific curiosity of all sorts for centuries, so it should come as no surprise that it would include study of modern issues as well. Like coastlines around the world, its shores are overwhelmed with plastic.

Like other islands around the world, little of the plastic originates from the Galapagos.

The findings of the University of Exeter’s Galapagos Conservation Trust and the Galapagos Science Center were published in the academic journal Science of The Total Environment recently.

Coincidentally, the Sierra Club, the nation’s oldest and largest environmental organization, announced the kickoff of their own campaign to end plastic pollution the very same week. Their eight-point campaign calls for adoption of government policies to greatly reduce the manufacturing and sale of single-use plastic packages, forcing the development or use of more sustainable alternatives.

Recycling advocates have long advocated for policies that would tax or prohibit use of

difficult-to-recycle plastics.

A diverse spectrum of organizations has advocated for deposit laws that would require every beverage container to have a deposit fee that would be returned when the bottle or can was empty.

The Sierra Club also calls for forcing plastics manufacturers to pay for cleanup costs of their packages on land, waterways and in the oceans, as well as an end to subsidies for plastics. (Right here in Pennsylvania, the ethane cracker facility in Beaver County was provided with an astounding $1.6 billion in tax credits.)

All this additionally calls attention to the health impacts of manufacturing plastics. Regions which have large numbers of plastic manufacturing facilities have correspondingly high rates of cancer. Reducing their use, while increasing their recyclability (which is much less polluting) will reduce the emission of both the pollutants and the greenhouse gas they produce.

Like the conversion from coal to renewable energy, this shift away from plastics will damage an industry. But also like the shift to renewables, jobs and economic activity will move to other sectors, rather than disappear.

Let’s hope the shift will occur before the Galapagos Islands experience a man-made evolution we’d much rather avoid.

John Frederick (www.johnjfrederick.com) writes on science and the environment the first and third weekend of the month. You can read the entire article on the study at Science of the Total Environment.

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