[Update to this post: The non-profit organization, As You Sow (www.asyousow.org) has issued a report calling for U.S. companies who use product packaging to be responsible for the post-consumer recycling of that packaging. Click here for a link to their report.]
The family and I spent last week at New Smyrna Beach, our favorite Atlantic Coast shoreline. Beautiful sand, sunny weather (after Tropical Storm Debby made her way through), occasional shells and, probably because of the storm, uncrowded conditions. We go there every year, and other families come from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and farther points to enjoy themselves in the sun and sand. Of course, it was the week before the Fourth of July holiday, so almost every night someone was shooting off fireworks on the beach, which brings me to write this post.
We typically set up a small cabana to get some shade between time in the sun, and one of the challenges is moving the cabana several times during the day to avoid the moving waterline caused by the ever changing tide. On the last day, we set up the cabana near to the high tide line, which was marked by a collection of shells, pieces of driftwood, seaweed, and the like. While sitting under the shade, I noticed a large number of black-gray “shells” directly in front of our cabana and along the high tide line. They were different than anything I had seen before, so I picked one up to examine it further. To my surprise, the “shells” were actually spent plastic casings for some sort of fireworks that had been set off one of the nights before, which had been collected in the sea by the tide and re-deposited on the shore. As we looked along the high tide line in front of our small cabana, we found literally hundreds of these little casings – plastic, non-degradable trash left by some uncaring beachgoers.
While we can scoff at the people who left this trash for Mother Nature to store for them forever, the fact that these unnatural “shells” were there in the first place points out the uphill battle humans face to collect, re-use and recycle trash. Left to our own devices, people tend to take the easiest path rather than the right path, even if they are aware of the negative consequences of their actions. Sure, those who lit the fireworks could have tried to collect their trash and recycle the plastic, and maybe fired them in such a manner that they wouldn’t be directed into the ocean. Those who manufactured the fireworks could have used biodegradable paper casings rather than plastic ones, but the plastic was probably easier and cheaper to use. Those in government who regulate the manufacturers could have enacted laws that would prevent the use of plastic casings, but that regulation requires work to create and enforce.
How do we, as a society, stop this wasteful cycle? In my opinion, the most effective approach would be to require that product manufacturers be accountable for the full lifecycle of their products. Products should be designed to be either biodegradable (so they can be left almost anywhere) or collectible in recycling programs. Drink bottles are more easily collected and recycled. Fireworks on the beach cannot easily be recovered, so they must biodegrade over a short time. Perhaps this will increase the cost of some products, and will increase regulation by some measure, but in the end, it is a small price to pay to preserve nature (especially the beach!) for all to enjoy.