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Plastic

Plastic presents a difficult but necessary to address challenge for the world's oceans. Photo courtesy of United States Coast Guard

By Herb Herman

“The charmed ocean’s pausing, the waves lie still and gleaming, and the lulled winds seem dreaming,” wrote Lord Byron, an 18th-century British poet.

Yet is our ocean, in which scientists estimated in 2014 that there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris, still charmed? Of that, 269,000 tons float on the surface, while some 4 billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer litter the deep sea. The United Nations estimated in 2006 every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. According to a University of Georgia study, about 19 billion pounds of plastic trash winds up in our oceans each year.

Durability is one of plastic’s chief properties, which is the reason plastics present a seemingly endless threat to the marine environment. And the oceans are not the only repository of pollutants. Approximately 40 percent of the lakes in America are too polluted for fishing, aquatic life, or swimming. More than 1 million seabirds and 100,000 sea mammals are killed by plastic pollution every year.

One of the main culprits of this high level of ocean, lake and river pollution is from industrial sources, an abundant source of plastics in various forms. Further contributors to pollution are municipalities’ garbage, a significant quantity of which ends up in our waterways. But boaters are not by any means innocent. Virtually all boaters have plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups, plastic wrappers and more onboard. Much of this detritus finds its way overboard instead of into designated garbage bags, which should be removed when departing a boat. Remember, plastics are not degradable. And while plastic bags and other items may be labeled as biodegradable, in most cases they will only break down at temperatures over 50 degrees Celsius, a temperature not normally reached in the ocean.

Hurricane Irma resulted in an enormous number of fiberglass boat wrecks in the Florida Keys. In an effort to clean up after the hurricane, many of the boats were crushed, giving off fiberglass particulates. This airborne pollutant made many people ill, to the extent that a number of residents had to be hospitalized. There is no acceptable way to recycle fiberglass, although means for doing just that are widely sought.

Further, plastic microparticles less than 5 millimeters in size, have shown up in the stomachs of marine life. These particles can be consumed by humans, causing still not clearly understood health problems, although it is believed these toxins can cause cancer and stunt the growth of fetuses. The U.N. has further recognized the possibility of these plastic microparticles acting as vehicles for transporting diseases such as Zika and Ebola from animals to humans.

So, you might ask, why bother us, the boating public with these lectures about keeping the trash in the boat and disposing of it responsibly? It might seem that boats contribute a marginal amount of pollution. However, for example, during an average summer, Port Jefferson Harbor has almost 600 resident boats and some 6,000 transients and is a busy cruising destination from May through October. One can imagine the amount of plastic pollution this number of boats could contribute to this beautiful body of water.

“Take it with you” should be emblazoned on all boaters’ minds.

Herb Herman is the public affairs officer for the USCG Auxiliary Port Jefferson Flotilla 014-22-06. He is a distinguished professor emeritus at Stony Brook University.

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn and the Suffolk County Plastic Reduction Task Force calls on restaurants and residents to reduce straw use this summer at a press conference July 2 at The Purple Elephant in Northport. Photo by Amanda Perelli

By Amanda Perelli

A Suffolk County legislator is asking residents to go strawless this summer, along with local participating restaurants pledging to keep from giving out plastic straws.

Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and members of the Suffolk County Plastic Reduction Task Force, have launched a countywide initiative to reduce single-use plastic straws, named Strawless Suffolk.

The goal is to have 100 seaside restaurants in Bellport, Greenport, Huntington, Northport, Patchogue and Port Jefferson Village take a pledge to stop using plastic straws by Labor Day, according to Hahn.

The initiative’s kickoff announcement was held July 2 at The Purple Elephant in Northport. It is one of 31 restaurants and two schools that have already taken the pledge.

The restaurants that pledge will be provided with a blue turtle decal that states “Strawless Summer 2018 Participant.”

“We can get rid of that throw away culture that we have and move toward reusing, rather than just trying to recycle.”

— Kaitlin Willig

“If you see the sticker, go back to those restaurants because they are doing the right thing,” Hahn said.

To be eligible, restaurants can participate in three ways: Stop using straws completely, provide biodegradable straws made with paper or bamboo upon request and/or provide reusable straws made of stainless steel or glass.

“The task force was created in order to reduce the single-use plastics,” said Kaitlin Willig, Stony Brook
University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and vice chair of Suffolk County Plastic Reduction Task Force. “I think we are trying to go about it in a way that educates people, so they make the choice themselves. We can get rid of that throw away culture that we have and move toward reusing, rather than just trying to recycle. We are trying to go through education and make smarter choices.”

Hahn said she’s been participating in beach cleanups for a long time and is always struck with how many straws she comes across.

“We’d go to a restaurant and it would make me so angry when they just put [a straw] in your drink without even saying anything,” Hahn said. “I mean it’s really just a waste. I can’t even say no at this point because it’s too late. If they put it down and it’s wrapped, I’ll just give it back.”

Hahn added that leaving the unused wrapped straw on the table is not enough. She worked in a restaurant and said it is common an unopened straw would be thrown out anyway. She directed those interested in getting involved to take their own pledge with the Skip the Straw campaign, a similar initiative tailored
to get individuals involved by Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting ocean health.

“I think individuals should think about trying to do it themselves,” Hahn said. “You know first and foremost you can be responsible for what you do as an individual and then you can also tell the restaurants you frequent. You can tell them they don’t need to, and they’ll save money if they don’t automatically give out straws. If they make it by request, they can save a lot and then if they do choose to provide some upon
request, make it paper.”

Nearly 90 percent of all marine debris is made of plastic, including plastic straws. Every day Americans discard half a billion plastic straws, many of which find their way into oceans and inland waterways,
according to the press release.

Cedar Beach waters in Mount Sinai run into the Long Island Sound. File photo by Elana Glowatz

With mounting pressure to preserve the sanctity of Long Island’s coastal waters, Suffolk County is teaming up with specialists at Stony Brook University to educate the public on marine pollution.

“Folks on Long Island are more involved with [marine pollution] than other parts of the country because they are spending time around the sound and beaches,” said Katherine Aubrecht, the faculty director for coastal environmental studies at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. “It’s such a bigger part of people’s lives, and there is a more receptive audience here to be thinking about this.”

The county Legislature unanimously passed a resolution June 5 to direct the Division of Planning & Environment in the Department of Economic Development and Planning to collaborate with SoMAS to establish a marine debris pollution awareness program.

“It is important to teach young children about the impact they are having on their community and how they can become environmentally conscientious.”

— Kathleen Fallon

Though it is just in its preliminary stages, according to Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) who sponsored the resolution, the awareness program would be used to educate school-aged children and the general public on the dangers of garbage pollution to the marine ecosystem.

“We want the education to be generalized, so that we can have flexibility in who we speak to and about what,” Anker said.

Anker said the two goals for the upcoming program are to educate the public on how we are affecting and degrading our oceans, and to teach people what they could do about it, including the need for beach cleanups and how to properly recycle plastics.

Aubrecht said that there are three unpaid interns from the Stony Brook University’s environmental humanities program charged with compiling data on ocean pollution, and looking into what other marine debris  education efforts exist on Long Island. Data is also being collected on demographics the program wishes to target with the campaign.

Kathleen Fallon, the coastal processes and hazards specialist for New York Sea Grant, said educating young people is of the utmost significance.

“It is important to teach young children about the impact they are having on their community and how they can become environmentally conscientious,” she said. “Some examples could include teaching students about the impact they might have, even just picking up a few pieces of trash or about how all pollutants eventually make their way into marine environments.”

“Some examples could include teaching students about the impact they might have, even just picking up a few pieces of trash or about how all pollutants eventually make their way into marine environments.”

— Kathleen Fallon

Anker said she expects the program to have a full formal presentation ready by the end of next year. She also expects by next Earth Day, the debris awareness program will have presentations to show what citizens can do to help clean up the local marine environment.  

Microplastics ending up in local waters are among the most pressing issues on Long Island. Microplastics are plastics that have broken down due to erosion into pieces smaller than 5 millimeters — they end up being swallowed by sea life endangering the health of the animal and, if the issue is untreated, those plastics can easily end up on the dinner table.

At the county Legislature’s April 19 Health Committee meeting Rebecca Grella, a Brentwood High School research scientist and teacher, said she had surveyed Flax Pond Marine Laboratory in Old Field in October 2017 and that in 1 square meter of shoreline, found 17 grams of microplastics. She said there were approximately 400 pounds of plastic in 1 mile of shoreline in the pond.

Aubrecht said that when these plastics enter a marine environment they can also cause organic pollutants — which are often too dispersed and not dangerous — to merge onto these plastics, but have a larger effect on marine wildlife. Ocean debris also cause animal entanglement, like a small fish or turtle getting caught in a plastic ring that holds a six-pack of cans. These entangled creatures often suffer major injuries or die if they can’t free themselves.

Though all these problems may seem daunting, Fallon said that education is the starting line in a race that will hopefully end with the elimination of marine pollutants and debris.

“A community that is made aware of the impact that they are having on their environment will hopefully be more likely to avoid harmful actions,” Fallon said.

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Here are a couple of things to think about in this new year. First, it is the Chinese Year of the Dog. Each year is related to a zodiac animal within a 12-year cycle, and the Dog is in the 11th position, after the Rooster and before the Pig. Other Dog years include births in 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994 and so on. You get the pattern. If you are a Dog, you are undoubtedly loyal, honest, kind, amiable and sincere, although you’re probably not all that good at communications. As a result, sometimes you are perceived as stubborn. However, you make up for that by always being ready to help others.

Enough of that and on to the latest law for Suffolk County. As you have probably experienced by now, wherever you might be shopping and inclined to make a purchase, you will have to add 5 cents to the total if you want a bag. Two bags: 10 cents. Again, you get the pattern. That means if you are shopping in a supermarket or a hardware store or Macy’s, you will need to pay for each bag. We have, however, been trained for such a situation by Costco. For years, those who shop in their warehouse-like stores have carried purchases out to their cars in shopping carts and then loaded the contents into their trunks, one item at a time. Costco has never provided bags, although it has been known to offer boxes when available. The smart ones among us carry cloth bags into the store in advance so we can load cars more efficiently at the end, and I suppose that is what the rest of us will learn to do if we don’t buy the bags. Although the charge is only a nickel, it is irksome because the nickels don’t go toward funding an environmental cause but revert to the store.

So expect to see people crossing parking lots with the items they have just purchased in their hands. While the perennially curious among us will be fascinated to check out what people buy, the instinct to bag a purchase to prove it was paid for rather than whipped off the shelf and out the door will make some of us uneasy. Best to invest in some large and solid cloth bags, which are what they bring to stores in Europe and elsewhere. And by the way, this should be a great help for our local waterways and wildlife since so many plastic bags have caused harm. So BYOB, or “bring your own bag,” and know that you are helping a fish.

On to another topic to consider in 2018. Private schools and universities are going to take a beating from the loss of international students. Total tuition from those students, who generally pay more, will decline as a result of more restrictive immigration policies for those wishing to come to study here. Visa applications are being more carefully scrutinized and foreign students are finding it harder to stay in the United States after graduation. There had been a huge increase in foreign students here, supplying $39 billion in revenue to the U.S. economy last year, but now schools in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and other English-speaking countries are attracting some of those dollars. The decline in new students nationwide was some 7 percent just this past fall.

That means colleges will have to cut offerings and American-educated grad students who may want to settle here will be lost to the nation. It also means colleges will not be able to help low-income students as much with tuition aid. Diversity is also affected. Enrollment is already falling from China and India, the two biggest sources of students from abroad. Of course this is not only a national issue but also a local one: Stony Brook University is here. Long Island has numerous schools, and with fewer students less money will be spent locally.

Meanwhile enjoy the weather. Let’s celebrate the thaw.

Leon Klempner poses with Dunia Sibomana in front of the Christmas tree. Photo from Amy Epstein

The last two years have been rough for Dunia Sibomana, but now that he has been brought to the United States for reconstructive surgery, everything could change.

Since the 8-year-old was disfigured in a chimpanzee attack — the same one that killed his younger brother — he had stopped going to school because the other children in his native Congo ridiculed him. And being extremely poor, he came to America weighing only 40-something pounds, although the typical weight for a boy his age is almost double that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Above, Dunia Sibomana and park ranger Andre Bauma both give a thumbs-up for school. Photo from Amy Epstein
Above, Dunia Sibomana and park ranger Andre Bauma both give a thumbs-up for school. Photo from Amy Epstein

Despite all he has gone through, volunteers from the Smile Rescue Fund for Kids said Dunia is still a sweet kid.

That group, founded by Poquott resident Dr. Leon Klempner, who until recently was an orthodontist based in Port Jefferson, is hosting Dunia on Long Island and will care for him through a series of surgeries to reconstruct his lips and cheek.

Klempner started his nonprofit organization a few years ago to care for kids with severe facial deformities who are often ignored by similar groups that repair simpler issues like cleft lips.

Dunia lost both his lips and has scarring on his cheeks after the chimpanzee attack two years ago on the outskirts of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, near that country’s border with Uganda and Rwanda. While his father was working in the fields, he was playing with his friends and his 4-year-old brother, Klempner said. The chimps “killed and completely dismembered” the brother, but a ranger fortunately found Dunia and rushed him to the hospital.

“He refused to go to school after the injury because the kids were just ridiculing him too much,” the Poquott man said. “He lost most of his friends.”

Dunia Sibomana hugs Eian Crean while playing with Collin Crean. Photo from Amy Epstein
Dunia Sibomana hugs Eian Crean while playing with Collin Crean. Photo from Amy Epstein

Smile Rescue Fund stepped in, bringing Dunia and that park ranger, Andre Bauma, stateside. Bauma was acting as a translator for Dunia, who only speaks Swahili, and helping him get settled with his Hauppauge host family, the Creans, but had to return to Congo last week.

Jennifer Crean said Dunia is getting along well with her three children, ages 10, 12 and 15.

“They have fun with him and he loves them,” she said. “So far so good.”

The family has taught him how to swing at the Hoyt Farm playground in Commack and taken him horseback riding, Crean said. Dunia has also played on an iPad, learned about Santa Claus and gone bowling.

“Everything for him is like brand new. It’s pretty cool.”

After the holidays, when things have slowed down, Crean said, the plan is to take him into New York City to see the big Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.

Dunia’s experiences here deeply contrast with his life back home — Klempner said the boy’s mother died when he was a toddler and his father is indigent, picking up work wherever he can, so they don’t have a home. And there’s not much food to go around.

Dunia Sibomana laughs with Grace Crean. Photo from Amy Epstein
Dunia Sibomana laughs with Grace Crean. Photo from Amy Epstein

At his temporary Hauppauge home, “He eats like a horse,” Klempner said. “He eats as much as Jenn’s teenage son.”

He’s also recently started instruction at Hauppauge’s Pines Elementary School, where he’s in the second grade. Klempner noted the biggest benefit of school is that Dunia is being reintegrated into a social setting, with kids who don’t mock him.

“They’ve been very warmly receiving him.”

He’s already picked up some English — Crean said with a laugh that “he knows the word ‘No’” — and has adapted to the new environment.

JenniferCrean-Dunia-wThe surgeries begin in early January, when Dr. Alex Dagum will put three tissue expanders into his face, under the skin on his cheeks and chin. Over a few months, Dagum will slowly fill those with saline, expanding them and stretching the skin. Once there is enough excess skin created, the expanders will come out and that skin will be cut away and used to reconstruct the lips and cheek.

Stony Brook University Hospital, where Dagum is chief of plastic surgery, has donated the facility and medical staff’s time to operate on Dunia, and is even preparing special meals for him. In addition, Klempner said, “nurses volunteered to be dedicated nurses for him when he comes in for surgery so he sees the same faces.”

Dunia Sibomana meets Santa Claus. Photo from Amy Epstein
Dunia Sibomana meets Santa Claus. Photo from Amy Epstein

All of the work will add up to a new look for Dunia that will hopefully improve his quality of life at home in Congo when he is ready to return.

“He is sweet, and he is fun-loving; he’s got a sense of humor,” Klempner said. “He’s an 8-year-old kid that got a bad draw on life.”

Help needed
Smile Rescue Fund for Kids is searching for a local volunteer who speaks Swahili to translate for Dunia while he is in the United States, as well as volunteers who will spend time with Dunia, as a way of helping out his hosts, the Crean family. Contact Leon Klempner at 631-974-7511 or leon@smilerescuefund.org. For those who cannot volunteer but would like to help, Smile Rescue Fund accepts donations online, at www.smilerescuefund.org.

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