Fireworks on the beach

Fireworks on a beach in Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Fireworks on a beach in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Photo by A n v e s h on Unsplash

I love fireworks. My son loves fireworks. So much so that we drag my (grumbling) husband to watch them every July 4th. However, I do like to leave the annual tradition of blowing up sparkly gunpowder to the professionals. I have never taken much to buying and setting off my own fireworks, especially with a young child around. Since I don’t purchase consumer fireworks, I honestly have never given much thought to the waste they create. But then my best friend, who lives on the coast of North Carolina, sent me this photo the day after July 4th last year:

Fireworks debris collected on a North Carolina beach
Fireworks debris collected on a North Carolina beach, July 5, 2020. Photo by Taylor Notion

She collected that much plastic and cardboard firework waste on a walk where she lives, all left behind by people the night before. That’s the amount she found that hadn’t already washed into the ocean during high tide. That’s from just one section of one beach, in one town. I imagine fireworks at the beach are fun and beautiful, but at what cost to the environment?

Waste

After reading multiple news articles from coastal states, particularly Florida, I discovered that the Independence Day firework waste collected is measured in tons. Tons! Even on beaches where fireworks are illegal, such as on Hilton Head Island, beach patrol collected seven trailers’ worth of fireworks debris in 2019.

“Any regular beach walker will tell you about encountering little ribbons of plastic along the tide line in the days and weeks after the Fourth of July. All waiting for the high tide that will be their ride to join that vast swirl of ocean-borne plastics.” -Mark Lane, The Daytona Beach News-Journal

Since these are set off in the dark, it’s difficult to find all of the scattered pieces once exploded. “Fireworks launchers are big and easy to spot and haul away, but each rocket launched and bomb exploded rains tiny shards of plastics and cardboard along with a smattering of metals like lead and copper.”

Plastics

The plastic bits break down into smaller pieces called microplastics, which are then ingested by fish and marine animals. The toxins from those plastics make their way through the food chain, all the way into our bodies.

Saturn Missile Battery fireworks
This 25 shot Saturn Missile costs under $2.00 but will leave microplastics for hundreds of years.

Here is just one example. The Saturn Missile Battery (SMB), which I’ve seen debris from in a lot of Fifth of July clean-up images, is a common type of aerial firework. It consists of a cardboard base packed with between 25 to 1,000 shots. These shots are small plastic tubes filled with explosive powder. “When an SMB is detonated, each of those tubes shoots into the air with a shrill whistle, shatters apart and falls back to earth, creating a shower of litter that’s hard for even the best-intentioned reveler to clean up. Unlike colorful caps and wings, the dull gray or green SMB litter blends into sand and soil.” These bits of plastics and microplastics will last for hundreds of years.

Fifth of July Clean-ups

For all celebrations at the beach, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommends cleaning up after ourselves, participating in coastal clean-ups, and educating others. “By celebrating the Fourth of July and enjoying fireworks responsibly, we can honor our country through protecting our beloved coastal environments, and the marine animals who rely on these habitats.”

Fireworks on a road
Photo by Alexander Kagan on Unsplash

Wildlife Disturbance

Left on the beaches, fireworks debris harms marine life. They block the paths of sea turtles and crabs. Not to mention birds and marine animals ingest these small pieces of debris. Additionally, there are dangers to all wildlife from injury and entanglement from the plastic garbage. Unfortunately, July 4th is during prime sea turtle nesting season.

The noise from fireworks disturbs animals everywhere, from eagles and other birds to our domesticated love ones. The loud explosions cause panic and despair in many animals. Just think of how your dog or your neighbor’s dog reacts every 4th of July.

“Environmentalists from Clearwater Marine Aquarium and Audubon Bird Stewards reported that the noise, debris, and lights from fireworks were negatively impacting both sea turtles and beach nesting birds. Fireworks cause aborted nesting attempts, ingestion of plastic residue, and disturbed and disoriented hatchlings, all of which significantly reduces the number of successful births.”

Seal with a plastic or rubber ring growing into the skin around its neck.
Any litter you leave on the beach can potentially harm another species. Image by Noutch from Pixabay

Other Problems from Fireworks

Consumer fireworks cause thousands of injuries annually in the United States. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2019 there were approximately 10,000 injuries from fireworks treated in emergency departments, with about 73% of those during just a one-month interval surrounding July 4th.

In addition, fireworks, both consumer and professional types, are potentially toxic to the air and water, hence to us, wildlife, and the water we drink.

Fireworks from gender reveal parties have caused massive wildfires.

Did you know that Americans spend close to $1 billion annually on consumer fireworks? This number astonished me for many reasons. Do you know how many problems we could solve for ourselves, wildlife, and the planet with $1 billion? Make a list, pick one, and I bet it’s money better spent than just blowing it up.

Fireworks debris piled up on sand.
Photo by Karen Montgomery on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Environmentally Friendly Fireworks

There have been some developments with making more environmentally friendly fireworks, but these changes have not been significant enough to make large-scale differences. These include fireworks released with compressed air as an alternate propellant and changing the chemical make-up to reduce pollutants, but the studies on the latter are still new and the impact is not clear. In consumer fireworks, some companies are trying to switch to recycled paper and cardboard components over plastics, but testing new products takes time and money.

Fireworks debris on the coast of New Zealand.
Photo by Murray Adamson on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

New Traditions

July 4th is no celebration for the environment and wildlife. We can do better. Especially with something that is so non-essential to our lives.

I argue that we don’t need to set off consumer fireworks or sparklers on the beach or anywhere else in nature, at all. In fact, I began this article as a person who loved to drag her family to professional fireworks every summer, but after researching the problems even they create, I’m starting to think differently. Are there new traditions we can create? What about laser light shows?

If you do set off fireworks on the beach or in a natural area, please take safety precautions and clean up the debris. It really matters! We can all make a difference and encourage others to do the right thing. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe.

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Let Freedom Ring and Fireworks Fly, but Keep Debris off the Beaches and Out of the Sky!” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program, July 1, 2019.

Article, “Fireworks: Can they ever be eco-friendly?” Deutsche Welle, accessed June 19, 2021.

Article, “Are Fireworks Bad for the Environment?” by Russell McLendon, Treehugger.com, updated February 23, 2021.

Footnotes:

 

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 1

Yellow excavator on mounds of waste, Indonesia
Waste pile in Indonesia. Photo by Tom Fisk from Pexels

Waste. We have so much of it that we require large machinery to move it around for us. There’s so much waste that our landfills are overfilling; the ocean is polluted with plastic and toxins; and in parts of the world, people have to spend their days living and working surrounded by large amounts of waste.  This post is the first in a series about the impact of packaging and the packaging industry.

Most packaging comes from items we buy regularly. I recently purchased a bottle of Zyrtec. Almost all medicines come in plastic bottles, but I had to buy a plastic bottle of Zyrtec inside of more plastic packaging! I emailed the company to ask why and if they would consider ending the practice of overpackaging. Unfortunately, Johnson & Johnson, the owner of Zyrtec, sent a generic response: “We appreciate you reaching out to us with your concern. We always value the views and opinions of our consumers…We will make certain your feedback is shared with the appropriate management of our company.” This is the typical response I receive from companies but I keep trying nonetheless.

Zyrtec packaging. Photo by me
Zyrtec packaging that surrounded the small plastic bottle of tablets. Photo by me

 

“Packaging and containers are the largest segment of municipal solid by waste by product category.” -Beth Porter, author of Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine

Packaging is Everyone’s Responsibility

I am a recycler and I encourage you to recycle. But unfortunately, recycling isn’t the answer. Globally only about 9% – 13% of plastics are actually recycled. Since recycling doesn’t work in our current systems, we have to find a better set of solutions. Less packaging is one idea.

Corporations and companies are not doing enough to prevent plastic pollution, especially through the packaging industry. They have the power to stop producing packaging with disposable plastics and the resources to create more sustainable packaging. But we consumers have power too, to convince those companies to change.

“As consumers, we don’t give ourselves enough credit for how powerful we really are…View your purchases as having a direct impact on the goods and services companies choose to make.” -Tom Szaky, TerraCycle

I recently read The Future of Packaging: From Linear to Circular by Tom Szaky and 15 packaging industry leaders. The book exposed me to more information than I knew existed about packaging and the packaging industry. Then I read other books and several articles about the packaging industry. So I decided to share what I’ve learned with you, in several posts.

Single baking potato sold in plastic packaging for microwavable "convenience". Photo by me
Single baking potato sold in plastic packaging for microwavable “convenience”. Photo by me

Packaging history

How did we get to today, where we have packaging for every single item? Packaging inside of packaging? So much packaging, often made from either mixed materials or unrecyclable materials, that we now have a waste crisis? How did we get here?

Packaging used to be sustainable and reusable with very little waste. Glass bottles held soft drinks, milk, medicine, etc. Consumers returned these and the companies sanitized and refilled them. During World War II citizens collected scrap metal, paper, rubber, and even cooking waste. Cities sometimes issued quotas for recycling.

Beginning in the post-war era, packaging increased to make life more “convenient” and “easier” for women running households. At the same time, the global population was growing at a higher rate than ever before – tripling between 1950 and 2010. Consumerism grew along with increased wealth and disposable income in the western world. Plastic packaging in all forms became cheaper to create and ship while increasing convenience for consumers.

Life Magazine article of August 1, 1955 about "throwaway living".
Life Magazine article of August 1, 1955

The False Notion that Plastic is More Sanitary

Plastic also became the “sanitary” way to serve and sell food, a somewhat false notion that persists even today. While plastic can prevent foods from cross-contamination and spoilage, it is not the only material that can do so. There are many options but sadly, plastic has become the standard.

DuPont advertising for cellophane wrapped produce
“Clean and fresh” advertising of DuPont cellophane to increase convenience.

“The spreading fear of a contaminated environment has spawned legions of buyers of bottled water, pasteurized egg and dairy products, and irradiated meats and seafood. Packaging can be highly misleading, however.” -Daniel Imhoff, Paper or Plastic

For a full history of plastic packaging and plastic in general, I recommend  Susan Freinkel’s Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.

Cover of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

The Current Situation

Packaging today is out of control. Despite solutions and ideas and innovations, there is far too much packaging in everything, made of all material types. “Today, the average American throws out at least three hundred pounds of packaging a year,” according to Susan Freinkel. In 2017, nearly 30% of U.S. municipal solid waste was from containers and packaging according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This amounted to 80.1 million tons. The EPA estimated that about 50% of that was recycled but only 13% of plastics were recycled (but the number is most likely under 10%).

“About half of all goods are now contained, cushioned, shrink-wrapped, blister-packed, clamshelled, or otherwise encased in some kind of plastic.” -Susan Freinkel, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

Many types of packaging are not recyclable. Even the ones that are recyclable are often not recycled. One solution is to avoid purchasing as many products in packaging as possible, something I often write about. You can read my post on going plastic-free with food consumption.

The sad truth is that branding and marketing often drive packaging design, rather than environmental issues. This is beginning to change, but not at a fast enough pace to keep up with the rate of consumer packaging disposal.

“More often than not, the perceived value of being ‘green’ is trumped by bottom-line costs.” -Daniel Imhoff, Paper or Plastic

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is advertising or promotions in which green marketing is deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization’s products, aims, and policies are environmentally friendly when they are not. Let’s call this what it is: this is false advertising. Here’s a video with excellent explanations:

I encourage you to read up on greenwashing because it’s everywhere!  Many companies participate in this practice. Remember the Volkswagen scandal? Volkswagen intentionally advertised low emissions vehicles but they actually equipped those vehicles with software that cheated emissions testing. Those vehicles emitted as much as 40 times the allowed amount of pollutants. While that’s an extreme example, this happens all of the time and it can be so subtle that you aren’t aware of it.

Please see my list on how to avoid greenwashing.

Consumers expect companies to dedicate themselves to making a positive social or environmental impact…they want to be able to trust them to prioritize ethics. – KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz, founder and CEO of Sustainable Life Media, “Consumers Care,” The Future of Packaging

In my next post, I’ll detail some of these greenwashing terms, such as “biodegradable,” “compostable,” and “bioplastics”.

 

Thank you for reading! Please watch for future parts of this series by subscribing.

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

 

Additional resource:

Article, “The cost of plastic packaging,” by Alexander H. Tullo, Chemical & Engineering News, October 17, 2016.

Did you know? Tennessee leaders want to prohibit local governments from being able to issue bans on single-use pollutants

I know. That doesn’t make any sense.

I read this article and was thoroughly confused at first. Why on Earth would anyone vote for such legislation?

Front page article from the Chattanooga Times Free Press, March 8, 2019.
Front page article from the Chattanooga Times Free Press, March 8, 2019.

The physical copy’s headline is “Protecting Plastic” and is on the front page of the newspaper. The first sentence summarizes:

A surprise amendment to a state bill would make it illegal for municipalities to regulate, prohibit or charge a fee for many single-use plastic items that have polluted Tennessee waterways at an alarming rate.

Thanks to the author, Mark Pace, for bringing it our attention. I hope this article motivates people to speak out against this ridiculous measure, which was apparently added on at the last minute.

The online article, “Amendment to Tennessee bill would make it illegal for cities to regulate, prohibit or charge a fee for single-use pollutants,” explains that the amendment is just that. This would mean that there could be no single-use disposable plastic ban in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There could be no plastic bag ban or in Knox or Davidson County. No city or county municipality would be able to lead the way for the rest of the state to ban these harmful materials. And the State of Tennessee, so far, has no interest in producing legislation banning these types of materials.

They are called “single-use pollutants” for a reason

Often made of plastic, single-use items are created specifically to be produced, purchased, and used only one time by the consumer. The consumer then disposes of the item. Even if the consumer recycled that item, we know that only 9% of plastics are actually recycled.

Many single-use items surround food, convenience foods specifically. Here, I define convenience foods like fast foods, processed and packaged foods, convenience store foods, and take-out food.

Single-use items made of plastic include:

  • Straws
  • Disposable drink cups
  • Fast-food or take-out containers
  • Plastic utensils for take-out or fast food
  • Single drink bottles (soda, water, juice)
  • Coffee cups and plastic cups from coffee and juice bars
Photo of single-use disposal trash, mostly from food and beverages. Image by filmbetrachterin on Pixabay.
Photo of single-use disposal trash, mostly from food and beverages. Image by filmbetrachterin on Pixabay

In addition to those, think of single-use plastic bags. Feel free to read my posts on the film Bag It or on one southern coastal town that took measures last year to ban single-use plastic bags to protect the environment. I think we should be thinking the same thing, and I know many of you agree.

Plastic bag found in a parking lot not far from the Tennessee River. Photo by me.
Plastic bag found in a parking lot not far from the Tennessee River. Photo by me.

The Tennessee River is already polluted with microplastics

In a study published late last year, a German scientist revealed at the Tennessee Aquarium’s Conservation Institute that there is an extreme amount of plastics and microplastics in the Tennessee River. More than other large rivers with larger populations. And that river leads straight to the Gulf, dumping those plastics into the ocean as well. So why would we stop local governments from trying to do the right thing and protect the environment, along with human health? Why are we protecting plastic?

Plastic bottle floating in the Tennessee River. I was able to fish it out. Photo by me.
Plastic Powerade bottle floating in the Tennessee River across from the Tennessee Aquarium. I was able to fish it out. Photo by me.

Politics

I do not care what political party you belong to, if you’re a Tennessean, you are most likely connected to the outdoors. Whether it’s fishing, hiking, biking, climbing, or boating, Tennesseans love our outdoor activities. And we like to share them with the tourists who visit here. We want to protect tourism in large and small cities in Tennessee, many of which are connected to the Tennessee River. So what sense does it make to jeopardize our beautiful outdoor spaces by proposing legislation to make the environmental problems worse?

In the Chattanooga Times Free Press article, State Representative Susan Lynn explained that regulations and bans surrounding single-use pollutants should only be implemented at the state level and not local governments because they “stand to create a patchwork of very confusing local regulations that make it really hard to run a business and very expensive.”  Obviously, I completely disagree. That leaves no place for one municipality to lead the way for the rest.

Tennessee Senator Mike Bell supports the bill as well. He advocates for uniform state regulations regarding business. He claimed in that article that Tennessee was rated “Number 1” in the nation for small business in recent years. I searched the internet to verify this information and was unable to find information that even places Tennessee in the top 5, including reputable sources such as Forbes and Fortune.

Another supporter of banning plastic bans

Last, Grant Kidwell, the Director of energy, environment, and agriculture task force at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), said he does not believe bans are the right way to deal with the pollutants. ALEC is a non-partisan voluntary membership organization of state legislators “dedicated to the principles of limited government.” However, placing a ban on bans at the state level is not limited government – isn’t that over-governing?

Kidwell’s work has focused mainly on energy, although he’s written at least one article before arguing that there are too many bad food and plastic bag policies. Even so, he wrote that “the type of container people use to buy food, clothes, or any other items is a decision that should be made by businesses and their consumers.” Great, let the people decide. But don’t stop those business owners and consumers from advocating for a local ban through state legislation.

Kidwell also said that “We believe it’s better to try to improve public waste collection.” Clearly, he does not understand how the waste management system works nor that the single-stream recycling system is broken.

Photo of a fast food meal I had last year on the road. I now try to avoid any restaurants that serve plastic and more plastic. Photo by me.
Photo of a fast food meal I had last year on the road. I now try to avoid any restaurants that serve plastic and more plastic. Photo by me.

Oil

My real worry is that those protecting plastics are really trying to protect oil and natural gas interests. Plastics are made from both materials, petroleum and natural gas. Companies producing petroleum and plastic products and that benefit financially from those products will protect their interests, and often over any environmental or human health concern. The United States is the largest consumer of oil by nation, consuming nearly 913.3 million metric tons of oil in 2017. We are also the largest natural gas consumers in the world. I will dedicate a separate blog post to this issue in the future.

What can you do?

You can call your representatives! I called both representatives’ offices on Friday, and I was told that my messages of opposition were “passed along.”

You can also ban single-use disposable plastics from your life.

Hopefully, conservation groups are fighting the amendment too. They were supposed to vote on it yesterday but I haven’t heard any new information about it yet. I’ll update this post when I find out news!

Feel free to leave me a comment below, just please try to leave partisan politics out of it. And don’t forget to subscribe! Thank you for reading.

 

The end of single-use plastics in the European Union!

Globe showing Europe. Photo by Tom Grimbert on Unsplash.
Photo by Tom Grimbert on Unsplash.

This is exciting news!

Have you heard that the European Union has passed landmark legislation that will ban single-use plastics like straws and forks and plates beginning in 2021? This is going to have a major impact worldwide!

According to a Forbes article, “the aim of the directive, which is part of the European Plastics Strategy, is to protect the environment and reduce marine litter by avoiding the emission of 3.4 million tonnes of CO2.” But it will also avoid an estimated $24.9 billion in environmental damages by 2030.

Plastic is harmful to all life forms

Globally, plastics make up 85% of marine litter according to the European Commission. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF, formerly the World Wildlife Fund) reported that plastics account for 95% in the Mediterranean Sea. “And plastics are even reaching people’s lungs and dinner tables, with micro-plastics in the air, water and food having an unknown impact on their health.” It’s going through the entire food chain.

Illustration of clean vs. polluted ocean. Photo by Wild0ne on Pixabay,
Photo by Wild0ne on Pixabay,

Plastic production has increased exponentially since 1960, with the current global production of 322 million tons. That is expected to double in the next 20 years! Perhaps actions and legislation like this will reverse this growth and waste.

If you read my post about plastic straws, then you know that they are causing environmental problems along with many other single-use disposable plastics. Besides the sheer amount of waste, plastics are harming marine life and posing risks to human health.

Plastic waste and fishing waste are affecting our birds and marine life. Photo by A_Different_Perspective on Pixabay.
Plastic waste and fishing waste are affecting our birds and marine life. Photo by A_Different_Perspective on Pixabay.

Here are some facts from the WWF report on how marine life is harmed by human use of plastics:

  • Animals mistake plastics for foods.
  • Plastic releases up to 30 times more contaminants when it is present in body tissue like the intestines. Those contaminants can cause liver damage or hormones disruption.
  • Today 90% of seabirds have plastic fragments in their stomachs.
  • Over 90% of the damage caused to marine wildlife by human waste is due to plastics.
  • Globally, there are about 700 marine species threatened by plastics, some of which are endangered species.
  • Worldwide, 344 species have been found trapped in plastics! This can be fatal either from drowning or from becoming easy prey.
  • Plastics can cause injuries and deformities.
  • In general, all the fishing gear that is abandoned, lost or discarded at sea (lines, nets, traps) causes damage to wildlife, trapping and killing fish and other marine animals – a phenomenon known as “ghost fishing”.
  • Plastics have also infiltrated the world of the microscopic. Zooplankton (the small organisms at the base of the marine food chain) involuntarily feed on plastic fragments smaller than 1mm. These fragments can contain toxic substances: by ingesting them the zooplankton transmit them up the food chain, all the way to humans.

The Blue Planet

If you love the Earth’s oceans, you’ll enjoy The Blue Planet series. In 2017, Blue Planet II was released and features the hazards of plastics on marine life. In the video below, David Attenborough, the writer and narrator of many BBC natural history documentaries, said he hoped that Blue Planet II would “open people’s eyes to the damage we are doing to our oceans.” I’m sure their contributions have helped!

Both The Blue Planet and Blue Planet II are available on Netflix.

Leading the Way

“Single-use plastics are not a smart economic or environmental choice,” said Vice-President Jyrki Katainen of the European Commission. “This is an opportunity for Europe to lead the way, creating products that the world will demand for decades to come, and extracting more economic value from our precious and limited resources.” It’s so refreshing to see leaders in the world making plastic waste reduction a priority!

Plastic waste on a beach. We can stop this from happening! Photo by hhach on Pixabay.
Plastic waste on a beach. We can stop this from happening! Photo by hhach on Pixabay.

Companies will listen to you

Here in the United States, know that you can take action too. Companies follow supply and demand. So if many people are demanding a company to use less plastic or provide reusable containers, the company will listen! Write, call, or email the companies you purchase from and ask that they use less disposable plastic packaging.

Recently, a few large companies including Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Pepsi, and Nestlé are introducing reusable packaging for certain products in an attempt to phase out single-use plastics. This is also for public relations because they don’t want to be viewed as giant contributors to the pollution problem. Better late than never, I guess. But this shows that they’re listening to us (or at least watching their sales)!

In a press release just last week, Procter & Gamble (P&G) announced “the introduction of reusable, refillable packaging on some of its most popular products as part of a new effort that aims to change the world’s reliance on single-use packaging and disposable waste.”

P&G has formed a partnership with Loop, a company that ships products in reusable aluminum containers that you ship back for reuse. Loop was developed by Terracycle. Sounds cool, right? It’s launching in Spring of 2019, and you have to “Reserve your spot in line” on Loop’s website. So it won’t necessarily be available to everyone and it won’t be available at the store you where you shop. It’s still a start. I signed up and I fully plan to review it so you can know more about it!

Refuse single-use disposable plastic! Photo by Elijah O'Donnell on Unsplash.
Refuse single-use disposable plastic! Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash.

What You Can Do!

The best thing you can always do is this: REFUSE plastic containers. I have stopped buying 90% of the items I used to because they only come in plastic containers. And my life is pretty much the same. Once in a while, I really have to search for a product in glass or metal, but it’s just become the norm for me. You can do this too!

There’s got to be more change – we can do it! What are you currently doing to reduce or refuse plastic? Leave me a comment below!

As always, thank you for reading.

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