The benefits of plastic are undeniable: it’s cheap, has many uses, is easily shaped, and durable. Plastic is everywhere: it’s in our automobiles, aerospace, technologies, structures, and our everyday products. Plastic itself is not the problem. It’s what we’re doing with it. Mass production of plastic has accelerated so rapidly in the last 60 years that we are now at 9.1 billion tons of plastic in existence. This plastic weight is as heavy as 8 million Eiffel towers, 25 000 Empire State Buildings, or 1 billion elephants. If you exclude plastic that’s still in use, the small 9% that is recycled, and 12% incinerated, you end up with 5.4 billion tons of plastic discarded in either landfills or the environment. According to reports, if current plastic habits continue at this rate then by 2050 we will have 13.2 billion tons of discarded plastic. We will also have more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans, and an industry accounting for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption.
Single-use or disposable plastic is a major offender in this equation – with an estimated 50% of plastic used once and thrown away. The most common single-use plastics found in the environment are, in order of magnitude, cigarette butts, plastic drinking bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, other types of plastic bags, and foam take-away containers. Many of us use these products every day, without even thinking about where they might end up. Most plastic is nonbiodegradable, and can take up to 1000 years to decompose. It never fully degrades, and breaks down into small fragments called microplastics. These microbeads are ingested by fish – they have also been found in commercial table salt, 90% of bottled water, and 83% of tap water. Considering most plastic is fossil-derived with additional toxins added during manufacturing, it is highly worrying that these microplastics have contaminated our food and water supply. Their impacts on human health are still being studied, but the research is pretty grim.
Additionally, plastic bags and waste can clog waterways and sewers providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes and pests, and increase transmission of diseases. The cost to recycle these bags outweighs their value so most recycling facilities will not take them, and just throw them out. Approximately 80% of marine litter is swept in from coastlines or carried from the streets during heavy rain via storm drains and sewer overflows. More than 250 species of fish, sea turtles, marine birds, seals, whales and dolphins have suffered from ingesting or becoming entangled in this debris. It also takes an immense amount of resources to produce plastic. For instance, it takes three times the same amount of water to produce one bottle of water. It also takes 12 million barrels of oil to produce the amount of plastic bags the US uses per year. The oil extraction releases greenhouse gases, with more of it polluting the air during production, and in transport after the manufacturing is completed.
Plastic is a valuable and revolutionary material when used wisely. But given these facts, we need to tackle what is becoming one of the biggest environmental problems of our time. These are some of the solutions and recommendations suggested by experts:
Governments have the power and responsibility to intervene and lead the change on a major scale. They can run awareness campaigns to educate the masses, offer incentives for recycling, come to agreements with retailers and manufacturers to go plastic free, and introduce taxes or even bans on certain products. In the last decade, many countries of the world have adopted policies to reduce disposable plastics. Africa stands out as the continent where the most countries have adopted a total ban on the production and use of plastic bags. China, Asia, Australia, and Europe among others have also adopted successful policies that have reduced plastic bag consumption by as much as 85%. Sadly, the United States has not yet put a ban on plastic bags into effect. However, an increasing number of states and cities have taken matters into their own hands by enacting plastic bag legislation from recycling/reusing programs, to fees and bans. Overall, these policies need to be better enforced, and more countries need to be environmental leaders by taking immediate action. Economically speaking, marine plastic affects tourism, fishing and shipping industries. Beach and shore cleanups are also very costly. Therefore, it is more financially viable for governments to prevent plastic pollution altogether.
Businesses are relying on our participation in this system, and thriving on a problem they helped create. This problem is a design fault that must be corrected at the source. Difficult and unnecessary packaging is accounting for over 40% of total plastic usage. Therefore, the most effective strategy is prevention, and an immediate reduction of growth in plastic production. Businesses need to be more efficient in planning their product life cycles. They need to substitute plastic with paper and compostable materials, and design their products and packaging for recycling. For example, they can promote reusability where a consumer can return the product at its end-of-life to be repurposed rather than becoming waste. This will help steer us away from the disposable lifestyle we have become accustomed to. Microplastics in consumer products like toothpaste, shower gels, and creams must be phased out immediately. Investments and research are needed in plastic chemistry innovations to promote environmentally friendly products. There are alternative natural materials that are promising, and need to be further evaluated as businesses aim to innovate. Products also need to be clearly labeled so consumers are aware of the plastic content and its harmful additives, as well as its recyclability, reparability and compostability. This would allow consumers to make informed choices when buying plastic products.
Individuals have been picking up the slack when it comes to plastic pollution solutions. They are turning down plastic straws and cutlery, second-guessing their purchases, and turning to activism. It’s important to note that no amount of personal action can solve the plastic problem, and the majority of responsibility rests on governments and industries. With that being said, there are ways to reduce our contribution.
Tips for shrinking your plastic footprint, and propelling change:
- Refuse plastic cutlery, straws, and cups. Bring your own multiple-use straws made from paper, metal, bamboo or glass if necessary: straw options. Or you can simply go straw free. Invest in a spork, and keep it on your person.
- Stop using plastic water bottles: get a reusable bottle, and refill from a water dispenser or filtered tap. There are many BPA free options that can keep your drink cold for hours.
- Bring your own reusable bags for grocery shopping. Many bags can handle heavy loads, are washable, and can fold into a compact carry-everywhere item. You can even make it FASHION!
- Ditch plastic sandwich bags and containers, and opt for reusable options instead. Beeswax is a washable, reusable and compostable option: Abeego – Etee – Beeswrap. Silicone bags can also be really useful as they are airtight, and dishwasher safe: silicone option. Glass containers are also convenient, and safer to heat and use in the dishwasher. You can even bring them to restaurants for your leftovers.
- For commonly bought items, buy in bulk and use a refillable dispenser (e.g: detergent, hand soap).
- Recycle, and familiarize yourself with the proper way to deal with common plastics in your community.
- Boycott microbeads: Avoid products that contain microplastics. Tiny plastic particles are often used in your cosmetics and personal care products.
- Participate in cleanups in your community.
- Make an effort to purchase products with minimal plastic packaging.
- Support organizations addressing plastic pollution: for every 4Ocean bracelet you purchase, one pound of trash is removed from oceans and coastlines.
- Raise awareness and spread the word: educate friends and family about the abundance of plastic, and safer alternatives.
- Support a plastic free world: urge your locals officials to follow the lead of other US cities supporting plastic free legislation.
Humankind is making so much unnecessary plastic that it’s becoming unmeasurable and uncontrollable. We’re not showing any signs of slowing down as our waste is accumulating, disrupting ecosystems, and threatening our survival. Governments, businesses, and individuals can work together in order to limit our plastic impact. One small commitment to change can make a lasting difference.
Will we put our planet over plastic?