By Laurel Tallent, Intern
It is cheap, it is easy, it is convenient! What real harm is it doing?
First, it’s important to understand where plastic comes from. Plastics are produced from primary chemicals that generally come from oil, natural gas, or coal.1 Think about all the energy it takes to mine these non-renewable natural resources and the controversy surrounding that mining. It’s estimated plastic takes up 6 % of the world’s oil consumption.2 Plastic also shares 1% of the world’s carbon budget.3 One study found that “…given projected growth in consumption, in a business-as-usual scenario, by 2050 oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish (by weight), and the entire plastics industry will consume 20% of total oil production, and 15% of the annual carbon budget.”4
Once these items are mined, they must be shipped and processed to make the plastic—using even more energy made primarily from fossil fuels. Then that plastic is turned into a final product and is likely shipped again be sold to the consumer. Most plastics are single-use items, such as plastic silverware, straws, packaging, and bags. That is a lot of work and energy spent to create one single-use item which most humans use for a small convenience, throw away, and never think about again.
Plastic production has increased twenty-fold over the last 50 years.5 A 2014 study created by the American Chemistry Council found 33.3 million tons of plastic waste was generated in the United States, making up 12.9% of the total municipal solid waste generation.6 The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found plastic had only a 9.5% recycling rate that year7—leaving landfills to receive 25.1 million tons of plastic.8 Please note, it takes plastic over 400 years to break down. Plastic created today will easily be on this planet in the year 2418!
“Most of the plastic is ending up in the landfill where it is contained, right?” Wrong. A Greenpeace Report found that 10% of the world’s plastic ends up in the ocean.9 Plastic’s inherent properties make it one of the most pervasive problems for our oceans due to its buoyancy, durability, propensity to absorb pollutants, and its ability leak toxins into the water while slowly decomposing. According to Project Kaisei, 70% of the manmade waste entering the ocean sinks to the bottom, damaging life on the seabed.10 That leaves 30% to float on the open sea, ending up in currents, forming patches of floating garbage, or on your beaches. More than a mere eyesore for beach goers, plastic is known to be the cause of injuries and deaths of numerous marine animals and birds, due primarily to entanglement or ingestion.11 In 2017, a two-week-old baby manatee was found orphaned, with a stomach full of plastic bags, fishing lines, and fishing hooks.12 In 2014, an endangered Sei whale passed away after lacerating her stomach by eating a broken piece of a DVD case.13
“Plastic is only an issue if it is litter, right?” No. Even when plastic breaks down, it becomes microplastics—making its way into our waters, and eventually, our oceans. Microplastic debris floating at the ocean surface can be harmful for marine life. Marine life cannot avoid ingesting microplastics, meaning that throughout the food chain, plastic is being consumed, even in humans that eat wild fish. One study shows that accumulated number of microplastic particles in 2014 ranged from 15 to 51 trillion particles in our oceans, weighing between 93 and 236 thousand metric tons.14 A study published in 2015, estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the oceans every year.15 That is the equivalent of five grocery bags of plastic trash for every foot of coastline around the globe!
“Plastic can be recycled right?” Clearly, we just need to recycle it! Kind of. For recycling to make an impact, it means that these items must be recycled correctly. One issue with recycling is wish-cycling. “I do not know if this can be recycled, so I will throw it in the bin just in case.” This creates more work for the recycling plant, and items that can’t be recycled end up in the landfill either way. Non-recyclable plastics ending up in recycling centers can damage machines and contaminate recyclable material resulting in an entire batch of recyclable material being thrown out. Not all plastics are recyclable, and plastics that are, vary by area. Check with your local recycling company to learn what can and cannot be recycled in your area.
“I’ll just make sure that I only buy items that are labeled 1 through 7 then, right?” Unlike glass and aluminum, plastic cannot be infinitely recycled, it can only be downcycled. This means if a plastic bottle is recycled, it can only be turned into one more downgraded item before it must be discarded. Recycled plastics are typically turned into items such as doormats, textiles, plastic lumber, etc. which still end up in the landfill. Furthermore, it takes energy to recycle these products into a downgraded plastic item. A single-use water bottle, for example, must be recycled correctly, picked up by a solid waste facility, processed, turned into a new item, and distributed again. That’s a lot of energy for a product one could have avoided by using a reusable water bottle! While you should recycle plastic when able to do so, plastic recycling does not stop the continual flow of new, virgin-plastic disposable goods entering our environment every day. The best solution is to phase out single-use plastics and plastic packaging.
“Plastic is everywhere though, what can I do?” Small changes to make a BIG difference! The jolt of caffeine you needed this morning from a coffee shop? Bring a reusable cup, mug, or water bottle instead.16 The straw for your drink at a restaurant? Invest in a reusable straw or just say “no straw please.”17 Out to eat and ordered too much food and need to take some home? Bring your own to go container and silverware with you.18 Going grocery shopping? Remember to take your reusable grocery and produce—or skip the produce bags altogether.19 You can also fill a mason jar with items available in bulk, such as rice, beans, and nuts!20 Throwing out your plastic toothbrush regularly like your dentist recommends? Bamboo toothbrushes are compostable!
These steps may require a bit more thought when making purchases however, the payoff is huge. We make the biggest changes by setting an example for others. It is our duty to leave this world better for the next generation. Take the steps to consume less plastic and single-use items. If you do use some plastic items still, try to use recyclable items and avoid wish-cycling. Share your knowledge with family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and children. Ask your local business to carry more sustainable products. Join a local beach cleanup such as the North Florida Coastal Caretakers to help make the world a little cleaner. Support local movements such as the St. Augustine Plastic Bag Ban aimed at stopping the use of all single-use plastic bags in the City of St. Augustine Beach. Just remember to ask yourself if that single-use item is worth the ecological harm that it can cause.