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Our World Needs a Plastics Intervention

By Annette Demeny

A straw with our iced coffee, a plastic bag to carry our takeout, a plastic bag for our groceries: taken individually, each seems harmless. These modern conveniences are so common place—and so quickly thrown out—that they hardly register in our minds. But single-use plastics come with a steep environmental price—one that we’ll be paying off for many, many centuries. Our plastic addiction is having a devastating impact on our oceans, our wildlife, and our health. It’s time for a plastic intervention…

Quick Facts ~

  • Mass production of plastics, which began just six decades ago (1950’s), has accelerated so rapidly that it has created 8.3 billion metric tons.
  • Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. That means only 9% were recycled.
  • Plastic takes more than 400 years to degrade, so most of it still exists in some form.
  • Plastic manufacturing has doubled roughly every 15 years which has outpaced nearly every other man-made material.
  • A current prediction is that by mid-century, the oceans will contain more plastic waste than fish, ton for ton.
  • Research, published in 2015, estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the oceans every year. That is the equivalent to five grocery bags of plastic trash for every foot of coastline around the world.
  • The United States ranks behind Europe (30 percent) and China (25 percent) in recycling. Recycling in the U.S. has remained at 9 percent since 2012.
  • We produce 300 million tons of plastic each year worldwide, half of which is for single-use items.

What are Single-Use Plastics?

Single-use plastics are goods that are made primarily from fossil fuel–based chemicals (petrochemicals) and are meant to be disposed of right after use—often, in mere minutes. Single-use plastics are most commonly used for packaging and service ware, such as bottles, wrappers, straws, and bags.

 

Why is Single-Use Plastic Bad?

Out of the 300 million tons of plastic produced each year worldwide, half of which is for single-use items. A whopping 91 percent of all plastic isn’t recycled. Instead it ends up in landfills or in the environment. Single-use plastics in particular—especially small items like straws, bags, and cutlery—are traditionally hard to recycle because they fall into the crevices of recycling machinery and therefore are often not accepted by recycling centers (a good example are the plastic grocery bags).

Left alone, plastics don’t really break down; they just break up. Over time, sun and heat slowly turn plastics into smaller and smaller pieces until they eventually become what are known as microplastics. These microscopic plastic fragments, no more than 5 millimeters long, are hard to detect—and are just about everywhere.

Why does that matter? Exposure to microplastics, as well as the chemicals that are added to plastics during processing, harm our health. Many of the chemicals in plastics are known endocrine disruptors and research has suggested that human exposure could cause health impacts including hormonal imbalances, reproductive problems like infertility, and even cancer. Microplastics have been detected in marine organisms from plankton to whales, in commercial seafood, and even in drinking water. Alarmingly, standard water treatment facilities cannot remove all traces of microplastics. To further complicate matters, microplastics in the ocean can bind with other harmful chemicals before being ingested by marine organisms.

 

What Can We Do?

Seems that we are a “throw away and convenience culture” Instead of investing in quality goods that will last, we often prioritize convenience over consideration of long-term impacts. How do we change that mindset? Truly, it comes down to our individual choices. By just making one change in your daily lives could spare the environment hundreds of plastic water bottles or grocery bags. Below are a few tips to get you started in ridding your life of single-use plastics.

 

  • Avoid plastic bottles! Americans used an estimated 50 billion plastic water bottles last year, but only 23% were actually recycled. Use a reusable bottle (glass, metal, etc).
  • Avoid buying individually packed goods. Buy in bulk for less packaging.
  • ALWAYS pack reusable bags in your car when shopping. People use an estimated 100 billion plastic bags each year in the US alone. Making this one change can really have a huge impact on our planet!

  • Buy and support local businesses in lieu of ordering online. Most products ordered online then delivered to your home are full of plastic packaging.
  • Buy bamboo or metal reusable straws and utensils. Carry them with you for sustainable eating on the go.
  • Shop at your local farmer’s market. It’s healthier for the environment because produce is typically grown from local farmers. No transporting and no plastic packaging. If you do purchase your produce from grocery store, do not use the “convenient” plastic bags to put your 3 lemons in. Just place the items in your cart or reusable grocery bag. No need for the extra plastic waste!
  • Invest in glass storage containers. Reusable glass containers are a safe and economical way to store and heat food and leftovers. Look for options that are both refrigerator- and microwave-safe so you can cool and heat in the same container. Microwaving food in plastic containers can be very toxic. Harmful chemicals in plastic can leach into your food, potentially increasing your risk of high blood pressure and insulin resistance, according to a series of new studies out of NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.
  • Compost your food waste! Composting food wastes saves money, lessens plastic trash bag usage, and can improve soil quality. Americans used more than 300 million plastic trash bags in 2018.

 

Let’s do our part and be the generation to change this disruptive path of harmful plastics!

 

SFY Sources

Statista

NYU Health

NCBI

NOAA

National Geographic

Photo by David via Flickr

 

 

 

 

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