Plastic is a substance the earth cannot digest.
Scientists estimate over 50% of plastic is used only once and then thrown away.
Plastic pollution is one of the most critical environmental and social issues of our time. Given the continued and increasingly large-scale production, use, and mismanaged disposal, plastic easily leaks from our landfills into the environment. More than 400 million tons of plastic are produced each year, and only a fraction of it gets recycled at just 9%! Nearly every piece of plastic begins as a fossil fuel, with greenhouse gases emitted at each stage of plastic production. In fact, between now and 2050, the production of plastic may emit pollution at a rate that is close to 50 times greater than that of all coal-fired power plants in the United States. This means the problem with our mass plastic production lies not just in waste pollution but is also closely linked to climate change as well.
How did we get here?
The large-scale creation and utilization of plastic only began in the 1950s. Made from fossil fuels and cheap to produce, plastic manufacturing proved simple, with a rapid production rate that quickly outpaced many other human-made materials. In the beginning, the benefits of plastics revolutionized the health care industry with life-saving devices, made our transportation lighter and more efficient, and protected food from spoiling and contamination. However, the easiness of plastic production and its widespread accessibility also led to a throwaway culture. Big industries dodged the responsibility to deal with the waste and instead laid that burden on the consumer. Opting out of this system wherever possible supports the message that we need a better way to make and package our things.
Since the beginning of the mass production of plastic, scientists have calculated the world has created an incomprehensible 8 billion metric tons. And in the first decade of the twenty-first century, we produced more plastic waste than in the previous forty years combined. If we continue our current accelerated course, the statistics become far more staggering. Researchers have projected over 26 billion metric tons of plastic will be produced by 2050. According to a study from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, if plastic production isn’t curbed, plastic pollution will outweigh fish pound for pound by 2050. Scientists estimate that 710 million metric tons of plastic waste cumulatively has already entered aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems with well-documented effects. Almost 700 marine species and over 50 freshwater species have consumed or become entrapped by plastic, and new evidence shows terrestrial wildlife are known to ingest plastic as well. Plastic objects and particles, once eaten, can cause animals' digestive systems to suffer fatal physical ailments, including the perforation of the stomach and intestinal walls. Over time, animals' bodies accumulate harmful chemicals in plastic and can become poisoned. Humans are not exempt from these issues. One study from World Wildlife Fund found that humans eat 5 grams, or 2000 tiny pieces of plastic per week, the equivalent of one credit card of microplastics. That is approximately 21 grams a month and over 250 grams a year. Yuck! Even worse, these particulate plastic contaminants potentially have adverse effects on human health at the cellular level.
The plastic crisis is exacerbated by the material’s ability to persist in the environment. Every bit of plastic ever manufactured still exists today and it does not biodegrade. Instead, as plastic ages it becomes brittle, crumbling into ever-tinier fragments until it is a microplastic or nanoplastic. Plastic often gets dumped directly into the ocean or pulled along as if on conveyor belts, dragged by wind, rivers, and streams; it has now spread everywhere. It has become trapped in rotating currents called gyres. The most famously known is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). A massive vortex of marine debris accumulation in the North Pacific Ocean. These gyres form into smog-like clouds, heavy with microplastics, which sink into the underlying deep sea and cause disastrous effects on entire food webs and ecosystems on our planet.
The plastic pollution crisis is daunting, but there are things you can do. We have outlined these steps below. Stop buying plastic wherever you can. Swap out those single-use plastic items for reusable ones. Speak up! Tell your family and friends, businesses, and political leaders that the time is NOW to take action!Stop
Stop buying disposable plastics like plastic straws and other single-use items (cutlery, plates, and cups). Refuse single-use plastic freebies and giveaways as much as you can. Purchase clothing made of natural materials like cotton, linen, and wool. Every time you make a purchase, you are casting a vote. When you buy an item, you create a demand for it, which will be met by the production of more of what you buy. When you stop buying something, the demand diminishes. We know this is hard to do in our society because everything seems to be made of single-use disposable plastic items. However, with a little care, you can cut down on the amount of plastic you are bringing home. Anything that can be recycled should be. But keep in mind that a lot of plastics are promoted as recyclable, when really the reality is that they're "downcycled." This means a plastic product can never be the same thing twice. It can only be made into something of lesser quality until it can no longer be recycled. Remember, avoiding plastic beats recycling it. You can always make different choices about what you purchase in the future. Making even small changes can make a huge difference!Swap
Swap out those single-use plastic items for reusable ones. The idea is to avoid single-use plastic and keep it from going to the landfill, or worse, polluting the environment! When deciding whether to discard something and buy a new one, ask yourself if you can find a way to reuse or repair it first. You also might want to think about how long an item will last if you decide to buy it. Well-made products will last longer and require fewer replacements overall. Following the cleaning instructions and labels for the care of your products will also help you keep them in good condition for a very long time. When possible, switching to reusable items reduces the amount of plastic we use, and refurbishing helps us get more use out of the plastic we have already generated. According to experts, if we all take these steps, we could reduce carbon emissions by 62 million metric tons annually.Speak Up
Ultimately, real change will be driven by major legislative changes demanded by the people.
Right now, you can learn about and support the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act.
The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021 was introduced to congress by Sen. Merkley and Rep. Lowenthal. This bill seeks to reduce throwaway plastics, enact producer responsibility, combat false solutions such as incineration, and pause new or expanded plastic production. It will address the plastic pollution crisis by:
- Shifting the financial burden of waste management and recycling off municipalities and taxpayers to where it belongs: the producers of this waste.
- Spurring massive investments in domestic recycling and composting infrastructure.
- Phasing out certain single-use plastic products that aren’t recyclable Establishing minimum recycled content standards.
- Launching a national beverage container refund program to bolster recycling rates.
- Placing a temporary pause on new and expanding plastic facilities until the Environmental Protection Agency updates and creates vital environmental and health regulations to protect frontline and fenceline communities.
- Prohibiting plastic waste from being exported to developing countries. And more proven policy solutions!
The choices you make are powerful. Perfection is not required to change the world. When many people take small actions, it can create one enormous positive impact. Join us, and together we will find alternatives to plastic and strive for a healthier planet.
Here are some easy zero waste swaps to try.
1. “Our Planet Is Drowning in Plastic Pollution. This World Environment Day, It's Time for a Change.” #BeatPlasticPollution This World Environment Day, United Nations Enivronment, www.unep.org/interactive/beat-plastic-pollution/.
2. Egger, Matthias, et al. “First Evidence of Plastic Fallout from the North Pacific Garbage Patch.” Nature: Scientific Reports, vol. 10, no. 1, 2020, doi:10.1038/s41598-020-64465-8.
3. Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck, and Kara Lavender Law, Production, Use, and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made. 2017 (https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782)
4. Lau, Winnie W. Y., et al. “Evaluating Scenarios toward Zero Plastic Pollution.” Science, vol. 369, no. 6510, 2020, pp. 1455–1461., doi:10.1126/science.aba9475.
5. Hamilton, Lisa A., et al. “Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet.” Center for Environmental Law, May 2019, https://www.ciel.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Plastic-and-Climate-FINAL-2019.pdf.
6. Hwang, Jangsun, et al. “Potential Toxicity of Polystyrene Microplastic Particles.” Nature: Scientific Reports, vol. 10, no. 1, 2020, doi:10.1038/s41598-020-64464-9.
7. World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company, The New Plastics Economy — Rethinking the future of plastics (2016, http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications). 8. World Wide Fund For Nature, 2019. No Plastic in Nature: Assessing Plastic Ingestion from Nature to People, wwfint.awsassets.panda.org/downloads/plastic_ingestion_web_spreads_1.pdf.