We All Use This, And It's Not Good For Our Health Nor Our Planet
We use this every day.
We use it in the shower.
We use it when we brush our teeth, when we wash our faces.
We use it during breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
“It is everywhere.
It is all around us.
Even now in this very room.
You can see it when you look out your window.
Or when you turn on your television.
You can FEEL it when you go to work.
When you go to church.
When you pay your taxes.
Do you know what I’m talking about?”
Many of us don’t think about plastic’s ubiquity and usefulness in our daily lives, but once we do, we realize that we use it for everything!
And honestly, why not?
It’s versatile, durable, malleable, water resistant, quality doesn’t degrade and it can be used to make almost any product you can think of.
But ironically, for these exact reasons, it’s a massive problem.
Plastic is an entirely human-made, unnatural chemical compound in our environment, so it’s not broken down effectively nor efficiently through normal biological processes. Problem is, most of us don’t reduce our usage of plastic and most of it isn’t recycled throughout the world, so a shit ton keeps being made every year resulting in a shit ton polluting our planet and all living things, including us.
Now, it does photodegrade under the right conditions which means the sun breaks it down, but it remains in our environment for hundreds, even thousands of years, breaking down into smaller pieces called microplastic (‘cause it’s plastic, but smaller, so it’s like…micro…plastic that’s like…micro sized…so like micro plastic). Yea.
These minuscule and even microscopic plastics have permeated our planet so effectively that global plastic pollution has been suggested as a geographical indicator of the proposed Anthropocene epoch — an epoch is sort of like the Cretaceous, Jurassic and Triassic periods that we all know of, but shorter.
So just like we can date artifacts, fossils, sediment etc. back to specific time periods in Earth’s history, humans will be able to date the plastics in our environment - which will presumably be embedded in rock layers - back to this exact time period thousands, and possibly millions, of years into the future.
But back to our present day. As of 2015, it’s estimated that 8.3 billion metric tons of virgin plastic has been produced and 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste has been generated since it’s introduction in 1950. Out of all that plastic waste, 9% has been recycled (only 10% of THAT has been recycled more than once), 12% has been incinerated and 79% is currently in landfills or our natural environment.
In 2010 alone, an estimated 4-12 million metric tons of plastic waste that had been generated on land entered our rivers and oceans. It’s estimated that at least 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are floating in our oceans, which account for only 5% of all the ocean trash — the remaining 95% is sitting at the bottom.
So as we can see, we’ve got a plastic waste problem that’s polluting our world, affecting and killing millions of animals (even deep sea ones) and not going away for thousands of years. And if you’re like, “Well that sucks for the environment and animals but…I’m good”. You’re not good. Plastic is so pervasive that it’s even in our water supply and the air we breathe…oh, and our beer…and salt.
That means toxic plastic is inside of all of us. Yea, just let that digest for a moment…
How does plastic affect our health?
We can look at the negative effects during the production process. As we all may know, plastic is petroleum-based so it all starts at the oil refineries. Extracting and refining oil is a dangerous job and it poses serious health risks to workers, communities that live near or around these refineries, and our entire world.
Harmful chemicals leach into our food and water from plastic packaging, bottles and food storage containers. Beware of what you buy!
We know that fish, shellfish and birds ingest plastic which can either kill them or inadvertently affects us through consuming them.
When many people in developing countries burn their plastic waste, it releases toxic chemicals into our atmosphere, and we all breathe the same air, right?
Why is so much plastic not recycled?
In developed countries, people don’t always put their recyclable trash in the proper bins nor clean it. Contaminated recyclables don’t get recycled.
When oil prices are low, it’s cheaper to produce virgin plastic than to recycle it.
Recycling can be too expensive for recycling facilities, corporations and local governments. The landfill is cheaper and easier.
Many countries don’t have recycling facilities or proper waste management systems in place, including the U.S. and Europe.
Places like the U.S. and Europe used to ship most of their recyclables to China until it was severely reduced due to an overabundance of plastic waste and inadequate infrastructure. Now developed countries are either forced to landfill the excess plastic waste or ship it to SE Asia where infrastructure is inadequate.
Not all plastics are created equal, so many are non-recyclable.
Consumer demand for recycled products is low. There’s no market, or commercial need, for many recycled plastics.
How the hell does plastic get into our air, rivers, and oceans?
Abandoned fishing gear is a contributor to our ocean plastic problem. It’s estimated that at least 46% of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of plastic fishing nets. These huge nets are intentionally and unintentionally abandoned by fishermen all over the world and don’t just contribute to ocean pollution — they continue to trap and kill marine animals like whales, dolphins, sharks, sea turtles…the list goes on. Bastaaaaaaards!!!
Natural disasters like hurricanes and typhoons indiscriminately send all kinds of shit out into the ocean. Think of all the plastic we use in our cities and towns.
Many of our clothes have plastic in them, particularly polyester and clothes made from recycled plastic water bottles. When we wash our clothes, they shed tiny plastic microfibers that end up in the ocean by way of our water treatment systems. Our clothes and many other household and personal items also shed on a daily basis, sending microfibers into the air.
Plastic products and recycled plastic products are made from tiny plastic pellets called nurdles. These nurdles are shipped all over the world and end up mostly in the ocean and on our beaches due to mismanagement through shipping methods.
In developed countries, some people are like, “I ain’t gonna be part of this system man!” and throw plastic on the ground, or it spills out of trash cans, garbage trucks and trash facilities. The garbage then gets washed into gutters usually by rain and floats directly out to the ocean through the storm drainage system. The most common trash thrown on the ground and collected during beach cleanups are cigarette butts, which surprisingly contain plastic.
In many developing countries, proper waste management systems and facilities are non-existent. Since people and waste companies have no way of disposing their plastic trash properly, they either let it accumulate on the ground, burn it which sends toxic chemicals into the air or it either naturally makes its way or is dumped into rivers. Many people in the developing world are clearly in poverty and lack proper educations, so I’d think the last thing on their minds is environmental responsibility and sustainability. Honestly, who can blame them? Interesting fact: It’s estimated that 55-60% of our oceans’ plastic waste comes from only 5 countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
If not plastic, then what?
There are tons of alternatives to many plastic products, whether they’re single-use or longer-term options. Materials include:
Paper - FSC Certified / Biodegradable / Able to be recycled more times than plastic
Wood - FSC or SFI Certified / Biodegradable / Able to be recycled
Aluminum - Able to be recycled indefinitely
Glass - Able to be recycled indefinitely
Stainless Steel - Able to be recycled indefinitely
Silicone - Long lifespan / Naturally derived materials
The best option is to buy products made from these materials already containing recycled content.
WHAT’S THE ANSWER?
Until our throw-away cultures and economies become less linear and more circular, the plastic will keep piling up. It’s not all dire though!
There are a lot of smart, passionate people who have big ideas and are doing great things to move us forward in becoming more sustainable, cleaning up our mess and holding big multi-national corporations accountable. And we can do the same.
When it’s all said and done, the world is complex. No human commerce system is perfect and there’s no magic bullet to solve our plastic addiction. However, we can continuously take small actions that build momentum toward changing industries and current production models, ultimately creating a more sustainable, habitable, symbiotic and healthy world.
WHAT TO DO
If you care about all of this, here’s what you can do:
(Note: Difficulty is completely subjective)
Separate normal trash and recyclables, putting them in the correct bins.
Food residue on recyclables doesn’t get recycled, so wash it off before throwing it in the bin. Seriously, this is insanely easy.
Don’t use plastic straws, we’ve got tons of non-plastic alternatives. When you’re at restaurants and bars, request “No straw, dammit”.
Buy produce that isn’t packaged in plastic.
Donate to non-profits/NGOs that are addressing our plastic pollution problem.
Think about all the single-use plastic you use on a daily basis and consider all the possible alternatives.
Use a reusable water bottle instead of countless plastic ones.
Use a reusable cup for coffee shops.
If you smoke cigarettes, don’t throw them on the ground.
Use reusable bags when shopping and keep reusing them (which is kinda the whole point).
Take reusable produce bags to the grocery store/farmers’ market.
If you’re invested in the stock market, don’t put your money into companies that deal heavily in single-use plastics.
Buy polyester-free and plastic-free clothing.
Buy all plastic-free products where applicable.
Become a Vegetarian or Vegan. This has the potential to cut way down on our plastic problem among many other great reasons.
Contact your local, state and federal representatives and urge them to support environmental bills that come up (if the bills are sound and legit). Capitol Call is an awesome app that lists all of your reps’ contact info.
COOL THINGS TO CHECK OUT
Nat Geo Updates - A continuously updated list of all of the awesome progress companies and governments are making toward a plastic-free future.
China Ban Updates - A continuously updated list of events happening in response to China’s “Green Fence”.
Minimalism - A movement and lifestyle based around intentional, thoughtful and simple living. Matt D’Avella is a legit dude making some great content on this.
Great question to ask yourself in determining if this is right for you: “Is a garage meant for cars or crap?”. Think on it.
The Plastic Bank - An organization incentivizing developing nation’s citizens to clean up plastic pollution at the source.
Story of Stuff - Watch cool videos on environmental stuff that matters and take action on various issues.
Parley - An organization promoting the A.I.R. (Avoid, Intercept, Redesign) strategy and mainly partnering with multi-national corporations to redesign products using recycled plastic.
The Ocean Cleanup - Young Dutch dude, Boyan Slat, is attempting to clean up The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.