Plastic. The convenience product used to protect, ship, and mold our lives is made from petroleum and natural gas. From the 1950s to 2010 there has been a 100 million ton increase in plastic production. It is the leading source of ocean pollutants killing 1 million sea birds per year and 100,000 mammals. As part of my waste journey I have vowed to reduce my plastic purchases by 90%. Why 90%, you may say? Living in the US, it is hard and sometimes impossible to find necessity products that are not wrapped in plastic. My exceptions to buying plastic have been emergency items (ie. car parts), medicine, and plastic caps on glass milk bottles. To my surprise, it has not been that hard to stick to this as long as I plan ahead. What makes it so hard for everyone to reduce their plastic then?
Let’s look at plastic bags. In the US, 380,000 billion plastic bags are used per year compared to 1 trillion used globally.The people benefiting from plastic bags are petroleum companies, the bag producers, and consumers. The convenience of a plastic bags outweighs the environmental impact to most consumers. The same goes for items individually wrapped in plastic for quick on-the-go people. 26 of the 50 states in the US have plastic bag bans, proposals, or taxes. This is not to say the entire state has these proposals in effects, rather it is larger cities within in these states that are going to a lower plastic community. San Francisco was the first city to ban plastic bags in 2006, nearly all of western Europe has bans or taxes in place to fight against plastic bags. China has saved 1 million tons of oil by banning plastic bag use and Australia has refused it’s 7 million bag per year average by banning bags. Overall, this does not mean single use bags, including paper have been phased out completely worldwide but there is an evident push away from them.
At the off chance you are able to recycle #2-7 labeled/unlabeled plastics, there are few who know where they end up. We toss our plastic in a nice green container thinking we did good by it. I think it is time to take off the blindfold of where these plastics are going besides the landfill. China has taken it upon themselves to import the plastic other industries in more developed countries are willing to use. They are breaking it down to use in China’s industries for cheap cosmetics and parts for technology. You may think “hey, this sounds great,” but let’s look a bit deeper.
Countries like the US, Canada, Australia, and vast majority of Europe are selling their cheap plastics to China. These plastics come by the shiploads to small facilities to be processed by hand. When I say processed I mean picked up piece by piece by workers, sorted into different bins, and burned to identify the type of plastic. As we know, the burning of plastic is toxic and these workers are breathing it in every day. A growing pile of trash forms from the discarded plastic which does not reside in contained landfills, rather they pile up wherever there is space. This means plastics are free to flow in the wind, are floated down rivers, and are contaminating the waters supply in the areas where plastic processing is occurring. For the few dollars people in developed countries would have to pay for a reusable bag or make the extra effort to bring a reusable cup, the workers in these facilities make as little as $0.02 a day. They feed their families from the streams polluted with plastics, they farm the land which is fed by the contaminated ground water, and they grow livestock who die after their stomachs fill with plastic. They are too poor to afford a health check up let alone deal with the health issues they will face and they have no voice in the matter.
When you think of some of your favorite foods, are they wrapped in plastic? Most food are, processed or fresh. The convenience of buying a bag of apples is cheaper than buying an individual apple. For some reason, we have decided more is better, and when more is better we package it up to sell. Countries across the world have laws and regulations on food products to have plastic for safety purposes. Our food is processed on plastic equipment, packaged in plastic, and often shipped in plastic containers. Questions swirl around how safe it is to have that much plastic swirling around our food supply. BPA, leaching, and phthlates are products brought into question for human health. Though these have not been deemed unsafe, they have not been called safe either. About 6 million pounds of BPA (Bisphenol A, hard lightweight plastic) are produced per year. The CDC has shown that more than 90% of us have BPA traces in our bodies from food consumption. This can cause problems in our bodies, especially in estrogen. Though levels may be low now, as more food eaten is packaged, the higher the risk of reproductive issues, an potential heart problems.
If there is a push away from plastic, why do people still use the product? Well, plastic is versatile, lightweight, flexible, moisture resistant, strong, and less expensive than alternatives. The downfall is the amount of energy used to make most single use products. Plastic is unlike other materials we can recycle and on average only 6% of what is produced is recycled. Many items are single use only whereas glass containers can be used indefinitely. When plastics are recycled, they are sorted and shredded into pellets. These pellets can be melted and made into new products. PET, the plastic used in products like single use water bottles is the easiest to reuse. It is estimates 100 million pounds of PET are produced per year. If the products it is used for like carpet, clothing, and packaging, are recycled, PET can be used over and over again. But, like I stated earlier, 6% of all plastic is recycled so more plastic is constantly being made one other plastics in the system are lost.
Recycling is an expensive venture and many countries cannot afford to recycle their plastic. Their plastic use is diverted to landfills where it may not decompose for 400-1000 years while leaching harmful chemicals into the ground. In places recycling is not abundant, shipping across seas takes place to get rid of plastic pollution. This adds more fossil fuel use to the equation, worsening the effects plastic has on the environment.
What can be done or what should be done? The logical response would be to eliminate plastic completely to save ocean environments and land contamination. A global problem is not an easy problem to fix. Some suggestions to reduce plastic pollution are to shop locally, buy products in bulk bins, bring reusable bags when shopping, buy less products, refuse products with plastic on them, research, and advocate for plastic bans or taxes. Below I have listen some resources to help reduce plastic use and organizations that are making a difference.
Green Dot: Companies pay for environmental impact