There’s really no denying the fact that we, collectively as humans, have a serious plastic problem. It seems that we can’t get through one single day without accumulating at least 10 disposable plastic items, whether they’re in the form of bags, coffee cups, snack wrappers or bottles. While they might seem convenient in the moment, the reality is that this plastic comes at a major cost to the environment.
Every single year, 300 million tons of plastic are produced worldwide, and a large portion of that plastic is discarded just as quickly as it was purchased or used by people. Although we all know we should recycle, the reality is that only a small fraction of plastics are ever reclaimed, and the majority ends up in landfills – and shortly thereafter, the oceans. Our plastic trash adds up to a total of 8.8 million tons getting washed, blown or dumped into the oceans and the presence of this waste is currently threatening over 700 marine species with extinction.
Now, knowing these facts, it seems that the only logical way to start solving this problem is to do away with plastic entirely. In a perfect world, yes, this would be the solution. But, sadly, we live in a world that is much more complicated than that. As individuals, we can absolutely strive to cut plastic out of our daily routines, but some things like plastics in our cars, computers or home infrastructure can’t be so easily avoided.
Although there is a lot of plastic that can’t be avoided, there are many kinds of plastic items that are just plain unnecessary. These plastics can be replaced with reusable, sustainable alternatives right now – but most people are only motivated to do so when there is a tax or a ban placed on them. In a few cases, many of these items have been banned with great success, begging the question of why is this not the case everywhere?!
Plastic microbeads have become a pretty popular discussion topic amongst environmentalists lately. What was originally introduced as an additive to toothpaste and skin care items to offer a scrubbing effect soon emerged as a major recognized source of water pollution. It’s easy to understand the hate for these tiny plastic pieces: an estimated eight trillion plastic microbeads end up in aquatic habitats every single day. Not shocking enough? 99 percent of microbeads are actually retained in sludge at wastewater treatment facilities. That sludge is then sometimes applied to farmland so, even if the microbeads don’t reach an aquatic ecosystem, they may still end up polluting a terrestrial one.
While microbeads are tiny in nature, the impact they have once they go down the drain is huge. By 2013, scientists acknowledged proof that microbeads were present in Lake Eerie, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior. By summer of 2015 scientists also had evidence of plastic microbeads entering marine food-webs when they observed zooplankton consuming a microbead. Once plastics enter a food chain, toxins and chemicals can accumulate upwards from one organism to the next, causing a variety of health issues including reproductive troubles.
Due to their harmful impact, banning the microbead has become a cause that many embrace. Illinois was the first state to ban microbeads in sale, manufacture and production in 2014. Other states have followed Illinois’ lead and bans on microbeads have been passed in New Jersey, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Colorado and, most recently, California. While each state has its own timeline and parameters for where and when microbeads are banned, the legislation is important groundwork for phasing out this destructive form of pollution. In a monumental move, the first country in the world to ban microbeads is The Netherlands. Perhaps they may encourage other nations to follow suit?
Plastic bags are probably one of the more infamous items we can talk about when it comes to plastic pollution. According to the Earth Policy Institute, roughly two million plastic bags are used every minute. That amounts to one trillion plastic bags used worldwide each year! And while plastic bags may serve a very real purpose, the stats on the damage they do in return are absolutely astounding.
The environmental damage of the plastic bag starts with its manufacturing. The Citizens Campaign for the Environment estimates that, to produce 100 billion plastic bags, manufacturers need 2.2 billion pounds of fossil fuels and 3.9 billion gallons of fresh water. Once in distribution, the average plastic bag will be used for just 12 minutes. Unfortunately, recycling plastic bags has not been a good solution to cutting down on their pollution. In 2009, the EPA estimated roughly only 6.9 percent of plastic bags were recycled. The rest ended up in landfills or as pollution out in the environment.
Plastic bags pose a huge threat to marine animals who can easily mistake these floating objects for jellyfish or other potential food sources. Once ingested, plastic bags can cause serious blocks in the animals’ intestines or stomachs, causing animals to starve. Marine animals can also easily get entangled in plastic bags and suffocate. Either way, these bags have the potential to be lethal.
Introducing plastic bag bans has been a rather popular discussion topic for various governments at the city and state level. Hawaii was the first state to ban the single-use plastic bag and, while this was an important step for the environment, the process has been a valuable lesson for others states looking to do the same. In an effort to skate through a loophole, stores began using plastic bags that were thicker in comparison to the conventional ones, allowing the claim these were “reusable” and thus legal under the ban. Who’s to say these thicker plastic bags aren’t treated as their thinner counterparts and make their way into waterways and landfills just the same? Cities and counties across the United States have adopted their own bans to plastic bags and, while the intentions are good, not having entire swaths of land onboard leaves the region with a patchwork of those that use plastic bags and those that shun them.
Another method for eliminating plastic bag-use has been to charge customers for their purchase rather than give them out for free. In 2002, Ireland adopted a plastic bag fee which eventually resulted in a decrease in single-use plastic bags by a whopping 90 percent! In Scotland’s first year with a plastic bag tax, consumer use dropped 80 percent! Britain recently adopted its own plastic bag fee, charging five pence per bag used. While charging customers to use plastic bags does not limit their availability, the hope is that this fee will be enough to change the shopping habits of customers and encourage them to bring their own reusable bags instead.
Another form of plastic pollution to discuss is Styrofoam. It’s the material you often associate with take-out containers and packing material, but it also has a reputation as a mighty polluter. Styrofoam can take roughly 500 years to decompose. And in that time is has the capacity to sicken the people and animals it comes into contact with. Styrofoam is made of polystyrene which can cause neurological damage after prolonged exposure. Wildlife can also suffer should they consume Styrofoam. In fact, an estimated 162 marine species around the world consumed the plastic stuff.
The need for a Styrofoam ban is similar to the need of the various other plastic pollution sources: it is vital to protect both people and wildlife from the physical and chemical damage that plastic pollution causes. San Francisco banned the use of Styrofoam in foodware and saw a 36 percent reduction of Styrofoam waste within one year of implementation. Other areas that have jumped on the Styrofoam ban train include Seattle and Albany County, New York. Unfortunately, a Styrofoam ban in New York City was recently overturned by a judge, giving rise yet again to another form of plastic pollution. San Francisco’s success, however, shows that a ban certainly is a viable option to reduce Styrofoam pollution, as long as it can be held in place to work.
Plastic Water Bottles
The plastic water bottle industry has been in the news a lot recently, whether it’s to discuss pumping water out of drought-stricken California’s national parks on expired permits or the BPA found in plastic water bottles. The plastic waste associated with water bottles is also a worthwhile debate.
The Water Project offers some sobering statistics on just how environmentally unfriendly plastic water bottles are. While plastic water bottles may be recyclable, only one in five actually end up recycled in the United States. Those that aren’t recycled may take over 1,000 years to break down in the environment. If you consider that 80 percent of plastic water bottles either end up in the environment or a landfill, the contribution of plastic water bottles to our plastic pollution problem is quite sizable.
In recognizing the damage that plastic water bottles do to our environment, many local governments have gone on to pursue plastic water bottle bans. Concord, Massachusetts banned the sale of single-use plastic water bottles in 2013. This year, San Francisco enacted a ban that restricted plastic water bottles from being sold on city-owned property. Restrictions on the sale of plastic water bottles aren’t just limited to local governments, either. College campuses across the United States including Harvard and Brown have also placed bans on plastic water bottle sales.
Plastic Bans Start With You
While it is frustrating that our elected officials are not always taking a hard stance against plastic pollution, we don’t necessarily have to wait for their permission and endorsement to begin to address the problem ourselves. You can start by banning plastics in your everyday life in order to allow the planet the treatment it deserves. Seek sustainable options around grocery shopping, the personal items you use on a daily basis, and the manner in which you consume food and drink. While plastic over-use is a societal norm, you can seek a different way to live and treat the environment. You can make a difference.
Lead Image Source: Kate Ter Haar/ Flickr