Plastic has become so prevalent in our everyday lives that it’s almost impossible to avoid. We shower using soap and shampoo from plastic containers, grab a morning coffee in a plastic cup (or make it at home using a plastic Keurig with plastic K-cups), head to the office where we work off of plastic laptops and phones, grab lunch in a plastic container, and it goes on and on. Plastic encases almost everything we purchase, from toothbrushes to snacks. We’ve grown accustomed to plastic cups, plastic straws, plastic bags…and it doesn’t end there.

The United States produces 38 million tons of plastic every year. For those of us who consider ourselves “green” or “eco-friendly”, it’s sometimes believed that if our plastic products make it into those blue bins, we’ve done a good job and aren’t contributing to the plastic pollution crisis. We can wipe our hands and sleep well knowing that we’ve done our due diligence in recycling, right?

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Not so much.

Less than 10 percent of plastic produced is recycled. The remainder ends up in landfills, incinerators, or floating free and polluting the oceans and our planet. Here are the facts:

That’s a lot of garbage sitting on our earth with nowhere to go. Here are some reasons why your plastic might end up polluting our earth, even if you diligently recycled it.

plastic pollution on beach

Source: H. Hach/Pixabay

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1. You think it’s recyclable, but it’s not.

Every recycling facility is different, and what’s acceptable at one might not be acceptable at another. It’s important to research the rules in your area and be knowledgeable about what you can and can’t recycle. Some common items that people mistake as recyclable include disposable coffee cups, greasy pizza boxes, red solo cups and plastic grocery bags. If these items end up with your recycling, they can contaminate the rest of the materials, ultimately sending everything to the landfill.

pile of trash

Source: Jasmin Sessler/Pixabay

2. It wasn’t cleaned properly.

Eating your lunch and then tossing the to-go container into the recycling bin can actually do more harm than good. From yogurt and peanut butter to to-go containers, numerous plastic items come in contact with food. Scraps of food and liquid can contaminate a recycling load, which means the entire batch can be sent to the landfill. Although it may take a few extra minutes of your time, washing out your recyclable containers can be the difference between that item ending up in the landfill or the ocean.

3. It’s shipped to a third world country to handle.

Last year, the United States exported 157,000 shipping containers of plastic to other countries. These are the same countries that top the list of most mismanaged plastic waste, like China, Indonesia and Vietnam – places that are already overwhelmed with plastic and are major sources of pollution to the ocean. If we know that these countries don’t have the infrastructure to successfully handle plastic waste, why are we contributing to the problem by shipping our plastic to them?

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While recycling is better than not recycling, it’s still not a solution to the plastic problem. As long as we continue to manufacture plastic, the new material will eventually join the billions of tons of plastic already on our earth, and will continue to remain there for hundreds of years.

plastic pollution

Source: pasja1000/Pixabay

The best way to combat the plastic crisis is to adopt a waste-free lifestyle and put pressure on companies to switch to a reusable model or alternate materials. Here are some easy, realistic ways you can start to make a difference.

1. Adopt reusable products.

The world goes through a million plastic bottles every minute. From grocery bags to water bottles and coffee cups, there are reusable replacements for almost all single-use plastics. Not only is it better for the environment, but it’s cheaper in the long run too.

zero waste essentials

Source: RikaC/Pixabay

2. Avoid plastic packaging.

This one can be tough, as it seems that almost everything we purchase is encased in plastic. Some easy actions include switching to soap and shampoo bars instead of liquid, avoiding produce that is unnecessarily wrapped in plastic and buying in bulk.

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3. Support forward-thinking companies.

Today, there are a lot of companies dedicated to creating products that don’t litter our earth. Every consumer has the power of their wallet, so where you choose to spend your money can directly influence what a company does. Stop supporting the big companies that have become routine, and instead look to smaller companies that care about the planet. From toothpaste to cleaning supplies, you can find a waste-free alternative for almost everything you use.

4. Put pressure on your local government.

The ultimate goal is a worldwide ban on plastic, but big changes have to start with local entities. Some countries, including Canada, European Union, Costa Rica and India, have already voiced their commitment to banning single-use plastics. Encourage bans like this throughout the United States by sending a letter to elected leaders, urging them to ban single-use plastic, and voting for candidates who are committed to protecting and improving our environment.

Giving up plastic completely or adopting a zero-waste lifestyle may be unrealistic for some. However, if every person tries their hardest to use reusable products, look to alternate materials, and utilize the power of their wallet and voice, we can start to reverse some of the damage done by humankind and look toward a better future for our earth.

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