The globe is facing a plastic crisis. Plastic is ubiquitous in our lives: we produce roughly 448 million tons of plastic each year, and about half of it is recyclable. However, only 10 to 13% of plastic waste is ever recycled (only 3% of plastic bags), and when it is, the process requires additional chemicals, virgin materials, and water. Plastic also cannot be recycled indefinitely, as the material degrades with each cycle.
The plastic that is thrown away ends up in landfills and oceans, slowly breaking down over millions of years. But plastic is not biodegradable, so the process of degrading is simply plastic being broken down into smaller and smaller particles. These particles end up in our food chain, and so far, there is limited data as to whether these nanoparticles pass from the guts into the flesh of the meat humans consume.
If that isn’t concerning enough, other studies have found that when plastics break down in the ocean, the process releases toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) and styrene trimer into the waters, potentially threatening critical ocean life. The plastic molecules absorb other chemicals already present in the seawater like sponges, making the plastic molecules that ocean life ultimately ends up ingesting far more toxic than just the plastic itself.
Every minute, one garbage truck worth of plastic waste is dumped into our oceans.
“Recycling plastic is to saving the Earth what hammering a nail is to halting a falling skyscraper,” Matt Wilkins wrote on July 6th in Scientific American. “You struggle to find a place to do it and feel pleased when you succeed. But your effort is wholly inadequate and distracts from the real problem of why the building is collapsing in the first place. The real problem is that single-use plastic—the very idea of producing plastic items like grocery bags, which we use for an average of 12 minutes but can persist in the environment for half a millennium—is an incredibly reckless abuse of technology. Encouraging individuals to recycle more will never solve the problem of a massive production of single-use plastic that should have been avoided in the first place.”
Recycling systems are inefficient and confusing for most consumers, and even those that are famously powerful, like California’s, are overwhelmed by the growing wave of plastic waste coming at them. China was previously absorbing much of this waste, but recently put strict regulations on the waste it accepts due to the high contamination levels in the trash they were receiving. Recycling doesn’t solve the problem of the resources that go into creating plastic packaging either. For example, according to Ertug Ercin with the Water Footprint Network, the amount of water that it takes to create the plastic bottle can be up to six or seven times the amount of water the bottle can hold.
Half of the plastic ever manufactured was made in the past 15 years. Since 2010, fossil fuel companies have invested more than $180 billion into building more plastic manufacturing facilities, and experts predict it will increase global plastic production more than 40% in the next decade. As the cost of shale oil drilling in the United States has led to a dramatic price drop, plastic is cheaper than ever to produce, and the new factories may mean high plastic production levels are locked in for years to come.
More than 40% of plastic is used once, then thrown away. It’s impossible to avoid plastic in our daily lives. And it’s killing us. In fact, all the plastic found in household products, including our clothes and blankets, have been found to break down into microplastic particles. When scientists in the UK researched whether microplastics ingested by mussels could be found in human stool samples, what they discovered is that most of the microplastics humans ingested did not come from the shellfish, but rather from microplastics in household dust.
In the face of all of this, what is the average consumer to do? Unless you are a decision-maker choosing what products to put your company’s products in, one of the most impactful steps to take is to cut out single-use plastic, which spurred the launch of the #PlasticFreeJuly challenge.
“Although the size of the plastic waste problem is frightening, the numbers tell us that small actions can make big impacts. Last year, participating households of our campaign reduced their landfill waste rates by nearly 10%, which in my home state of Western Australia translated to 10,400 fewer tonnes of waste generated by participating households,” said Rebecca Prince Ruiz, Founder and Executive Director of the Plastic Free July Foundation. Along with the challenge, the Foundation provides toolkits and suggestions of where to start cutting out plastic waste.
I had already made a goal of reducing my plastic consumption early in 2018, and by the beginning of July had already developed habits including cutting out plastic water bottles and plastic cling wrap, switching to reusable grocery bags, bringing my own reusable dishes to work, and pulling plastic and aluminum cans out of the trash around my business incubator (yes, really, I am that person). This was relatively low-hanging fruit, I thought, so I wondered how much work it would be to cut out even more.
Over the next four weeks (I am starting the challenge a week late), I will be documenting the experience of attempting to go plastic free, searching for alternatives to single-use plastic containers, and examining some of the challenges I face along the way. I’ll be posting about my progress through the challenge once per week, on Fridays. Stay tuned!
Photo: Nicaragua, by Hermes Rivera.
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