The Persistent Problem of Plastic Pollution
The invention of plastic was a transformative breakthrough when it first invented. Plastics are convenient, lightweight, and durable. They can be molded into any shape and can be mass produced cheaply and quickly. However those same qualities that make plastic ubiquitous today—also have long-term repercussions for the environment.
How Big Is the Plastic Pollution Problem?
Plastic pollution is a significant worldwide problem. From the depths of the ocean to the peaks of Mount Everest, plastic waste has invaded every part of our planet. It’s not just an eyesore—plastic pollution is a threat to wildlife and human health.
Plastic Production Has Increased Dramatically
Plastics have been around for well over a century, but mass production of plastic products didn’t really begin until the 1950s. Since then, plastic production has increased dramatically every year since. It’s estimated that we’ve produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic so far. Of this, 6.3 billion metric tons—76% of the total produced—ended up as garbage. If trends continue, it’s estimated that roughly 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will be clogging landfills or polluting the natural environment by 2050.
One of the biggest sources of plastic pollution is single-use plastics. Single-use plastics are any products intended to be used once and thrown away. This includes grocery bags, plastic bottles, food packaging, cups, cutlery, straws, and dozens of other plastic products. When companies make a disposable product out of a material that lasts for hundreds of years without the infrastructure to deal with them after they’ve served their use, we’re stuck with what’s—more or less— immortal garbage.
Plastic Sticks Around For Centuries or Longer
A discarded paper towel will biodegrade and return to the earth in just two to four weeks in your compost pile. Plastic can take up to 1000 years to break down. Even then, it never actually goes away. It just crumbles into smaller and smaller pieces—you’ve probably seen these referred to as microplastics. These plastic particles are barely visible or invisible to naked eye and will essentially exist forever without intervention. The only way to permanently destroy plastic is through burning—a process that releases toxic chemicals and greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.
Most Plastic Is Not Recycled
The plastic pollution problem is further complicated by the fact that most plastic isn’t recycled. Compared to other recyclables like aluminum, glass, and paper, plastic has a very low recovery rate—even if you try to recycle it. Plastics are so cheap to produce that recycling doesn’t make much sense from a financial perspective, so that plastic container you diligently washed out and put in the recycling bin might end up in the landfill anyway.
Of the billions of tons of plastic that humans have created since its invention, only about 9% has been recycled. A further 12% was incinerated, and a whopping 79% has ended up in landfills or polluting the environment. When you consider historical production of plastic, the picture is even bleaker. About 91% of the plastic ever produced has never been recycled. 
Microplastics Are an Unquantifiable Threat
Plastic bits smaller than 5 millimeters in length are considered microplastics, and we’re only just beginning to realize the threat they may pose. There are two types of microplastics—primary and secondary. Secondary microplastics are the previously mentioned broken down bits of larger plastic refuse. Primary microplastics are manufactured to be tiny. Sources include industrial abrasives and microbeads—tiny pieces of polyethylene plastic that are added as exfoliants to health and beauty products.
The smallest microplastics are so tiny that they can pass through water filtration systems and end up in the Great Lakes and oceans. From there, they can infiltrate the food chain and our drinking water.
Plastic Pollution in the Ocean
Plastic in the ocean has become a serious environmental concern and awareness is growing into outrage in some circles. More than 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year. That figure might not seem like a lot when compared to the hundreds of millions of tons of other landfill fodder like food waste, but consider how light plastic is and that this is only what ends up in our oceans.
Once in the ocean, plastic tends to follow currents and accumulates in massive floating rafts of debris. Between Hawaii and California lies the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a Texas-sized accumulation of soda bottles, detergent packages, disposable cups, plastic bags, lost fishing nets, and other plastic waste. It’s the patch of floating garbage in the world, with plastic garbage outnumbering sea life six to one, and it’s only one of several such garbage patches in our oceans.
Plastic Affects Wildlife
By some estimates, plastic waste kills as many as 1 million sea creatures every year. There are a number of ways plastic is deadly to wildlife, particularly marine wildlife. Sea life can often mistake plastic debris for food—a floating plastic bag looks a jellyfish to hungry sea turtles. Seabirds often eat bottom caps and other hard plastic debris. Once inside an animal’s stomach, these plastics can cause blockages, malnutrition, and eventual starvation.
Microplastics can become lodged in the creature’s tissues, poisoning them from within. According to a United Nations report, 800 different marine species have been harmed by plastic pollution, including 40% of all whales and dolphins, 44% of seabirds, and half of all sea turtles.
Plastic Harms Humans, Too
Wild animals aren’t the only ones ingesting plastic. Humans are getting an unhealthy serving of it as well. Microplastics have invaded the marine food chain, and this includes the fish and shellfish that we eat. Avoiding seafood won’t keep plastic off your plate, though. Microplastics have also been found in beer, honey, and sea salt.
Once in the human body, plastic is suspected of contributing to developmental, immune, and hormonal health problems like thyroid issues—and even some cancers. The problem is more widespread than many realized. A 2008 study found that almost 93% of adults tested positive for BPA (bisphenol A), an industrial chemical used to harden certain plastics. BPA is known to leach into food from plastic containers.
Types of Plastic
There are seven types of plastic, identified by the recycling symbol imprinted into the material. Understanding the difference between plastic types can help you make better decisions as a consumer.
|Mostly used for clear soda and water bottles, PETE is usually considered safe for humans.|
|PETE or PET||Uses: soda bottles, water bottles, beer bottles, salad dressing containers, mouthwash bottles, peanut butter containers|
|Polyethylene Terephthalate||Recyclable: Yes|
|This plastic is opaque and used for a variety of containers. HDPE is considered safe and has a low risk of leaching chemicals.|
|HDPE||Uses: milk jugs, household cleaner containers, juice bottles, shampoo bottles, cereal box liners, detergent bottles, motor oil bottles, yogurt tubs, butter tubs|
|High-density Polyethylene||Recyclable: Yes|
|Type 3 plastic is rarely accepted by curbside recycling programs. It’s also not safe for humans. PVCs often contain phthalates—chemicals linked to numerous health issues. They can also leach DEHA, which can cause liver problems, loss of bone mass, and cancer. Never burn or cook with type 3 plastics.|
|V or PVC||Uses: shampoo bottles, food packaging, cooking oil bottles, medical equipment, plumbing, window frames.|
|The good news is that LDPE is considered safe for humans. The bad news is that many curbside recycling programs will not accept it. Call your local recycler to find out if they take type 4 plastics.|
|LDPE||Uses: cling wrap, sandwich bags, squeezable bottles, shopping bags, clothing, carpet, bread bags, food wraps|
|Low-density Polyethylene||Recyclable: Sometimes|
|Type 5 plastics are generally safe for humans and frequently used in food containers. Traditionally, most recycling programs would not take type 5, but this is changing, and it’s becoming more commonly accepted.|
|PP||Uses: diapers, yogurt containers, ketchup bottles, syrup bottles, medicine bottles, bottle caps, take-out containers, Tupperware, disposable cups and plates|
|Better known as Styrofoam, polystyrene is notoriously difficult to recycle. It can also leak toxic chemicals, particularly when heated.|
|PS||Uses: disposable coffee cups, egg cartons, meat trays, to-go containers, packing foam, packing peanuts, disposable plates and cups|
|Type 7 catches all the various other types of plastic including nylon, acrylic, styrene, fiberglass, and polycarbonate. Polycarbonate is particularly hazardous as it contains the toxic compound BPA, which is linked to infertility, hyperactivity, reproductive problems, and other health issues.|
|Miscellaneous Plastics||Uses: CDs and DVDs, sunglasses, computer cases, nylon, multi-gallon water bottles, bullet-proof materials|
Plastics are made to be durable and long-lasting, but we use them for things that are meant to be used once and thrown away. Plastic shopping bags, styrofoam food containers, and plastic bottles are all prime examples of this. Once we’re done with these single-use items, all of that plastic has to go somewhere, and a troubling amount never even makes it to the landfill. It’s a global problem, but there are things you can do in your own home and community to make things better.
The most obvious solution is to recycle plastic whenever possible. This will help offset the production of new plastics. On average, Americans use about 167 plastic water bottles every year, but only recycle about 23%. That puts 38 billion water bottles in landfills annually. Let’s get that number up! Recycling plastic saves twice as much energy as incineration.
Reduce the Amount of Plastic You Use
Recycling is a good start, but it’s even better to reduce the amount of plastic that needs to be manufactured in the first place. Take steps to reduce the plastic in your life. Use reusable containers for food storage instead of plastic baggies, never leave the house without a full water bottle, make your coffee at home and take a thermos, cook at home instead of getting takeout, and try to buy fewer things are all great ways to get started.
If you’re looking for more ambitious ideas, there are so many areas you can improve upon with just a little extra preparation. You can buy fill (clean) cotton drawstring bags with fresh produce and bulk foods at the grocery store, make your own peanut and almond butter, shop new items from the charity shops and the resale market, and even skip the protective bag on your dry cleaning by bringing a garment bag.
Support Companies that Limit Plastic Use
Many companies are becoming committed to reducing plastic waste. With a little research, you can find organizations that are committed to reducing plastic in the waste stream in all areas of retail. Support stores that refuse to use plastic bags, restaurants that use biodegradable to-go containers, and online retailers that prioritize eco-friendly packaging for their products.
Ban the Bag
Every year, over 100 billion plastic shopping bags are used in the U.S. alone. Of these, less than 1% are recycled. Help reduce waste by using reusable totes for your shopping needs.
Around the world, many cities, states, and even whole countries have outright banned the use of plastic bags to reduce waste. In the U.S., Austin, Seattle, Portland, and the entire state of California have banned the plastic bag. The European Union, China, India, Kenya, and dozens of other nations enforce similar laws. Places with plastic bag bans are seeing positive results. In 2002, Ireland enacted a simple 15 cent tax on plastic bags in stores. Plastic bag use went down 90%, while litter dropped by 50%.
Skip the Straw
Plastic straw bans have been met with some skepticism. No, banning straws won’t save the oceans alone, and straws are essential for people with certain disabilities. However, a plastic straw is only used for minutes, but it will stick around for centuries. Every little bit helps when you’re planning long term, especially since it’s estimated that 500 million straws are used daily in the U.S. alone.
Do What You Can to Reduce Your Plastic Use
A world without plastic is almost unimaginable today. Indeed, many of the technologies we use wouldn’t be possible without them. Plastics are useful, convenient, cheap, and durable which is why they should be used responsibly when necessary, and not at all when other, reusable alternatives exist that work just as well if not better.
Looking for more ideas to kick the plastic habit? Try some of these tips for reducing single-use plastics in the kitchen!
- Jambeck J. “Marine Plastics.” Smithsonian Ocean Portal. Published April 2018. https://ocean.si.edu/conservation/pollution/marine-plastics.
- Geyer R, et al. “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made.” Science Advances. 3, no. 7 (20): e1700782. http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782.full.
- “The Be Straw Free Campaign (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/articles/straw-free.htm.
- “Statistics of the Year 2018: Winners Announced.” The Timeline of Statistics | StatsLife, www.statslife.org.uk/news/4026-statistics-of-the-year-2018-winners-announced.
- “Approximate Time it Takes for Garbage to Decompose in the Environment.” New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. Accessed December 24, 2018. .
- “Diving Deeper: Episode 66: Microplastics.” National Ocean Service. Accessed December 24, 2018. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/podcast/june16/dd66-microplastics.html.
- Mazhukhina K. “A floating mass of plastic has grown to twice the size of Texas.” University of Washington Sustainability Blog. Published August 24, 2018. https://green.uw.edu/blog/2016-08/floating-mass-plastic-has-grown-twice-size-texas.
- “Plastic Recycling Facts.” University of Southern Indiana. Accessed December 24, 2018. https://www.usi.edu/recycle/plastic-recycling-facts/.
- “Technical Series No.83.: Marine Debris: Understanding, Preventing and Mitigating the Significant Adverse Impacts on Marine and Coastal Biodiversity.” Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Published 2016. https://www.cbd.int/doc/publications/cbd-ts-83-en.pdf.
- Smith M, et al. Microplastics in Seafood and the Implications for Human Health. Curr Environ Health Rep. 5, no. 3 (2018): 375-386. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6132564/.
- Calafat AM, et al. Exposure of the U.S. population to bisphenol A and 4-tertiary-octylphenol: 2003-2004. Environ Health Perspect. 116, no. 1 (2008):39-44. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2199288/.
- “Types of Plastic.” Illinois Department of central Management Services. Accessed December 24, 2018. https://www2.illinois.gov/cms/agency/recycling/i-cycle/Pages/plastics.aspx.
- “Interesting Facts About Recycling.” Florida Institute of Technology. Accessed December 24, 2018. .
- “NYS Plastic Bag and Film Plastic Reduction.” New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Accessed December 24, 2018. https://www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/50034.html.
- “Plastic Bag Bans Work.” Smithsonian Ocean Portal. Accessed December 24, 2018. https://ocean.si.edu/conservation/pollution/plastic-bag-bans-work.
- “The Be Straw Free Campaign”. The National Park Service. Accessed December 24, 2018. https://www.nps.gov/articles/straw-free.htm