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“We really need to get to the root of the problem, and it really does circle back to our relationship to convenience, and our sense that things are disposable, which they aren't.” – Adrien Grenier, Lonely Whale
In 1950, the world’s population of 2.5 billion produced 1.5 million tons of plastic; in 2016, a global population of more than 7 billion people produced over 320 million tons of plastic. This is set to double by 2034.
Every day approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into our oceans.
We as a planet are facing environmental and health issues due to the wide-scale and unnecessary use of plastics. Many of these issues stem from the fact that the impact of plastic consumption and disposal was not considered until after mass-production was in effect for many years.
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Reducing Plastic Use
Consumers are now waking up to some of the worst excesses in the overuse of plastics. Fruits and vegetables being packaged in single-use plastics is one of the most apparent examples of excess plastic because they already come in a protective skin. Prepacked orange segments last about four days whereas a whole orange can last months. Compare the environmental lifetime of orange peel and polyethylene, months vs. effectively an eternity all for the convenience of not peeling an orange.
It is time to rethink the current management model of production and disposal of plastics and to move towards a model that considers the entire life-cycle of these abundant materials. Disposal of plastics in landfills ultimately is unsustainable and incineration results in the release of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Recycling represents a plausible superior solution; however, numerous challenges of plastics recycling exist including accurately sorting plastics. For example, a sports drink can have three incompatible types of plastic in the bottle, the shrink-wrapped film, and the lid. All three components can be individually recycled but they are rarely separated. We need to innovate how we recycle plastics already in use as well as find alternatives to reduce its abundance.
Many plastics are needed to support our modern-day lifestyles. But where do we draw the line on our production of plastics and work to end the ever-increasing environmental impacts of plastic materials?
Statistics on Plastics Use
When mass production of plastics began in the 1940s, it quickly made its way into all facets of modern day living. The issue with this is that there was never a consideration of the effects plastics would have on the environment if it were to be produced at today’s enormous and still expanding scale. Because of this, we are facing the exponential amount of plastic pollution we see today. According to the nonprofit Plastic Oceans, the world produces almost 300 million tons of plastic each year, one-half of which are for single use. Fifty percent of the annual plastic production goes toward disposable applications such as packaging. The life-cycle of these products needs to be considered and consumption decisions need to be made to handle the abundant flow of plastics being destined for disposal after single use. More than 8 million tons of plastic ends up in our oceans every year. This is troubling information, but it hasn’t driven us to make even a dent in our global production and use of plastics.
We have created a world which consumes more than one million bags every minute, and the 101 billion plastic beverage bottles sold in just one year in the U.S. alone. Because of the waste caused by the production of these items, space constraints are becoming an issue. Smaller countries such as Denmark and Japan already are relying more heavily on incineration to conserve land resources. As its population increases, larger countries like the United States likely will experience similar land scarcity in addition to the real threat that the protective liners separating landfills from the soil and from underlying drinking water resources may rupture or leak over time.
The global flow of recycled scrap plastic, ending up in mountains of burning piles and contaminated waterways, is a fate we don’t want to face.
We are all responsible for implementing a new system which can prevent the filthy future that awaits us if plastic pollution continues.
Today, Consumers are Waking Up
So, what can be done to reduce single-use plastic?
Policies such as the UK's 5 pound carrier bag charge has driven an 80% reduction in single-use bags. If this type of legislation was to spread worldwide, we could greatly reduce the amount of plastics that ends up in landfills or our oceans.
Pilot programs in Boulder, Colorado have found that curbside composting programs have increased waste diversion from landfills up from 40% to 69%, indicating that consumers are willing to adopt better disposal method if presented with the option.
Increasing the use of biodegradable plastics can also reduce the carbon footprint and pollution risks. Current research is seeking to find an eco-friendly and renewable alternative to plastics. This could reduce the harmful health effects associated with plastics.
Personal actions are also making a difference. Taking a pledge to Refuse, Reuse, Reduce, and Recycle can help individuals limit their plastic footprint. This method can reduce the amount of plastics used in daily life and bring awareness to the growing issue of plastic waste.
These are great ways to reduce our plastic usage but there is still much that needs to be done.
The Plastic Problem Continues to Grow
A long-term solution may lie in determining which applications of plastics are truly necessary, which ones offer short-term benefits only, and in developing biodegradable plastics for production of disposable items with a programmed, short lifespan.
Biodegradable plastics are being developed today, but they are not yet the perfect solution to disposable plastics. Most bioplastics today are derived from plant sources such as corn and molasses, which may cause a loss of food supply for humans and farm animals. As biodegradable plastics are fairly new and designed to look like traditional plastics, conventional plastics may contaminate composting areas and biodegradable plastics may enter into recycling plants. This would decrease the quality of both compost and recycled plastics.
We also need to rethink the way in which we use plastics today. The damaging and lasting effects of plastics on the environment stem primarily from applications in which long-term harm outweigh any short-term benefits of convenience.
Exporting our plastics to China allowed to ignore our overuse of this valuable resource. But now China has banned many forms of waste from being sent from countries around the world, bringing our gross misuse to light. Municipalities and processors are now scrambling to find markets for collected plastics. We need to also examine the role we have in exporting waste around the world. As an ever-changing, global community, each of us has a role to play in keeping the world’s environments healthy.
Envision a Cleaner World
Research and advocacy for groups working to promote change can give us the opportunity to find alternatives to the plastics that are creating an abundance of waste. With continued awareness of the damage single-use plastics have on our environment and action to regulate these materials we can reduce our plastic footprint. As an international community, we need to rectify the harm we've done to our world and create eco-friendly alternatives to sustain our planet.