Yes. Those of you who were around during May of 1997 have totally already completed that sentence in your head. Welcome back to the late 90’s.
When pondering environmental challenges for this week, and trying to think of which one I thought was really the worst, I kept coming back to one thing: plastic. I found myself noticing just how much plastic is used in our daily lives. Sure, it’s a tune we’ve all heard before – maybe since we were little kids – but sadly, it’s a problem that keeps on growing.
In every room of my house or office, I can find something plastic. Think of how many things today are plastic: food packaging, medical equipment, toys, beauty products, electronics, car interiors, cups, forks, spoons, water bottles, even gift cards and credit cards and metro cards are made from plastic.
Plastics are carbon-based polymers (long-chained molecules) most often made from petroleum. Functionally speaking, plastic is great. It doesn’t break down in the presence of most liquids, it doesn’t break if you drop it, it’s sanitary, it’s light and portable, and it’s easily molded to whatever shape you want. But, in addition to the fact that they’re made from an already-strained resource, these types of plastics don’t really break down. That’s part of what makes them so great, but is a double-edge sword.
In 2010, the U.S. generated 31 million tons of plastic waste. That’s 31 million tons of waste that isn’t going to biodegrade – and we’re already seeing the results. It’s old news to environmental folks, but the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a big, floating island of plastic debris with a size estimated to be larger than Texas. This pretty creepy.
But there’s something that makes it even worse. Unlike an oil spill, when we turn to say, “whose fault is this?” the answer is very simple. It’s yours. And, it’s mine.
Plastic pollution is not the result of any single incident or catastrophically bad decision, but the cumulative result of thousands and thousands of little things. Take, for example, those tiny micro-scrubbing beads found in body washes and scrubs. They make your skin feel great, but if they’re made out of plastic, they’re not going to go away – and research is showing real impacts on marine life. Clearly, one person’s quest to be silky smoothy isn’t going to have much effect. You were just taking a shower before that hot date. But with millions of people using these products every day, things start to add up. Or, take a look at plastic bags as an example: do you know that a trillion plastic bags are used in the US every year? Yup. It’s not that you’re evil for using one plastic bag. You were on your way home from work, and your normal tote bag was in the car, or the pharmacist put your prescription in a bag and you were in a hurry and didn’t stop to say, “oh, I don’t need a bag.” But when we all use one plastic bag….you get the point.
But, for those of you who don’t care about oceans, rivers, lakes, streams, and forests being littered with plastic bottles and bags, let’s talk about plastic and human health. While plastics don’t biodegrade, that doesn’t mean they’re 100% stable, either. Several years ago, controversy over the compound Bisphenol-A, or BPA, started to make major news headlines. BPA is used in many plastic products like food packaging, water bottles, and plastic containers. When it leaches into the food or beverage and enters the human body, BPA acts like a lot like a hormone, producing weak but real effects on the endocrine system. BPA may not be the only compound of its type, either. Studies show that virtually all plastic food containers have the potential to leach endocrine-disrupting chemicals into our food and water. The long term impacts of exposure to these chemicals is unknown in humans, but from the studies that we do have, it’s not looking good.
So what can we do?
Some of our use for plastic is a real dependence: certain medical supplies have to be kept sterile, for example, and plastic packaging is one of the best ways to achieve that. But, some of it is unnecessary, and that’s where we can change.
This is one problem where individual choice can have a real impact. The organization 5gyres has a great summary of steps that you can take to regarding plastic pollution, but I’ll briefly summarize my own take on the issue, though.
First, learn to re-use, substitute, and RECYCLE whenever you can. Although it’s always an adjustment to change your habits, you might be surprised to see that it’s really not terribly inconvenient to carry a re-useable mug or bag with you. In some places, it will even save you money. If you’re buying food containers or water bottles, chose glass or metal where you can. But, if you have to use plastic, make sure that you recycle it. Less than 8% of all plastic products in the U.S. made their way to a recycling bin in 2010 – something we can surely improve.
Second, support companies with responsible practices. If you want that silky smooth skin for your hot date tonight (because some people are just so sexy that even Wednesday night is date night), pick a brand like St. Ives or Burt’s Bees that uses natural ingredients. Invest your money in products and companies that are doing good things and not harm. One reason that 8% recycling statistic is so low is industry and corporate waste, not just household products.
And finally, support legislative and regulatory measures – like plastic bag taxes – that have a real impact on the amount of consumption (i.e., pollution) in your community. Work with your community to establish recycling programs. Maybe it’s talking to your apartment building or going to a town hall meeting. Maybe it’s just voting. Whatever.
I’m not saying you have to be a fanatic, but in the arena of plastics – a little consciousness can go a long way.
And, this little guy will thank you for giving him a better lunch.