In 1950, 2.3 million tons of plastic were produced. By 2015, the number jumped to 448 million tons. Plastic production is expected to double by 2050, leaving oceans with more plastics than fish.
Worse, plastic is more durable than ever. It almost never goes away.
Yet plastic is an inexpensive piece of endless products. Plastic makes food last longer, medical procedures more sterile, things cheaper and more durable. It’s versatile, lightweight, flexible, moisture resistant, and strong. Its probably going to be used more, not less–especially in countries that are the biggest contributors to plastic pollution.
We have a plastic problem. But, is the solution to stop using it?
It’s time to stop using plastic.
plastic debris is everywhere
40% of plastic is made for packaging, and is used once before being thrown away.
Look around: plastic bags block storm drains, they’re in gutters, and stuck in trees. The New York City Sanitation Department collects more than 1,700 tons of single-use carry-out plastic bags every week, and has to spend $12.5 million a year to dispose of them. Scientific American reports that single-use plastic is used for an average of 12 minutes and can remain in the environment for five hundred years.
Plastic is (currently) not biodegradable and usually goes into a landfill where it is buried or it finds its way into the ocean by either intentional dumping (in some countries, barges of garbage are illegally hauled out to sea) or accidental dumping (rainwater carries debris from landfills into oceans).
Ocean currents sweep garbage into wide areas that can be found hundreds of miles off U.S. coastlines. These “garbage patches” contain tens of thousands of tons of garbage, which is consumed by the fish that we eat. Most of the garbage is plastic.
From this, tens of thousands of whales, birds, seals and turtles die every year from contact with plastic bags.
policy changes work
In San Jose, California, a plastic bag ban led to an 89% reduction in the number of plastic bags in storm drains and 60% in rivers and creeks.
Washington, DC estimates that its $.05 bag tax has led to a 75% reduction in bags being used.
Hawaii just passed a state-wide ban on single-use plastic utensils, straws, and polystyrene foam containers. We will look for data on the island’s strictest-ever stance on plastic.
Europe is better at recycling than the US, where simple policies play a part. For example: Want a plastic bag to haul your purchases home? You’ll pay for it. In Germany, recyclables are picked up every week; non-recyclable garbage is picked up once a month.
Fast food, and its single-use plastic– is also harder to find in Europe.
NOTE: McDonalds is rolling out a test program in Europe with the purpose of minimizing plastic pollution. The program includes eliminating plastic lids on McFlurrys, a plastic-toy take-back program, reducing plastic utensils and creating fiber lids for other drinks. The program is expected to be in place by the end of 2020.
and, ending single-use plastic has little down side
In the U.S. it’s estimated that one bag is used per person per day. In Belgium, it’s reported that four bags per person are used per YEAR.
Switching to reusable sandwich bags, non-plastic food wrap, and just saying “no” to plastic at stores isn’t all that difficult. Avoiding plastic forks and knives, plastic straws, plastic coffee cup lids and plastic dry cleaning bags could also work.
Not so fast: plastic is important.
plastic packaging prevents food waste
Every year in the U.S., about 30-40% of the food we grow is wasted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That means, the water, pesticides, herbicides, and fuel to produce that food is also wasted. Plastic packaging helps prevent the spoiling of food and therefore helps prevent food waste.
Studies have shown that cucumbers wrapped in plastic last eleven days longer than unwrapped cucumbers; bananas wrapped in plastic last 21 days longer than unwrapped bananas; and beef wrapped in plastic vacuum packaging lasts 26 days longer.
single use plastic in medicine
Single-use plastic has made the healthcare industry safer.
Plastics are used in surgical gloves, syringes, insulin pens, IV tubes, catheters, and much more. These are one-use products that are a big part of preventing disease in settings that are constantly battling the spread of infection.
Plastics are strong and durable and moisture resistant, and therefore can be used in things like caps on medicine bottles, blister packs for drugs, and disposal bags for medical waste.
besides, paper bags are worse
Paper bags may have a higher carbon footprint than plastic because more energy is required to produce and transport them.
David Tyler, a professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon who has examined research on the environmental impact of bag use, explains, “People look at paper and say it’s degradable, therefore it’s much better for the environment, but it’s not in terms of climate change impact. The reasons for paper’s higher carbon footprint are complex, but can mostly be understood as stemming from the fact that paper bags are much thicker than plastic bags. Very broadly, carbon footprints are proportional to mass of an object. For example, because paper bags take up so much more space, more trucks are needed to ship paper bags to a store than to ship plastic bags”.
cotton bags aren’t a perfect alternative either
Cotton is not necessarily an environmentally sound option. Consider this: 2.4% of the world’s crops are cotton, yet it uses 24% of the world’s market of insecticides. And cotton is not currently recycled in most places.
over half of the plastic pollution in oceans comes from five countries
Over half of land-based plastic-waste leakage originates in just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.
These countries have had recent and significant increases in GDP, reduced poverty, and improved quality of life. With this, while there has been an increased demand for consumer products, there has not been an increased effort to manage plastic wastes.
If just these five countries could significantly reduce the amount of plastic waste that they are responsible for leaking into the ocean, there could be a globally positive impact.
China stopped accepting recyclables
China was the biggest importer of recyclables for the US, until last year when it stopped accepting them. Since then, the New York Times reports, US programs across the country have struggled to remain open. Burning plastics releases toxins, sorting plastics is labor intensive and expensive, and–with this–big companies are rethinking their end-game for plastics, including new applications for recyclables. Check out this site for more information: https://endplasticwaste.org