Plastic has quickly risen in the ranks over the past 50 years, leaping into the lead as one of the most ubiquitous materials on the planet. We see it everywhere, from grocery store shelves to industrial and medical uses. It’s not likely plastic is going to disappear as a commonly-used material anytime soon — and it’s certainly not going to disappear from our waterways and landfills within our lifetime.
The invention and use of plastic may be the single most environmentally-damaging thing humans have done to the planet. Inasmuch, it’s up to us to fix it. While it’s not an easy task, it’s at least approachable if we focus our efforts on single-use plastics. We’re talking about those items that have a short one-purpose life. Examples include plastic plates, cups, silverware, grocery and garbage bags, and of course single-use water bottles. It also includes plastic packaging materials, straws and takeaway containers.
Dangers of single-use plastics for humans
The scary part is that we don’t definitively know the damage plastics cause to the human body. We do know, however, that plastic never really goes away. Every piece of plastic ever produced is still on the planet in some form. Plastic products are in landfills, polluting the waterways and breaking down into smaller pieces known as microplastics. Scientists have discovered microplastics in every living thing, from plants to animals to humans of all ages, including babies. It’s in the soil, the water and the air.
Although research is ongoing, plastic and the chemicals in it are believed to be responsible for health issues such as hormone-related cancers, infertility and neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD and autism.
Dangers of single-use plastics for the planet
Nearly all plastics are made from petroleum-based products. The process of manufacturing contributes to pollution and global warming. As a post-consumer product, plastic is one of the biggest waste issues we face. Oceans, landfills, streets and more face the plastic waste crisis.
How governments are responding
This isn’t new news. Every level of government is aware of the environmental and human health issues associated with plastic. As of May 2019, 180 nations had made pledges to help reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean.
In progressive areas, municipalities have banned single-use plastic products. California recently passed legislation that will require a minimum of 65% of all packaging to be recyclable or compostable by 2032. The state also has a ban on plastic bags and restrictions on plastic straws.
Some entire countries are on board with plastic-reducing policies. With the exception of New South Wales, the entire country of Australia has a ban on plastic bags, as does Thailand, Rwanda, Kenya, Bangladesh and others.
There seems to be an evolution in the movement. What at first seems extreme, like banning plastic bags at the supermarket, quickly becomes mainstream. Shoppers simply get used to bringing their own reusable bags or packing in paper instead. Then municipalities reach further.
For example, in the case of Thailand, the plastic bag ban led to a decision to also ban plastic scrap waste imports. The decision is in alignment with other Asian countries that have historically processed large quantities of plastic and have also implemented stair-stepped bans for the next several years. These countries are standing their ground in an effort to clean up their own lands and to stop being dumping grounds for waste from other countries.
This is all part of a bigger conversation about the impact larger countries have on developing nations. In continuing with the Thailand example, the country was named one of the biggest plastic polluters on the planet in a report by the Ocean Conservancy. The organization later rescinded the report, stating they had unfairly blamed some of the Asian nations (China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam) for the pollution without consideration of where the materials were originally coming from — primarily the United States.
A look to the future
Here’s the thing. According to the United Nations Environment Program, plastic production more than tripled in the twenty years between the 1970s and 1990s. It’s gotten even worse since then. There was a time, in the not-so-distant past, when we managed our lives without the use of plastic. We can do it again. But how do we get there?
The first step is the continued investment in plastic alternatives. Biobased materials are flooding the market, but are not yet mainstream. These plastics can biodegrade without any long-term effects on the environment. At this point, they are still expensive, which will be a stumbling block until regulations yank cheap petroleum-based plastics as an option.
Single-use plastic does have its advantages, including sanitation and lightweight shipping. Any alternatives we develop need to also be lightweight to keep shipping costs and emissions low.
The other part of the equation comes from having the right mindset. While individuals can do their part by skipping single-use water bottles in favor of refillable options and bringing washable utensils from home instead of using disposable ones, a larger impact comes from large events, company behavior and hospitality services.
As a consumer, support hotels and restaurants that make sustainable choices such as using refillable shampoo, conditioner and body wash containers in the shower instead of providing small personal care samples, or providing reusable ceramic coffee cups in the rooms instead of disposable cups. With our decisions, we can drive change.
Many sporting events, concerts and other large, public gatherings are also making substantial changes. Musicians such as Jack Johnson are demanding concert venues ban single-use plastic water bottles and provide water-filling stations instead. Many places are raising the bar on recycling glass and aluminum cans at venues, too. Others rely on compostable cups instead of plastic.
While it would be nice if common thinking was enough to catapult the plastic elimination bar higher, we all know it will require a nudge for people to act responsibly. Kenya is an extreme example of zero tolerance for single-use plastic. After banning single-use plastic bags in 2017, the east-African nation implemented and enforced fines of up to $40,000 for anyone using, selling or manufacturing the bags. Others have even been arrested. The government also imposed a policy banning single-use plastics in protected areas such as beaches, forests and other natural areas in order to protect the lands and wildlife. Visitors who bring in plastic bottles, cups or disposable utensils will face stiff fines.
The point is there are myriad ways to shift the tides on the flood of plastic. If we can involve people from all levels, provide education, continue to develop alternatives and guide the change through policies and incentives, a limited-plastic future is possible.
Images via Unsplash