Touted as one of the greatest inventions of all time during the 20th century, the world embraced the “convenience” of plastic with open arms. Now, as it becomes one of the biggest epidemics afflicting the environment, wildlife, and humans today, we’re finding out in the 21st century that plastic is a bit more like the anti-Christ of inventions. But unfortunately, not everyone is aware of why plastic is problematic or the true scope of the issue, so let’s talk about it…
Making Plastic Last Forever Was Actually a Terrible Idea
Plastic is a staple in the lives of almost every U.S. citizen, and many global citizens, today; in fact, most people can’t imagine a world without it. Plastic is cheap, which makes it alluring for industries and consumers to utilize for all kinds of things, from grocery bags and food packaging to toys, prescription bottles, cosmetics, household appliances, cleaning essentials, and more; the list goes on and on. But the problem with plastic is that it also goes on… and on, and on, and on. Plastic was made to last forever, so even though it does eventually decompose, it never fully biodegrades, and that is a very bad thing for the not only the environment, but every living creature within- including humans.
What Happens to Plastic if it Doesn’t Biodegrade?
Once it finally does decompose, after hundreds or even thousands of years for some products, plastic sticks around forever in the form of tiny particles called microplastics which end up in the bellies of animals, even in the tiniest of organisms like plankton, and the bellies of the animals which eat them, effectively poisoning the food chain.
The Problem with Microplastics
A bunch of microplastics sitting in your belly that are not supposed to be there might not seem like the end of the world, if it weren’t for the dangerous chemicals, like BPA and phthalates, that plastic leaches into and onto the things it comes into contact with. So, not only are there microplastics in our stomachs, but those toxic chemicals have also now been found to exist in our blood stream and tissue. These exposures have been linked to health problems ranging from cancer to birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption, and more.
Microplastics are Not Just Bad for Us, Either
These toxins also leach into our groundwater due to plastics sitting in landfills, leading them to spill out into our waterways. This is harmful to not only humans, but the entire ecosystem and the other precious lifeforms within. But it doesn’t stop there, as microplastics and toxins aren’t the only hazards wildlife face due to plastic either; many animals are killed from eating or becoming entangled in plastic products that pollute the environment.
The Recycling Myth
Yet another problem with excessive plastic use is that it is impossible to dispose of in an eco-friendly manner. Plastic can only be recycled a finite number of times, being downcycled to a lesser and more harmful grade each time; and some plastics cannot be recycled at all. So, what you’re eventually left with is a product that must be thrown away, destined to sit in a landfill or be incinerated- both of which are bad news for the environment, but we’ll get to that. On top of all that, unfortunately even when plastic does get recycled (and only 33% of recyclable plastics do), extending its life for a short time, it doesn’t always end up being turned into something new.
What Really Happens
Oftentimes, it gets piled on a boat and shipped to a poor developing country overseas, like India, where it either burns or sits in a landfill– which creates health crises for individuals there. Much of this waste also ends up in the ocean via local waterways. The reason for this is that so much plastic is being produced annually that processing plants in America can’t keep up, so they simply export it. Furthermore, as the price of oil fluctuates, it can be cheaper for companies to buy new instead of recycled, especially considering the fact that recycled plastics are a downgrade.
The Hidden Reality
So, even though most people think they are doing their part by recycling the plastics they can, they are being sorely misled in this belief. The ugly truth is that most plastics end up in landfills, incinerators, waterways, and our oceans. All kinds of land animals ingest plastic over the course of their lives due to pollution of inland waterways, landfills, and littering. Plastics that end up in the ocean sit there and form massive garbage islands, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or pile up on beaches, like in Indonesia, killing innumerous forms of aquatic wildlife and preventing vital natural processes of those animals to take place (like sea turtles who can’t lay eggs on plastic infested beaches).
Pollution, Pollution, and More Pollution
When the plastic waste in these patches does break down, it still pollutes the ocean in the form of microplastics, leading to the poisoning of the food chain mentioned earlier. Plastics that sit in landfills leech into the ground and poison groundwater, also effectively leading to the ocean and other sources of water- poisoning the water we drink and use as well. And the plastics that get burned pollute our airways with some of the most toxic chemicals known to science: carbon monoxide, dioxins, and furans. The EPA has confirmed that dioxins and furans are a group 1 carcinogen, and that there is no “safe” level of exposure to these chemicals.
And it Doesn’t Stop There. Let’s Go Back to the Start…
The disastrous effects of plastic are not limited to the consumer side and its end of life either; the production of plastic is also an extremely harmful process. Oil is the resource used to create plastic, and every aspect of oil production is, simply put, just no good.
What’s Wrong with Oil Extraction?
For starters, in order to find oil mass deforestation, destruction of homes, building of roads, and blocking of waterways must take place. Seismic testing occurs, where companies set off explosions in order to investigate what’s underground, which is harmful to the environment and surrounding wildlife. Oil drilling causes disasters ranging from oil spills to explosions, and pollutes groundwater and waterways. Even the most memorable oil spill for most people, the Exxon Valdez, caused only a fraction of the damage other oil disasters have resulted in.
The Dangers of Separation, Transportation, and Refining
The separation process of oil is a serious pollutant as well. Oil doesn’t just come out of the ground ready to go, it has to be separated from the natural gases, heavy metals, and toxic water it contains. Separation involves burning off the natural gases found within and creating containment ponds in which to put the other toxic waste that gets separated, which leak and overflow. In more wealthy countries toxic water separated from crude oil must be put back into the ground, but in other places it is simply dumped on the surface.
Oil spills often take place during transportation, and oil can leak from storage tanks as well. Oil refineries, where oil is turned into products like gasoline and plastic, release toxic waste into the air, soil, and water. Pollution from refineries leads to a myriad of health issues and contributes significantly to global warming.
The (Even) Bigger Picture
All of these things are pretty bad on their own, but put them all together and then compound that global-disaster-waiting-to-happen with all of the other harmful practices that pollute and destroy the environment, our health, and the health of wildlife and it will lead you to where we are at today. Last year the U.N. released a statement saying that humans only have 12 years to limit our contribution to global temperature change before we cannot avoid seriously devastating effects- more devastating than the ones occurring around the world already. And, unfortunately it doesn’t seem like we are slowing down.
While there are countries and cities taking steps to do their part in avoiding catastrophic climate change, there are major players like the United States that are not; the change needs to be bigger, more widespread, and it needs to start happening on an individual scale as well. We are using way too much plastic. The fact that recycling plants can’t even keep up with the amount of plastic that is produced today is a BIG problem. But what are you supposed to do when industries keep churning it out like there’s (or they want there to be) no tomorrow?
The Best You Can do is Your Best
That might sound like a cliché, but it’s true. One of the issues caused by the prevalence of plastic is that it is really hard to avoid. I can personally attest to that by telling you I have been trying my hardest to reduce my waste and plastic consumption over the last 8 months; and even though I know I’ve made major progress, it feels like I haven’t gotten far and though I hate to admit it, there is still a lot of plastic in my home. And that’s because it’s everywhere! But the best you can do is try, right? So that’s what I do. Because every little action counts; they’re all raindrops, and enough raindrops can make waves.
You do have power.
One of the biggest tools of protest you have as a consumer is your buying power. So, use that; buy products that are not packaged in plastic when you can, use sustainable alternatives to staple products like shampoo and conditioner bars instead of buying bottled, spend a few extra dollars on reusables so you can stop using plastic shopping (not just grocery) bags, buy more whole plant based foods and use your own produce bags when you do, buy wood toys for you children instead of plastic, bring your own containers to buy your meat, buy what you can in bulk, buy wax wraps instead of Ziploc or Saran Wrap.
There is so much that you can do, and it all makes a difference. If enough people change their buying habits, companies will start listening.
So, even though it’s overwhelming and you may feel like you are powerless to help change such a big problem, you’re not. I suggest doing some research of your own and learning about more ways that you can reduce your plastic use and waste, and you really will be able to make a difference. Together, we can use our power of choice to enact change and instill hope for a better future.
What are you already doing to reduce your plastic use? Do you have any tips for those who haven’t started this journey yet? Do you have any questions? Comment below and let me know!
Don’t forget to share this important message with your loved ones as well. We all need to work together to make change happen!