Plastic pollution only recently became a problem in waste disposal. Now it’s huge.
Plastic used to mean cheap and shoddy. People bought plastic stuff largely because either they didn’t need a really good product or because they couldn’t afford one. Many scoffed at credit cards as mere plastic money.
Those days are long gone. Industry has invented many new kinds of plastic and discovered applications for which it is a superior material. Now, it’s everywhere — including lots of places where it is harmful. And the harm isn’t always immediately obvious.
For example, I loved plastic grocery bags when they first came out. No more begging clerks to try to fit everything into one paper bag because I had to get it home on the bus. Even after I got a car, I truly loved carrying several bags in each hand as long as I lived within walking distance of a store. What’s not to love?
The environmental problems it causes.
The trouble with plastic
Some people finish drinking something out of a plastic bottle and then toss it out the window of their car. It’s an eyesore there, but it doesn’t stay there.
Eventually, rainwater will move it until it lands in a storm sewer or a stream. Every ocean in the world has plastic trash in it. It washes up on the most remote and pristine beaches.
Plastic pollution also creates an environmental hazard. It has directly or indirectly caused injuries and deaths in 267 species of animals (including all of the major vertebrate groups) that scientists have documented.
They eat it. They get tangled in it. And so they get poisoned. They suffocate. They starve from not being able to get the plastic off their mouths or free their feet so they can move.
Some kinds of plastic leach chemicals.
Many people know to avoid BPH in water bottles and other things we eat or drink from.
More people are becoming aware that it is not good to microwave food in a plastic container, although many such are designed especially for the microwave.
That’s just one example of a hazard that we know about. How many poisons and environmental problems remain undiscovered? We don’t even understand the long-range consequences of the ones we do know about.
Most substances break down into something else. Plastic doesn’t. The only way it even seems to go away is by breaking down into smaller pieces until they get so tiny we no longer notice them. It doesn’t become any less dangerous, and we really don’t understand the cumulative health effects.
Meanwhile, American consumption of plastic has risen tenfold in the last half century. In fact, the last ten years have witnessed the manufacture of nearly as much of it as the entire twentieth century. In the coming decades, production and consumption will increase dramatically as the developing nations of Asia, Africa, and South America become wealthy enough to desire their share of conveniences and modern consumer goods.
Preventing plastic pollution
What can we do to prevent all of this plastic from becoming plastic pollution, with all the hazards and environmental problems we already know it entails? Two obvious suggestions:
- Use as little plastic as possible
- Get a supply of reusable cloth bags for shopping so you can refuse plastic bags. Even the most environmentally committed grocery stores, which don’t offer plastic bags at the checkout counter, have no choice but to use them for produce and bulk sales. Consumers, on the other hand, can buy cloth produce bags and reuse them until such time as economies of scale make them a viable alternative for the stores.
- Before buying something plastic, determine if it is really the best material for the product. For example, a stainless steel bottle will get your water colder and keep it cold longer than plastic. Stop buying beverages in plastic bottles!
- Prefer products with minimal packaging. Prefer products packaged in something other than plastic. Buy eggs that come in paper cartons. Buy lunch meats that come in a cardboard package rather than a plastic tub.
2. Recycle as much plastic as possible.
Plastic is only marginally less an environmental problem in a landfill than tossed at the side of the road. And yet only about a quarter of plastic ever get recycled.
What’s more, much of what American municipalities collect is actually shipped to China to become new consumer goods! American manufacturers make fabric from plastic bottles. Why export such a precious resource?
We can avoid long-term environmental problems caused by plastic pollution and other hazards only by wasting less of it and keeping it out of the waste stream.
Source: Plastic: a toxic love story / Susan Frankel. [The link to the article I used no longer works as of June 2016. I have replaced it with a link to her book of the same name. It is an affiliate link, which means that when you buy it I will get a small commission. So please use that link!]