The rise and (hopeful) fall of plastic: Why the protection of wildlife should trump waste
Plastic pollution is a huge problem. What can we do about it?
There’s no doubt about it: Plastic is increasingly unavoidable in our society, and it’s impacting our wildlife.
The fact is, plastic is everywhere and it is difficult to avoid even for the most environmentally-conscious consumer. It is wrapped around our lunches, woven into our clothing, and added to our beauty products.
In the past half-century, the use of plastic has surged. Plastic production increased from 15 million tons in 1964 to 311 million tons in 2014, and is expected to double in the next 20 years. Plastic is now used in an assortment of industries and applications, ranging from car manufacturing to food packaging. It is found in household cleaning supplies and cosmetics, cell phones and computers, and even in some of the gum you chew. The popularity in plastic over the last 50 years has increased pollution in our waterways and parks, affecting our water supply and public lands.
Sure, recycling helps to reduce plastic waste in our landfills and oceans. Yet, limitations to recycling, municipal standards, and lack of education often hinder recycling processes and productivity. In 2014, 33.2 million tons of plastic were produced in the United States, yet only 9.5 percent of that plastic was recycled. Certain types of plastics are not recyclable, whether due to the chemical structure of the plastic, contamination, or transporting problems. And plastics that are recyclable often won’t make it to recycling receptacles and end up in landfills or pollute our waterways.
Because of this waste problem, our oceans are now home to millions of tons of debris, most of which is plastic waste. Consequently, our wildlife is at risk: birds, turtles and fish are killed by plastic daily. Over 8 million metric tons of plastic are in our oceans, and the volume of plastic waste that occupies the water is unavoidable to some animals. Marine species mistake tiny particles of plastic, called microplastics, for fish eggs and eat them. Just last month, a young pilot whale was found off the coast of Thailand dying because there were 80 plastic bags — that’s 17 pounds of plastic — found in his stomach. Animals are injured and strangled simply because they become entrapped in plastic bags and plastic soda can rings. Scientists found that over 690 marine species are affected by marine debris, and of those encounters, 92 percent are related to plastic. Swallowing plastic fragments can result in death, whether through starvation or the ingestion of toxic chemicals leaching from the plastic. As a result, people who consume fish that have eaten plastic are ultimately ingesting these chemicals as they move up the food chain. Ever heard of the saying, “you are what you eat”?
Of all forms of plastic, polystyrene — commonly known as Styrofoam — is among the worst because it is least likely to be recycled and plastic in foam form is more likely to break into microplastics. Polystyrene breaks apart, but never really breaks down. Weather and other factors break larger pieces of polystyrene into tiny plastic particles that remain in our environment. Every piece and particle of polystyrene ever made still exists today. Further, polystyrene is potentially toxic and contains carcinogenic compounds.
Despite its prevalence in our society, we have the ability to move away from plastics and the subsequent waste that follows its consumption. Across the country, governments, businesses and citizens are coming together to establish bans on polystyrene. Over 200 cities and communities have adopted polystyrene foam bans, including Minneapolis, Miami and New York City. Major corporations, like McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts, have agreed to phase out their use of polystyrene in their cups and packaging in the next several years. We are making strides towards a polystyrene-free future and it’s time everyone gets on board.
Over the next series of posts, I’ll be sharing tips and tools to becoming less plastic dependent. By shopping responsibly, changing your daily routine, leading by example, and being an advocate for the cause, positive changes can be made.