You're at the grocery store for your weekly haul. The bagger at checkout carefully wraps all of your already-heavily-packaged-in-plastic food items in single-use plastic bags, and he might even double-bag some of them. You place your bags in the cart, walk out to your car, load up your purchases, and make the short drive home. You unload and put away your groceries, and ball up your plastic bags and toss them in the trash... WAIT, WHAT? Single-use plastic bags have an average use-life of 12 minutes. 99% percent of them are sent to the landfill where they will sit for the rest of eternity (or at least the next several hundred years). Let's think on that for a minute...
Like many people today, I am concerned about the man-made problems plaguing our planet that will inevitably affect future generations and the world they'll inherit. One of the most pressing issues is our plastic problem. We have all likely seen the video of the fishermen pulling a plastic straw from the nose of a sea turtle with a pair of pliers, illustrating how our need for convenience has serious consequences that affect even the most remote and unsuspecting creatures on Earth.
When I was a kid, my mom recycled and encouraged me to do the same. It felt like I was doing something right. But there came a point when I realized that it wasn't enough, and my 'feel good' action did only that... it just made me feel good. I wasn't really doing anything helpful. I wasn't avoiding single-use plastic, I wasn't making conscious purchases or buying less in general, I wasn't advocating for change, I honestly didn't even know what happened to my items beyond seeing the trash/recycling truck pick them up. Something in me needed to change.
I have gone through stages of denial, frustration, and hopelessness when it comes to our enormous global plastic problem and my beliefs about my ability to "do something". I have shied away from learning about the plastic industry because it was easier to not know, and I was scared I would be devastated by what I'd learn. I have watched documentaries about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and felt like I am incapable or too insignificant to even hope to help remedy this huge problem. But I am starting to see that, although it is a gigantic, tragic problem, I have to educate myself, speak out, and act, because the Earth cannot speak for herself. Curling up in a ball and crying won't help me, or the planet, or anyone else.
So I put on my big girl pants and picked up the book Plastic by Susan Freinkel after watching the 60 Minutes special on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (Trust me, the irony of the fact that this book is wrapped in a plastic sleeve is not lost on me.) I became absolutely engrossed in the story of our plastic obsession, as told by Freikel through her extensive research into the plastic industry. Her bravery in facing the facts and forcing her eyes wide open on this global issue inspired me. If she can look it in the face and find hope, maybe I can, too. Many of these pages have been painful to read because I am learning the sad truth about our increasing reliance on plastic and it's ubiquity in our daily lives. It. is. everywhere. It's in our clothes, cars, and televisions. It's in our walls and floors, beds and showers, and our medicine and medical devices. For pretty much anything you can think of, plastic is involved. Personally, I probably wouldn't be alive right now if it weren't for plastic. The IV bags and tubing, syringes, nebulizers, inhalers, and many other things that I rely on as a person living with cystic fibrosis to keep me healthy are all made of plastic. (That's a hard truth for me to swallow.) Nonetheless, I want our world to change and I want us to move away from our plastic obsession.
Of course, plastic hasn't always been around. It's hard to believe now, but people did in fact survive before it existed! The first successful, widespread 'plastic' material, celluloid, was invented as a replacement for ivory in the production of billiards balls by a young man named John Wesley Hyatt in 1869 in a shack behind his house. Plastic didn't come into wide production until after WWII, but once it was unleashed to the masses, people went crazy for it. Art was made out of plastic. Furniture was made out of plastic, Toys were made out of plastic. And people raved about it. Because plastic really is pretty amazing... It might be one of man's most useful inventions ever. It can be shaped into virtually any form needed, it's waterproof, its' extremely light-weight, and it can even be threaded through tiny veins to help a preemie baby survive his first few weeks of life, to name a few things.
So, why is plastic the worst? And what about all of the other packaging materials and single-use items? We need to drastically reduce our consumption of all single use items and revert our culture from one of a 'throwaway mentality' back to the pre-WWII mindset of 'use it up, wear it out, or do without' in order to conserve landfill space (which is limited, keep in mind), reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and slow human-caused climate change. Plastics are the worst of all single use items for a number of reasons: Plastic can take hundreds of years to break down, so it remains in the environment for a very long time. During that time, it contaminates landscapes, takes up tons of space in landfills, clogs up waterways, and litters our oceans. Plastic doesn't biodegrade. Rather, it continually breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces known as microplastics, so that even the smallest creatures like zooplankton — which are the foundation of life in our oceans — ingest them. If these bits of plastic don't kill them, they end up in the bellies of larger marine species that eat the zooplankton, and so on and so forth, until those petrochemicals eventually end up in our bodies by way of the food we eat. And we definitely don't want them there.
Perhaps the most alarming and urgent reason to limit the amount of plastic in your daily life is the potential impact to bodily health. More and more studies are revealing the toxicity of plastic and common plastic-additives (popular substances that people already avoid are BPA and DEHP), but the underwhelming number of plastic chemicals that are being studied is concerning. "While twenty thousand chemicals have been introduced since 1976, the EPA has been able to require intensive reviews for only two hundred, and it has used its authority to restrict only five."₁ The main concern with the toxicity of plastics and plasticizers is that they are endocrine-disruptors, meaning they mimic or interfere with hormones and/or their receptors, causing malfunction. Our endocrine system regulates many things in the body like metabolism, growth and development, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep, and mood, among other things. When these things are disrupted, our health is seriously affected.
Disturbingly though, many studies looking at the safety of plastic are nitpicked by the chemical industry with arguments that are reminiscent of the tobacco industry's rebuttals when science began to show that smoking causes lung cancer. They cite uncertainty and lack of 'proof' that these chemicals are harmful in order to keep the public's mind at ease. After all, there is a $1.4 billion plastics industry at stake.₂ So basically, we are blindly using likely-toxic substance in basically every facet of our daily lives.
Plastic, especially things like plastic bags, contaminates landscapes across the globe. An astounding one million plastic bags and one million plastic water bottles are consumed every minute. This is just a tiny window into the amount of virgin plastic that is made into new products daily. Some municipalities, like Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, New York City, and the state of Hawaii have taken it upon themselves to ban plastic bags in grocery stores and other retailers. When my husband and I visited Washington, D.C. in April, the amount of plastic trash, including plastic bags, that I saw littering the National Mall and spilling out of trash cans was really quite devastating. I only snapped a photo of a bag in a tree, but I'm kicking myself for not capturing the inordinate amount of trash that bombarded my view all across the National Mall. There are snack stands every few hundred feet, serving all items wrapped or packaged in plastic. With that being the only nearby option for food, people were, of course, taking advantage. Half-empty plastic cups were left behind on picnic tables, pigeons and doves picked at crumbs trapped in chip bags on the ground, and paper plates, plastic cups and straws, candy wrappers, chip bags, and hard plastic containers overflowed from large outdoor trash cans.
Plastic is everywhere and plastic pollution is an inevitable result of our heavy and convenience-centered consumption habits. It would be impossible for one person alone to change an entire planet's crisis, but it is up to each of us individually to do our part to make sure we are moving towards a plastic-free future. The cities that have banned things like plastic straws and plastic bags have done so because their citizens demanded it. We can ignite change by making more conscious daily choices and voting with our dollar. I can't stress that enough: Every time you make a purchase you are voting. Vote for sustainable options, and send a clear message that you do not support the continued use of single-use plastic. If you want to help the global plastic pollution crisis for the sake of the environment, the ocean, other species, and human health, here are some easy, daily things you can do:
1) Get yourself some reusable shopping bags! Preferably burlap, cotton, or something not made of plastic that can be reused hundreds of times and washed if needed. There are lots of reusable bags out there that are made of things like recycled plastic water bottles. These products are great at putting to use plastic that needs a second life, but it still fuels the plastics industry, and potentially contributes to the amount of microplastics in our environment. You can find reusable bags almost anywhere, but here's somewhere to start. Buying local is best, and usually you can find them right in the checkout aisle... or, better yet, I bet you have a few bags at home you can use for this purpose.
2) Buy or make reusable food covers to replace plastic wrap (Saran wrap). I got mine at Etee. They're easy to clean and you can use them over and over again. If you buy, the initial investment may seem steep, but the money you'll save on plastic wrap in the long term doesn't even compare. I know a lot of people who even make their own out of fabric and beeswax - I've never tried it, but apparently it's fairly easy!
3) If you're going out to eat, pack a food container in your purse/car/whatever, and put your leftovers in your own container rather than getting a disposable one from the restaurant. The disposable ones are usually Styrofoam (polystyrene), which is the devil in plastic form because it readily breaks down into microplastics, and there are hardly any facilities that can recycle them. There is one in Kansas City called ACH Foam Technologies, but they don't accept used food containers because it's not the type of polystyrene they can process, and also because no one wants to scrape out your food residue to get the material clean enough to be able to process it. Unfortunately, there are not yet any polystyrene bans in Kansas or Missouri.
4) Novel idea here: Buy LESS! Ev-er-y-thing these days comes in an inordinate amount of packaging, typically plastic. It is easy as hell to click 'Purchase' on that Amazon order, but hold on a sec!!! Wait. Just wait. Do you need all that stuff in your online cart? Will it make you happier? Is it super useful? Do you already have something else that you could use instead? Could you buy the same or similar thing locally? If it will make you super happy and/or it's useful, well, OK then. But maybe consider other marketplaces like Etsy or local companies for your shopping. You can request less packaging and no plastic wrap, plus you're supporting a small business owner.
5) Pay closer attention to what contains plastic. You might be surprised. And the good news? There are non-plastic alternatives to most plastic things. Examples of hidden plastic include clothes (spandex) and some shampoos & body washes that contain 'microbeads' AKA tiny plastic beads. This also means being more mindful of packaging; if you go shopping and the cashier offers you a bag, simply say something like, "I actually don't need a bag. Thank you, though!". This will become second nature before you know it.
6) Use alternatives to single-use items. Here are some of the daily items that I now use instead of plastic-containing or excessively wasteful items:
- Scrubbles Bubbles shampoo bars (I carry them in repurposed tin containers.)
- Conditioner bars from Zero Waste Store
- Bar soap instead of liquid soap that comes packaged in plastic
- Safety razor (You can send in your safety razor blades to Albatross for recycling.)
Out and about
- Stainless steel reusable straw
- Raw Elements natural sunscreen in a reusable tin container.
- Cutlery from my kitchen. You can also buy sets from places like Zero Waste Store.
- Reusable bags that I've accumulated as giveaways over the years.
- Tupperware containers that I've had for eons.
In the kitchen
- Beehive Alchemy block kitchen soap (I clean my pots and pans by hand.)
- Branch Basics natural scrub brush (for dishes)
- Grove Collective glass water bottle + water from the tap + essential oil (for cleaning.)
- Good ole wash cloth in place of paper towels.
- Dropps laundry detergent pods
- Alpaca wool dryer balls bought from a neighboring farm to replace chemical- and plastic-containing dryer sheets.
- I have started buying only natural fiber clothing to reduce the amount of microplastics I send into our water systems.
₁ Center for Biological Diversity
₂ Plastic A Toxic Love Story by Susan Freinkel, page 106-107
₃ Plastic A Toxic Love Story by Susan Freinkel, page 104