Plastic is everywhere. You can find it on every supermarket shelf and street corner. A versatile and tough material, plastic has offered us a myriad of modern conveniences. Unfortunately, its widespread use has also led to a multitude of problems. Plastic pollution has negative effects on the health of humans, wildlife, and the environment.
The Scale of the Plastic Problem
The scale of the plastic problem is so massive that it can be tough to visualize. For instance, scientists estimate that we produce 300 million tons of plastic waste every year. That is almost equivalent to the weight of the entire human population on Earth. On top of that, plastic wastage is not declining but increasing at a rate of nine percent a year.
Half of this immense amount of plastic that we produce is single-use. This means that it is used once and discarded as waste. The problem with this is that it can take a minimum of five hundred years for plastics to break down. And with three-quarters of all the plastic ever produced already out of use, our plastic addiction is causing a monumental waste creation and management problem.
The United States is the top global producer of plastic waste and the third-highest contributor to ocean plastic pollution. 60 million plastic waste bottles are discarded in the country each day. The American people make up four percent of the global population but are responsible for producing twelve percent of the world’s municipal solid waste.
A Threat to Wildlife
When plastics are improperly discarded, they can pose a serious threat to wildlife and the natural environment. According to National Geographic, the majority of ocean plastics come from land-based sources, where plastic litter is washed into waterways and the sea. This litter has resulted in the Great Pacific garbage patch, a vortex of trash—primarily plastic—that is estimated to be double the size of Texas and growing.
A range of marine species are harmed and killed by marine debris. They can drown from being entangled in plastic lines or choke from ingesting plastic. There is a slew of evidence showing marine animals with plastic straws stuck in their noses or beer rings around their necks. Scientists estimate that 99 percent of seabirds will have ingested plastic by 2050.
Plastic pollution does not only harm marine animals. People discard plastic litter in unprotected wild territory resulting in many terrestrial animals being entangled, strangled, choked, and poisoned. Wild animals and pets can get their heads stuck in plastic containers or bags and suffer a slow and painful death from suffocation or starvation.
What Are Microplastics?
We love plastic because it is virtually indestructible. However, this means that plastic waste never really goes away. When plastic degrades, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that continue to be present in the environment. These are microplastics. Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic that range from microscopic to five millimeters in length.
When ingested, microplastics can make wildlife sick and disrupt their growth and reproduction cycles. These particles can also absorb the toxic chemicals present in the environment and release them into the gut upon ingestion. To date, microplastics have been detected in the food we eat, the water we drink, and even in human placenta. The pervasiveness of microplastics can lead to concerning impacts on our health.
What You Can Do
The best thing you can do to avoid contributing to the plastic problem is to reject single-use plastics. Purchase attractive reusable custom grocery bags and bring them with you when you go shopping instead of accepting single-use plastic bags at the check-out. One reusable bag can replace three to five hundred single-use plastic bags each year.
Once you start avoiding single-use plastic products, you will find many other opportunities to make your lifestyle more eco-friendly. Instead of buying bottled water, purchase a reusable water bottle that can be easily refilled. When you head to the coffee shop, use a reusable coffee cup or thermos flask and a stainless steel straw instead of a plastic cup and straw.
Buying items with less packaging is another way to reduce your plastic consumption. Many zero-waste stores are opening up around the country. When you visit these stores, you bring your own reusable containers and bags and fill them with supplies. Zero-waste stores sell everything from grains and condiments to shampoo and detergent.
Conscious consumption is a way to tackle the root of the plastic problem. Purchase only what you need and be aware of the environmental footprint of every item that you buy. Where possible, choose recycled or repurposed products over items that are manufactured from scratch. Similarly, instead of discarding your unwanted items, think of how you can upcycle them.
It can be daunting to face the scale of the plastic problem as an individual. However, the collective effort of educated individuals can make a significant difference. By reducing the presence of plastic products in our lives, we can slow down the flood of plastic waste and do our part for a better future.