The immense waste that comes along with one-time-use plastic products is clearly evident, yet despite the growing amount of plastic waste filling up our oceans, coastlines and landfills, their usage continues. The number of plastic bottles alone is staggering, with data obtained by The Guardian suggesting 1 million plastic bottles are purchased every minute worldwide. Worse still, this is expected to increase by 20 percent by 2021 and reach more than half a trillion sold every year by 2020.1
Most of this waste comes from the seemingly insatiable thirst for bottled water, which exists even in areas where access to filtered tap water, which can be brought with you on-the-go via refillable bottles, exists. The Guardian also highlighted increasingly urbanized regions in China and the Asia Pacific regions as adding to the problem, continuing:2
“More than 480bn plastic drinking bottles were sold in 2016 across the world, up from about 300bn a decade ago. If placed end to end, they would extend more than halfway to the sun. By 2021 this will increase to 583.3bn, according to the most up-to-date estimates from Euromonitor International’s global packaging trends report.”
Most Plastic Bottles End Up in Landfills or the Ocean
While most plastic water and soda bottles are made from highly recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (PET), most such bottles end up littering oceans and landfills. The Guardian reported that fewer than half of the plastic bottles purchased in 2016 were recycled, and only 7 percent were made into new bottles.3 In the U.S., one of the top waste-generating countries, littering is a major issue, especially in the form of single-use plastics, like soda bottles, drinking straws and potato chip bags.
According to environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservancy, some plastic products persist for so long, even in salty ocean water, that they’ll still be recognizable after 400 years.4 “The amount of unmanaged plastic waste entering the ocean — known as plastic-waste leakage — has reached crisis levels and has caused significant economic and environmental damage,” they state.5
More than 80 percent of the plastic debris in the ocean starts off on land. Once in the ocean, it’s known that nearly 700 species (and probably many more) are negatively impacted by such debris. Sadly, at least 17 percent of impacted species are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as near threatened or worse, and at least 10 percent of the species had ingested microplastics.6
A study published in Marine Policy revealed that ingestion and entanglement from litter poses the biggest threat to marine life, more so than chemical contamination.7 Plastic bags, balloons and utensils were particularly problematic, as seabirds, turtles and marine mammals commonly mistook them for food. That being said, microplastics, which are less than 5 millimeters (mm) in diameter, are also consumed by marine life, with unknown consequences.
If you eat seafood that has been ingesting microbeads, you’re at risk of a potentially high dose of environmental toxins as well. One 2014 study even suggested that the average European who eats shellfish may consume 11,000 pieces of microplastic per year.8 Quite literally, the ocean and its inhabitants are teeming with plastic. In the U.K., for instance, one-third of the fish caught were found to contain plastic.9
A Campaign to Eliminate Plastic Straws
Plastic bottles have received a lot of negative press, which in turn has spawned an industry of alternatives, including stainless steel and glass water bottles to take with you on the go. The movement to eliminate plastic straws has received less attention, but it’s steadily growing as the consequences of their use become apparent.
According to the Be Straw Free campaign, Americans use 500 million straws daily, which doesn’t even account for all of the straws that come attached to juice and milk cartons (including those handed out in school cafeterias).10
Straws are also commonly found littering coastlines and beaches (along with plastic bags and bottles), which isn’t surprising when you think about how often and widely they’re handed out. While some zoos and theme parks (such as Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom) have banned their use to protect animals, straws are available for free at virtually every U.S. restaurant, movie theater and coffee shop.
Sadly, marine mammals are often found with straws lodged in their stomachs and sea turtles have been found with straws wedged in their nose. Slowly, cities around the U.S. have taken notice, with California’s Manhattan Beach enacting a citywide disposable plastic ban. Others, including Berkeley, California; Miami, Florida; and New York City, as well as 1,800 restaurants, are considering bans on straws or at least have pledged to only hand them out if customers request them.11
This latter strategy alone could cut down on significant amounts of waste, as many people use straws as an afterthought, simply because they’re there.
Catherine Greener, vice president of sustainability for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, a concessions company that partners with the National Park Service, told The Washington Post, “Humans didn’t really evolve around straws. It’s not like we have to consume fluids with this appendage. What really, what is this?”12 For those rare times when a straw really is necessary (or if you just like using one), reusable straws made from stainless steel, bamboo and even glass are widely available.
Plastic Utensils: Billions Tossed Annually
No one’s keeping track of how many plastic forks, knives and spoons are tossed out every year, but Mother Jones reported that close to 2 billion takeout orders were placed in the U.S. in 2015. “If at least half those meals involved single-use utensils, that would mean we’re tossing out billions of utensils each year,” the news outlet reported.13 It’s another eye-opening statistic with sobering implications for the Earth.
Plastic utensils and other food and beverage packaging were recently found to make up 67 percent of the litter found in the San Francisco Bay area.14 Like straws, oftentimes plastic utensils are added to carry-out orders even if customers don’t request them. “Even just asking customers if they need napkins, straws, and utensils before loading up their takeout bags could make a difference. Many of the straws found on the street by Clean Water Action were still in their wrappers,” Fast Company reported.15
Alternatives to plastic utensils are also widely available, with washable metal utensils representing the most obvious choice. It’s simple to pack a fork and knife with your lunch, and there are even pocket-sized sets with carrying cases available. Meanwhile, in India one company is making edible cutlery out of rice, wheat and sorghum flour, which it states degrade in the environment within 10 days if they’re not eaten first.16
Similarly, in California a company is making compostable forks out of potato starch. Even these seemingly innocuous alternatives come with a downside, however, highlighting the need to simply cut down on waste and use of single-use convenience items. As Mother Jones put it:17
“… [S]uch alternatives, which cost about twice as much as plastic, still require a lot of energy and water to produce, according to Samantha Sommer, who runs a waste-prevention project for Clean Water Action. What’s more, not all major cities compost.
And even if biodegradable or compostable utensils make it to a facility, there’s a chance they’ll end up in a landfill, says Robert Reed, a spokesman for the West Coast recycling and compost plant Recology. Depending on what they’re made of, he says, biodegradable utensils might not degrade completely; if they don’t, they could be plucked out of the pile and thrown away.
Perhaps diners should take a page from China, where environmental protesters publicized how the roughly 80 billion pairs of disposable wooden chopsticks produced each year eat up 20 million trees in the process.
Greenpeace China launched a BYOC (Bring Your Own Chopsticks) campaign and worked with pop stars to promote reusable chopsticks as a trendy fashion accessory. As a result, disposable chopsticks were banned from use at many venues hosting events at Beijing’s 2008 Olympics.”
There’s No Reason for Bottled Water
There are some creative alternatives to plastic in the works, like the Ooho!, which is a bubble-like sphere made from seaweed extract that’s being touted as a completely edible water bottle.18 Reusable glass or stainless steel bottles are another option, of course, which you can fill up with filtered water yourself.
Having access to clean water whenever you’re thirsty is a luxury many Americans are reluctant to give up, but there’s no need to use plastic water bottles for this purpose.
Simply carry a reusable water bottle with you instead and fill it up as necessary, then wash and reuse. In the U.S., water bottle filling stations are becoming the new drinking fountains, and you can find these “hydration stations” at certain airports, schools and in other public areas. If you’re purchasing bottled water for home use, a better option is to place a water filter on your tap.
Another option, which is less problematic pollution-wise than single-use bottles, are the large, 5-gallon water coolers that are often found in offices or delivered for home use. The most dangerous plastic chemicals are those used to make plastic flexible, so those rigid, reusable 5-gallon bottles not only present less waste but also less of a risk in terms of plastics chemicals leaching into your water.
Choose Reusable Over Single-Use Products
Ocean Conservancy has called for a collective global response to curb plastics pollution, starting with a plan to reduce plastic-waste leakage in the top five plastic-polluting countries (China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines). They believe their plan, which includes increasing waste-collection rates, closing leakage points and more, could reduce leakage by 65 percent in those five countries and reduce total global leakage by approximately 45 percent by 2025.19
In the U.S., it’s also crucial that we rethink our throwaway culture and become more sustainably creative. Ideally, seek to purchase products that are not made from or packaged in plastic. Another important point is to choose reusable over single-use, which is possible in most instances. For instance, opting for the following will help you to inch closer to a minimal-waste lifestyle while keeping your share of plastics pollution out of the oceans:
|Use reusable shopping bags for groceries||Take your own leftovers container to restaurants|
|Bring your own mug for coffee, and bring drinking water from home in glass water bottles instead of buying bottled water||Request no plastic wrap on your newspaper and dry cleaning|
|Store foods in glass containers or mason jars rather than plastic containers and plastic freezer bags||Avoid disposable utensils and straws and buy foods in bulk when you can|
|Opt for non-disposable razors, washable feminine hygiene products for women, cloth diapers, handkerchiefs instead of paper tissues, rags in lieu of paper towels, and infant toys made of wood rather than plastic||Avoid processed foods (which are stored in plastic bags with chemicals). Buy fresh produce instead, and forgo the plastic bags|
(Commoner Call photos, 2017. Open source and free to use with link to www.thecommonercall.org )