We’ve all been taught the importance of recycling since elementary school, right? Put the bottles, cans, paper, plastics in the blue bin, and toss the rest in the trash. Admittedly, I haven’t put much more thought into it than that.
I was pretty shocked when I started researching for a recent post and discovered that the cardstock used for millions of Christmas cards every year wasn’t recyclable. I also learned how frequently I had been guilty of wishcycling --throwing things that I wasn’t sure were recyclable in the recycling bin in the hopes that they could be used again--which, no matter how well-intentioned, causes downstream problems at recycling centers and negative economic and environmental impacts.
Combine this realization with a very informative (and shocking) episode of Netflix’s awesome docuseries, History 101, on plastics, and I knew finding ways to be a more conscious plastic consumer was a good mission. Pair that with my 2021 focus on sustainable eating, and I had a perfect place to start--plastic bags, a staple in every grocery store across the U.S.
But, understanding a problem is important to being a part of its solution, so before we look at plastic bag use and recycling specifically (more to come in the next few days!), let’s dive into some background on plastic consumption and its impacts.
The Plasticky Problem
Think about everywhere you encounter plastic in your daily life--just looking around my desk, I’ve got pens, my mouse, my phone case, my blinds, all plastic. And the kitchen is where it really ramps up--almost every food and drink container in my pantry and fridge is made of plastic. Plastic is everywhere, and it’s easy to see why--it’s durable, lightweight (ideal for carrying and shipping its contents), versatile, and most all, cheap.
Plastic also serves some very essential purposes, and enables the creation of products that are healthier, safer, and more enjoyable. For example, plastic has been instrumental in the advancement of medical tools and equipment (think syringes, IV tubes, etc.), keeps food fresh and safe for consumption, and increases the energy-efficiency of buildings as an insulator in walls, floors and ceilings.
Plus, some plastic is recyclable. Recyclable plastics can be broken down at recycling facilities and sent to manufacturers to be made into clothing, packaging, and much more. The problem? Most plastic being made today is not recycled so simply. According to a recent report by GreenPeace, nearly 70% of all plastic used is mixed plastic, an umbrella name for plastic products with a more complex composition. Mixed plastics require more time, manual labor, and energy consumption to recycle than their simpler counterparts, and without the necessary recycling machinery and infrastructure widely available, most mixed plastics end up incinerated or in overflowing landfills.
To make matters worse, well-intentioned Americans often throw mixed plastic products into traditional recycling bins, not realizing that these items further stress recycling operations because they require manual labor to sort and remove and can malfunction standard recycling machinery (the GreenPeace report has a great explanation of this, along with the number system for determining what can be recycled).
Now, take into account that in 2018, 35.7 million tons of plastics were generated in the U.S.--and only about 3 million tons (or 8.5%) were recycled. 5.6 million tons was combusted with energy recovery (which basically means it was turned into a usable form of energy--this is NOT the same as incineration, which has its own problems), and a whopping 27 million tons was put in landfills. These stats came from an interesting report by the US Environmental Protection Agency, read the whole report here.
*Photo credit: Wix Media stock photo
Let’s put it this way...plastic itself isn’t the problem. The problem is the massive volumes at which plastics--most of which are designed for single-use--are created (using oil and other resources), consumed, and then disposed of.
This is where you and I can have a great impact--disposal methods.
Remember how I said only 8.5% of all generated plastic in 2018 was recycled?
Yes, a big reason for that is because much plastic is produced in a way that makes it hard to recycle. But, there’s also a lot of plastic material that ends up in street drains, rivers, lakes, and parking lots simply because that’s where the consumer decides is most convenient to dump it. Add that to overflowing landfills, land runoff, and interconnected waterways, and plastic ends up in every natural habitat, especially lakes and oceans.
*Photo credit: Wix media stock photo
And while most know that large plastic chunks like straws or soda can rings can hurt or kill wildlife, the lesser-known problem is the fact that plastic objects break down into small particles that are constantly consumed and spread by wildlife (pooping, being eaten by another organism...you know, natural food chain stuff), posing big-time problems--not just for the sustainability of ecosystems we depend on, but also human health.
The Center for International Environmental Law gives a perfect run-down on their website:
Once plastic reaches the environment in the form of macro- or microplastics, it contaminates and accumulates in food chains through agricultural soils, terrestrial and aquatic food chains, and the water supply. This environmental plastic can easily leach toxic additives or concentrate toxins already in the environment, making them bioavailable again for direct or indirect human exposure. As plastic particles degrade, new surface areas are exposed, allowing continued leaching of additives from the core to the surface of the particle in the environment and the human body. Microplastics entering the human body via direct exposures through ingestion or inhalation can lead to an array of health impacts, including inflammation, genotoxicity, oxidative stress, apoptosis, and necrosis, which are linked to an array of negative health outcomes including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic inflammation, auto-immune conditions, neuro-degenerative diseases, and stroke.
To summarize my point…
Plastic is cool, but produced and consumed in massive amounts.
Much of the plastic generated isn’t recyclable, or IS but isn’t recycled properly.
Plastic ends up in nature, where it harms wildlife, damages ecosystems we depend on, and exposes humans to health threats.
Alright, how do we help? Start with easy alternatives.
Again, the easiest way to make an immediate impact on the plastic problem is to reduce your personal use of single-use plastics. I know what you’re thinking--I’m one person, how is one person stopping their weekly purchase of a case of bottled water going to affect this? Well, it’s not a few plastic straws that are causing the environmental strain--it’s the overall volume of plastic production and disposal. It will take a COLLECTIVE focus of more conscious consumers like you and I to reverse it!
I hope you found this background into plastics useful, or at least learned a thing or two! Stay tuned for some eco-friendly and sustainable eating tips that we can try together, starting with understanding plastic bag alternatives and recycling!
I'm looking for any and all tips for how to eat more sustainably and live more environmentally-conscious in general, so please share if you have any! :)