Some of you are probably wondering why I’m such a firm believer in avoiding single-use plastic. Here’s my reasoning. I could go way deeper into each of these issues, but this is just an overview. There’s a list of works cited at the bottom so you know I’m not just making up random statistics.
The Plastic Problem: An Overview
Single use plastic is incredibly convenient. Because of it, we can have anything we want, whenever and wherever we want it. But our copious use of single-use plastic has unintended consequences. The truth is, while disposable plastic may seem convenient, it isn’t. From production to usage to disposal, single-use plastic has severe environmental and health consequences; we need to stop making it and find alternatives to it.
The first problem with plastic is that it is made from fossil fuels, non-renewable resources. Extracting these resources poses serious environmental risks and often has severe environmental consequences. Drilling for oil has the potential to cause environmental tragedies such as the Deepwater Horizon Spill in 2010 that spilled 205,000,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Hydraulic fracturing (the process by which natural gas is extracted by injecting millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground) poisons groundwater. Some people who live in communities where hydraulic fracturing is done can light their water on fire as it comes out of their taps. In the United States alone, 17 million barrels of oil are used to make plastic bottles every year. We are running out of oil, so it doesn’t make sense for us to use the oil we have left to make single-use plastic that we don’t even need, such as water bottles and shopping bags.
Once oil and natural gas are made into plastic, the environmental consequences of plastic manufacturing become even greater. Before they can be made into something like a plastic bottle, fossil fuels are refined into nurdles, small pellets of plastic that resemble fish eggs. When nurdles are shipped around, they spill into waterways and the ocean. Many marine animals mistake nurdles for real fish eggs and eat them. Once nurdles arrive at factories, they are turned into things like plastic bottles. Unfortunately, plastic factories are notorious for polluting neighborhoods and increasing their rates of cancer and other health problems. In Corpus Christi, Texas, local residents have cancer rates 80% higher than the rest of the country due to benzene emissions from a plastic bottle factory. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) factories pollute the environment with dioxin, one of the most persistent and toxic chemicals ever created by man.
To give plastic certain properties, chemicals are added to it. A variety of chemicals are used, but bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates are very widely used. BPA is used to harden plastic while phthalates are used to soften it. BPA is a synthetic estrogen. BPA has been known to be an endocrine disruptor since the 1930s. It has been linked to ADD, autism, low sperm count, polycystic ovary disease, miscarriage, uterine fibroids, early puberty, breast cancer and prostate cancer. Of the 200+ independent studies that have been done on BPA, 92% show that BPA is harmful. BPA is found in number seven plastics (polycarbonate plastics), the epoxy resin lining food and beverage cans, receipts, baby bottles and a myriad of other things. Phthalates are not one chemical but a group of chemicals used to soften plastic. Like BPA, phthalates are endocrine disruptors. They have been linked to asthma, rhinitis, premature birth, thyroid dysfunction, eczema and lower sperm counts. Phthalates are found in number three plastics (PVC), cosmetics that say “fragrance” on the label and, like BPA, a myriad of other things.
Once we dispose of our plastic, we think it just goes away. But there is no away. Plastic is sent to landfills, but it is often incinerated as well. Plastic doesn’t break down for centuries, so the fact that we’re sending more and more of it to landfills is extremely problematic. We keep producing more and more plastic and our landfills are filling up more and more. The amount of plastic we produced in the first decade of the 21st century is greater than the amount of plastic we produced in the entire 20th century! It all has to go somewhere. Some say that incineration is a good solution since it gets rid of the plastic. But this does not fix the problems caused by plastic production or the hazards caused by chemicals leaching from plastic. Additionally, incineration releases toxic chemicals that poison the air and water. The plastic waste that doesn’t end up in the municipal waste stream often ends up in the ocean. There are five large gyres in the ocean that are created by the way the Earth spins on its axis. Gyres are large systems of rotating ocean currents. The largest of these gyres is the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. (This is the area known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.) The plastic waste that ends up in the ocean is swept up by currents, and then carried to these gyres where it accumulates. Plastic in these gyres doesn’t biodegrade, it photodegrades. Photodegradation is the process of the sun breaking down materials into smaller and smaller pieces. The plastic keeps accumulating and photodegrading. In some places in the Great Pacific Garbage patch, small plastic pieces outnumber plankton 40:1. Like nurdles, these small pieces of photodegraded plastic are mistaken for food by animals, which then eat them. This means that in some places, animals are more likely to eat plastic than food. This has serious implications for the health of the marine food web. Animals eat larger pieces of plastic as well. Laysan albatross at Midway Island have been found with whole lighters and even toothbrushes in their stomachs. Mother albatrosses go out to find food and then regurgitate it to feed their young. But often, albatrosses bring back our plastic garbage instead of food. The chicks that consume this plastic often die of starvation, dehydration, intestinal blockage, esophageal blockage and stomach perforation. A study found that 97.5% of Laysan albatross chicks had plastic inside their stomachs. It is estimated that 40% of Laysan albatross chicks die every year from eating plastic.
Sea turtles are also negatively affected by plastic marine debris, especially plastic bags. To sea turtles, plastic bags resemble jellyfish. Like albatrosses, sea turtles that eat plastic bags die of starvation. Plastic bags also cause intestinal blockage in sea turtles. Animals also get entangled in plastic.
Recycling is promoted as the perfect solution to the plastic problem, but it actually is not. Unlike aluminum cans or glass, plastic cannot be recycled indefinitely. Plastic can only be recycled a couple times before it wears out, and instead of being recycled it is usually downcycled, meaning it is created into products that are not further recyclable. In other words, plastic bottles are not being made back into plastic bottles. Another big problem with plastics recycling is that recycling rates, unfortunately, are very low. In 2010, only eight percent of the 31 million tons of plastic waste that was generated by the United States alone was recycled. Additionally, only certain kinds of plastic are recycled. Even these plastics aren’t recycled very much. Polyvinyl chloride (#3 PVC) has a 0% recycling rate, and polystyrene (#6 PS) has a 0.8% recycling rate. Almost 100% of these plastics end up in landfills, incinerators or the ocean. The plastics that have the highest recycling rates are polyethylene terephthalate (#1 PET) and high density polyethylene (#2 HDPE), and these rates are still way too low. PET plastic has a 19.5% recycling rate, and HDPE plastic has a 10.7% recycling rate. The plastics industry tries to convince people that increasing recycling rates is the solution to the plastic problem. But this is false and misleading. The plastics industry does not even use recycled plastic; they generally use virgin materials to create their goods. Recycling is not the solution to the plastic problem for a variety of reasons. Instead of touting plastics recycling as the solution to the plastic problem, we should be creating real solutions where we replace single-use plastic packaging with packaging that breaks down or packaging that can be reused (such as returnable, refillable glass milk bottles). We need to develop a new system where we don’t throw so many things away and where we don’t waste all of our oil.
Single-use plastic, convenient as it may seem, has many long-term negative consequences that clearly outweigh the short-term conveniences. First of all, plastic is wasting our resources. We should not be using the oil we have left to make single-use plastic. Secondly, plastic is leaching chemicals into our food that interfere with our endocrine systems and cause a variety of health problems. Finally, a massive amount of our plastic garbage is ending up in the ocean; this garbage is killing animals and threatening the stability of the global food web. Plastic is posing a severe threat to our future and we need real solutions to the problem as soon as possible. We need to stop packaging things in single-use plastic; we also need to start using reusable, sustainable materials for packaging. We’ve caused enormous irreversible damage to the ocean that we cannot fix. However, we have the ability to prevent the problem from becoming any worse. We need to stop using single-use plastic now.
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