The theme of this year’s Earth Day, which falls on April 22nd, is to end plastic pollution, which coincidentally falls during a news cycle focused on the issue. The Queen of England, albeit more of a celebrity figurehead than anything else in modern times, banned single use plastics from all the royal estates, and the BBC plans to follow suit by 2020. Both were responses to the BBC series Blue Planet II which showed the volume of plastics that have found their way into the ocean and the stomachs of the creatures that inhabit it. Meanwhile, In the US, we’re still dealing with Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA, wasting taxpayer dollars and being openly antagonistic to the mission of his agency, thrilling the GOP with rollbacks on regulation, despite controversy. President Trump recently announced that he would roll back emissions goals for vehicles, which would be reviewed by Pruitt’s business-friendly EPA. Things aren’t great here, which makes it even more important that we do everything we can to move in a positive direction.
We all know it’s bad, but corporations continue to rely on single-use plastics, and we continue to buy them. It’s one of the hardest things to avoid living in Western cultures, I know, but it’s important enough to try. As the official Earth Day website declares, we need to Reduce, Refuse, Reuse, Recycle, and Remove plastic.
Plastics affect nearly every aspect of our lives because it’s ubiquitous. There have been 9.1 billion tons of virgin plastic produced to date; 79% of that are in landfills, 12% are incinerated, and only 9% are recycled, according to Earth Day’s plastic pollution toolkit. That’s 6.9 billion tons of waste. Part of why we use so much plastic is fear and convenience. In 2015, packaging accounted for 42% of non-fiber plastic produced, meaning those shrink wrapped heads of lettuce you choose because they seem cleaner, or the home goods you buy that come wrapped and packaged in plastic.
It was plastic in our oceans that so moved the UK, and it is remarkable just how many non-biodegradable plastics end up in the ocean. There are five giant masses of plastic garbage floating in the ocean like islands; in total there are 6,000 to 245,000 tons of plastic floating on the oceans’ surface and 8,000,000 metric tons in them total. It’s not just bottles that are polluting. As I wrote for Fair Fashion Magazine, microplastics or microfibers are tiny pieces of synthetic fibers that make their way into our waterways through washing and other means, ending their journey in our food, drinking water, and ecosystems.
Plastic pollution hurts us, too. According to the Earth Day website,
“Plastic pollution is now recognized as a hazard to public health and the human body.Chemicals leeched from some plastics used in food/beverage storage are harmful to human health. Correlations have been shown between levels of some of these chemicals, and an increased risk of problems such as chromosomal and reproductive system abnormalities, impaired brain and neurological functions, cancer, cardiovascular system damage, adult-onset diabetes, early puberty, obesity, and resistance to chemotherapy.”
BPA and phthalates (DEHP) are both recognized as public health hazards, yet both are still industry standards. Now, that’s not to say plastics aren’t useful in some scenarios, like medical applications, though other materials or better manufacturing practices are needed to ensure the sustainability of the process. Plastics also contribute to global warming as part of the petrochemical industry, and by their sheer number and the energy needed to continue producing these single-use items.
We focus a lot about what individuals can do about plastic pollution, but we also need to hold the companies that create single-use plastic in the first place as well. As I wrote for Eco Warrior Princess, corporations have shifted the responsibility to consumers, many of whom are not in a position to take much action. Those of us who have the means to do so can choose a plastic-free lifestyle, but the end goal should always be to pressure governments to regulate plastic packaging and to make it financially unwise for companies to continue to create polluting products. You can take small steps towards that end by refusing single-use plastic straws and takeaway containers, stop buying bottled water, and use reusable shopping bags. The US currently uses 500 million plastic straws daily; it’s a small step, but if enough people refuse them, businesses will stop ordering so many, forcing manufacturers to rethink their practices.
Some companies are innovating in the packaging realm by using biodegradable and edible food products to replace plastic. As the New York Times writes:
A growing number of entrepreneurs and researchers are working to turn foods like mushrooms, kelp, milk and tomato peels into edible — if not always palatable — replacements for plastics, coatings and other packaging materials… The United States Department of Agriculture, for instance, is giving new meaning to the notion of pizza with extra cheese: A team at its research laboratory in Wyndmoor, Pa., has developed a material from milk protein that can be used to line pizza boxes, encase cheese or create, say, soluble soup packets that can simply be dropped in hot water.
In addition to the things we need to rethink or give up to help the environment, there are positive, proactive steps we can take as well. Anything from planting a tree or VOTING can make small changes for the better in the world. So head out this weekend and enjoy the spring weather and celebrate earth day by reducing your reliance on plastics. We don’t need oil companies controlling every aspect of our lives, after all.