Linda Gorchels blogs

Drowning in Plastic

In honor of Earth Month, my Contemplate post this final Friday is on the environment. I struggled with how to narrow the topic. Contaminants in drinking water? Pollution? Air quality? Climate change? Whew!

I made my decision after viewing Plastic Planet, Werner Boote’s documentary on the dangers of plastic. And we’re drowning in it. Plastic is used in our clothing, furniture, cars, food packaging, electronics, yard tools—it’s ubiquitous. Think about it.

If you took every plastic product in your home or apartment and stacked them in front of your building, how many piles would you need to make? How big would the piles be?

Drowning in pastic

Drowning in Plastic

Plastic has been hailed as a miracle—and a curse. It’s convenient to use, but hard for the earth to dispose of. According to National Geographic, “40 percent of plastic produced is packaging, used just once and then discarded.” In fact, single-use was the Collins Dictionary word of the year for 2018. 

Here are a few additional facts National Geographic published about waste and recycling in December 2018.

  • Some 18 billion pounds of plastic waste flows into the oceans every year from coastal regions.
  • Shoppers in the United States use almost one [bag] per resident per day. Shoppers in Denmark use an average of four plastic bags a year
  • Nearly half of all plastic ever manufactured has been made since 2000.
  • Plastic recycling rates are highest in Europe at 30 percent. China’s rate is 25 percent. The United States recycles just 9 percent of its plastic trash.

The trash problem has existed for decades, but it’s become more visible since China has reduced accepting America’s recyclable garbage. As a result, plastic trash is piling up at US recycling centers and ports. Even when people recycle, there has to be a strong infrastructure and a market for the recycled materials. Otherwise, plastic simply ends up in the landfills.

And the lifespan of plastic garbage is significant.

Plastic lasts, and lasts, and lasts

According to Longevity, this is what it takes for plastic trash to decompose in landfills.

  • Plastic containers – 50-80 years
  • Plastic Bottles – 450 years
  • Disposable Diapers – 550 years
  • Mono-filament Fishing Line – 600 years
  • Plastic Bags – 200-1000 years.

And actually, decomposition is not the end. As plastic decomposes, it breaks down into smaller and smaller—still plastic—particles. These microparticles are eaten by marine life and passed through food chain. They also enter the soil and the air. That means humans may be eating and breathing tiny bits of polymer. While the health effects are unclear, it is reasonable to be concerned.

Plastic microparticles pose a problem even when decomposing.

Plastic Ocean Pollution

Tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans and wash up on beaches around the world each year.  Birds and marine animals can’t distinguish between food and plastic, and consume until their stomachs are full. Unfortunately, they can’t digest the plastic, and starve. As a result, millions of marine animals are killed by plastic each year.

For in-depth information about the ocean plastic problem, refer to National Geographic’s Planet or Plastic. The have numerous stories covering this global crisis, along with suggestions and recommendations.

If you are a creative inventor with an idea about ocean plastic cleanup, check out the details to apply for a National Geographic grant. The deadline is July 10, 2019.

What can be done?

There are both organizational and individual steps that can be taken to make progress toward a solution.

Starting with companies:

  • Adopt a cradle-to-grave-to-cradle philosophy. Many firms have planned re-manufacturability into products for years. Now it’s time to design for recycling—to prepare for material recycling at the beginning of the design process.
  • Commit to finding alternatives to plastic and/or use recycled materials in packaging.
  • Create an internal infrastructure for improved recycling.
  • Cut plastic use—especially of single-use items

For municipalities and organizations, working separately or in partnership:

  • Upgrade recycling facilities and expand markets for recycled plastics
  • Combat dumping of non-recyclable plastics that can leak into the environment
  • Ban unnecessary plastic usage

For individuals:

  • Use reusable (non-plastic) material whenever possible
  • Dispose of plastic bags and containers properly
  • Sort recyclables from non-recyclables (including non-recyclable plastics)

Download the Earth Day Network’s Plastic Pollution Primer and Toolkit

Anything to avoid?

A recent New York Times article about chemicals that may harm children included these recommendations that are more generally related to plastic:

  • Avoid microwaving food or beverages in plastic containers
  • Don’t put plastic food containers in the dishwasher.
  • Use alternatives to plastic, like glass or stainless steel, whenever possible.
  • Check the recycling code on the bottom of products and avoid plastics with recycling codes 3, 6 and 7, which may contain phthalates, styrene and bisphenols, unless they are labeled “biobased” or “greenware,” indicating they’re made from corn and do not contain bisphenols.

Are you willing to trade off some convenience for a healthy planet?