Getting smart about plastics

Plastics have revolutionized industries across the globe from medical and aerospace advancements to electronics and packaging for foods and goods. Plastics have been used to extend the life of meats and vegetables, reducing food waste, and facilitate storage of clean drinking water. The high strength to weight ratio of plastics and performance over a wide range of temperatures as well as inexpensive production makes them so ubiquitous. However, an over-reliance on plastics and the appeal of single-use, “disposable” products has filled our oceans, wildlife, and virtually every ecosystem with plastics, many of which are not biodegradable.

A marine study published in PLOS ONE in April, 2014 found plastics in all of their sampling locations to a depth of 4.5km below the surface, in areas where humans have yet to even explore. That’s right, our trash got there before we did. Co-author Dr. Kerry Howell said, “This survey has shown that human litter is present in all marine habitats, from beaches to the most remote and deepest parts of the oceans. Most of the deep sea remains unexplored by humans, and these are our first visits to many of these sites, but we were shocked to find that our rubbish has got there before us.”

Marine Litter Distribution and Density in European Seas, from the Shelves to Deep Basins

Non-biodegradable plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces, or microplastics, which are easily mistaken for food and ingested by marine and terrestrial animals. If you’re in the mood for some scary images, Google the “great Pacific garbage patch”. A September 2015 evaluation of 186 seabird species concluded that 90% of seabirds have ingested plastics. Microplastics have permeated freshwater systems as well and wastewater treatment facilities are not equipped to remove them from our water supplies.  In late 2015 President Obama signed legislation into law banning microplastics from personal care products.

So, how can we reduce our dependance on plastics? How can we encourage our communities to embrace plastic alternatives?

Carry a reusable water bottle and reusable bags in your car or bike basket so they’re always handy. Having water on-hand can help you skip the sugary sodas and juices too. Some reusable bags fold up small so you can easily keep them in your purse, backpack, or pocket. Forego straws. Wash and re-use plastic tubs and utensils. When selecting products, choose the one with the least plastic packaging. Buy your produce from local markets that don’t pre-package. Try out a new recipe instead of ordering takeout. Get on Pinterest and embrace your creative side by finding ways to repurpose items you might otherwise throw away. You can also often return packaging to local vendors – just ask. Baking soda, lemon, and vinegar make great cleaning products instead of buying harsh chemicals packaged in plastic. Bring your own garment bag and hangers to the dry cleaner. Use solid soap bars instead of liquids in plastic packaging. And, of course, what you can’t reuse, recycle. When you can’t avoid plastics, identify companies that are using bioplastics and choose those. Many of these ideas have the added benefit of better health and financial savings too!

Communities in 18 states have banned single-use plastic products such as plastic bags and water bottles. Read about how these communities accomplished the ban, then communicate with your local officials to encourage a similar ban. Start a MeetUp with like-minded members of your community to brainstorm solutions for your community’s specific needs, then advocate for these changes at city council meetings. Speak to your local school board about reducing single-use plastics in local schools and promoting environmental education and recycling services. Talk to your employer about encouraging recycling in your office or workplace and providing snack, beverage, and coffee options that minimize packaging and single-use products. Organize a river, beach, or park cleanup and make some new friends in the process. A group of like-minded people can accomplish great things!

What are you doing in your home and community to reduce reliance on plastics? Share your ideas!