Where Plastic Pollution Comes From & How to Stop it
The Facts about Plastic
Plastic is everywhere. From the clothes we put on in the mornings, to the toothbrush we use, to the food storage containers we bring for lunch, to the grocery shopping bags after work. Most of us can't pass a single day without using plastic. The artificial material has displaced wood, metal, glass and other materials in many uses because it is much easier and cheaper to mold and form. In 2016, the global plastics production totaled around 335 million metric tons. More than 40% of this goes into packaging, which is why we can't even go to the supermarket without bringing home tons of plastics. The average Canadian generates 90 grams of plastic – every single day. Accumulated, that is more than 30kg of plastic waste every year!
In most developed countries, plastic waste is managed properly. This means that it's either recycled, incinerated or stored in secure, closed landfills. This way, the man-made material is at no risk of entering the environment. However, this waste management doesn't include littered waste, which is often discarded in nature to wreak havoc. In the United States alone, 275425 tonnes of plastic waste are littered every single year. And this littered plastic, together with the mismanaged waste of some other countries, is polluting our environment, with devastating effects.
The Risks of Plastic Pollution
Coral reef ecosystems are some of the most sensitive and also most important ecosystems in the oceans. A shocking majority of those ecosystems have been damaged by abrasion and other interaction with plastic debris such as fishing nets. Entanglement of animals, which describes entrapping, encircling and/or constricting by plastic debris, is another danger. It often involves ropes and nets or other fishing gear, but also plastic packaging. Turtles, seals, whales, seabirds, fish and invertebrates have been recorded entangled, often with deadly consequences to the animals.
Sea creatures are also in danger of swallowing and ingesting plastic. This might happen intentionally because they mistake the waste as food, unintentionally or even indirectly, through the ingestion of prey containing plastic. In small quantities, ingested plastic can reduce stomach capacity, leading to poor appetite and a false sense of satiation. It can also obstruct or perforate the gut, causing ulcerative lesions or gastric rupture. Sadly, the ingestion can and often does ultimately lead to death. Dolphins, whales and turtles have been found beached, and upon autopsy, with plastic clogging their stomachs.
Image by Stefan Leijon
Microplastics - the unknown killer?
Plastic doesn't degrade quickly in nature, like other materials do. Instead, the artificial material breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, so-called microplastics. Microplastics are particles of plastic of maximum 4.75 millimeters in diameter, often much smaller. Once again, microplastics can affect the ingestion of sea animals because they take up space in the stomach. More importantly, they aggregate in the bodies, with so far unknown effects on the health. This way, microplastics move up the food chain, even to us humans. So far, we don't know how microplastics interact with our bodies and what they can do to our health.
There are risks stemming from the plastic itself, from organic pollutants which have been absorbed by the plastic, as well as leaching of plastic additives, which can have negative effects on our health. For example, Bisphenol A (BPA) is listed as a substance of very high concerns by the European Chemicals Agency due to its properties as an endocrine disruptor. The United States' Food and Drug Administration banned its use from baby bottles. Plasticizers such as phthalates, which are added to brittle plastics to make them pliable, are often known or suspected human carcinogens. Vinyl chloride, the precursor to PVC, can be found trapped in PVC products and leach out. VC is known to be a human carcinogen as well. It is clear that we should avoid plastics in our environment and our food chain at all cost.
Plastic pollution in the environment is the result of our actions. This also means that everyone can help reduce plastic waste, and to get rid of the pollution already there. 95% of our efforts should go into avoiding plastic, and only 5 percent into retrieving and recycling it.
How to reduce your use of plastic in everyday life
- The majority of plastic we bring into our homes only to throw away comes from the supermarket. Therefore, that is the first place we should start to improve. Use mesh bags for your fruit and vegetable instead of single-use bags. Try to avoid buying pre-packaged fruit and vegetable. Peppers, cucumbers and apples don't need a plastic cover, so buy them without. Your local farmer's market might be able to help you with unpackaged fruit and vegetable, and at a lower price than in the supermarket.
- Bulk-buy at your local supermarket instead of buying pre-packaged sweets, nuts, lentils, rice and many more. Make sure to bring storage containers to avoid the plastic bags there. If the supermarket doesn't offer a bulk aisle, see if you can find a BulkBarn or similar shop near you. Avoid all products and companies that use clam shells. Buy multi-use grocery bags and put them everywhere – in your car, in every purse and any backpack you can find. This way, you will never have to use the single-use bags of the supermarket ever again!
- Buy your fruit and vegetables in the farmer's market. Not only is the produce usually cheaper, locally and seasonally sourced and therefore more nutritious, they also come without plastic packaging. Unfortunately, a lot of them still have those plastic stickers on them. Make sure to remove the stickers and throw them in the trash instead of just washing them down the sink. It sounds like a little detail, but the small plastic sticker in combination with the adhesive can lead to harm in the environment.
- Buy food storage containers and bring them everywhere. It's best to keep one in your car, in case you spontaneously decide to eat out and want to bag the leftovers. Thanks to food storage containers, you can avoid the typical polystyrene containers from the restaurant, and the trash that comes with it.
- Try finding alternatives to plastic tools, or avoid using them. A straw for your cocktail? If you don't need it, refuse it when ordering your drink. The plastic lid for your coffee? Only take it if you absolutely need it. Better yet, buy yourself a reusable coffee mug, and get rid of the paper cups altogether! Buy bamboo cotton swabs. Use a bamboo toothbrush. Purchase bee's wrap instead of cling film; it's more eco-friendly and can be reused. Buy camping cutlery to use instead of a plastic knife and fork for your take-out. Get your ice cream in a wafer cone instead of in a plastic cup. Drink tap water instead of buying bottled water. Buy a reusable bottle (made of stainless steel or glass, for example) to replace plastic bottles completely. If you want carbonated water, look for a carbonator (sparkling water or soda maker). Use multi-use razors instead of single-use ones. Buy concentrates whenever possible; they are also cheaper in the long run. There are millions of little things we can do – and every tiny little change can have a huge impact on our environment.
- If you absolutely have to use plastic – and believe me, unless you are hard-core against plastic, you will get to the point where you have to – avoid single-use plastics. Buy recycled plastic, if possible. Multi-use plastics, such as sturdy bottles, food containers, kitchen utensils and many other objects, can be used for years without any harm. When you feel you don't need them anymore, but they are still in good shape, sell them or give them away to people who will use them. Only if it's absolutely necessary, throw them away. Make sure you recycle the plastic properly.
For more ideas on how to avoid plastic in your daily life, you can visit Beth Terry's website (My Plastic Free Life) for great tips and advice. And if you want to help get rid of the waste that is already polluting our environment, there are many ways we can help on that front as well.
How to help reduce plastic pollution
- If you know Geocaching, you might know what a CITO is. For everyone else, Geocaching is a global high-tech treasure hunt where you use a GPS to locate small containers, so-called Geocaches. They usually hold at least a logbook and a pen for entering your name into the logbook, sometimes small tokens as well which you can exchange for something else. After finding a Geocache, you also have to log it online on the Geocaching website. CITO is short for Cache In, Trash Out, which are special events organized by the Geocaching members. For a CITO event, all participants will meet in a specified location, get equipped with gloves, trash bags and anything else they might need, and start picking up trash. These events are usually held in cooperation with local authorities in exchange for being allowed to have a Geocache in the vicinity. CITOs are great fun, a wonderful way of meeting other Geocachers and the perfect opportunity to rid our environment of litter and plastic.
- You can buy a 4ocean bracelet, either for yourself or for a friend – they make great gifts! Every bracelet is made from recycled materials. The beads are recycled glass, the cord is made from recycled water bottles. The money you pay for the bracelet goes into funding the project – which is removing trash from the oceans! One bracelet removes 1 pound of trash from coasts and oceans, so it is a great cause.
- Why not have a family fun day cleaning up a beach or another spot in nature close to your home? Get together gloves, trash bags, maybe even trash pickers, and get to work! For the kids, it's a great way of getting into nature, to learn about the environment and sustainability, and to get involved in a project for a good cause. You could also turn it into a competition, giving a prize to whoever picks up the most trash! If it doesn't seem like work or chores, the kids usually love it. If you want to join a greater cause, you can join a scheduled clean-up as a member, or even lead your own!
- The Ocean CleanUp Project was founded by Boyan Slat in 2013 when he was just 18 years young. He was shocked by the amount of trash in the oceans when on a diving trip, and spent 2 years of intensive research on how to get rid of the plastic polluting our oceans. The Ocean CleanUp is a non-profit organization which is developing advanced technologies to rid the world oceans of plastic. One system was launched in September 2018. It consists of a 600m long floater with a 3m deep skirt attached below. The systems are fully autonomous, move by natural forces (current, wind and waves) and gather plastic trash in a U-shape, where it can be collected, transported to land and recycled. It is estimated that within 5 years the project will have cleaned up to half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
- Worldwide, there are some great initiatives aiming to reduce plastic litter. In Beijing, passengers receive a credit ranging from 5 to 15 cents per bottle, which they can apply to rechargeable subway cards . In Indonesia, buses accept payment through plastic bottles. And Istanbul has just introduced a system which, similarly to China, let's commuters exchange plastic waste for credit on the city's metro cards. In Germany, Austria and Switzerland, consumers pay money whenever they buy a plastic bottle, and get the amount back when they return it to the shops. Some shops in Italy take back plastic bottles in exchange for points on the customers' loyalty cards. In many countries, you have to pay for plastic bags in the shops. All these initiatives reduce the amount of plastic which could litter the environment, and are therefore useful. We should demand more such initiatives from our local and national governments which will reduce plastic waste.
Every little counts. Every piece of plastic which doesn't end up in nature is one less we have to worry about. So if you see someone litter, please don't look away. Instead, address this issue peacefully with the culprit and ask them to throw their trash in the next trash can. If you see plastic and other trash littering nature when you are taking a walk, pick it up and bin it at the your next availability. And make sure you don't lapse yourself and accidentally drop cigarette butts, candy wrappers or plastic bags on the ground.
Plastic pollution is a huge problem with still unforeseen consequences. But working together, we can reduce the problem and hopefully remove it altogether.