We all know that plastic pollution is a big problem in the world. Now I won’t go into the horror stories we’ve all heard about the Pacific garbage patch or turtles with straws in their nose or that plastic in the ocean may outweigh the fish in the next 20 years but I will focus on a couple of areas we all need to understand and then what things we can do to help reduce this material in our environment.
To start, in the last 10 years the world has produced more plastic than all the previous decades of plastic production combined. Plastics started in significant production in the 1950’s. So, from 2010 to 2020 we produced more plastic that we did from 1950 to 2010. In addition, the big plastics producers are betting on future growth by planning to expand capacity by one third in the next 10 years. That is right…if plastic producers are correct by 2030, we will consume almost as much plastic in a single year as we did from 1950 to 2010.
Since we know that the plastic we make does not go anywhere for a very long period of time, and even then really just becomes the more dangerous microplastics. The two best solutions to this problem are to reduce its use and to recycle it. Let us discuss the latter first.
When we put all those plastic containers and products into our recycling bin, we believe we have done our part and that most of those will be recycled and reused. We were all very much mistaken. The fact is only around 9% of the plastics used in the US get recycled and we throw away over 35.7 million tons per year. That means 32.5 million tons of plastics go to landfills in the US every year. They get buried leaking chemicals in the soil, get incinerated putting out huge amounts of CO2 or find their ways into lakes, rivers and streams eventually ending up in our oceans killing wildlife and contaminating the ocean food supply.
What is the problem?
Simply put there are many gaps in the recycling system that most of us don't even realize. First, there 7 types of plastic “designations” and of those only 2 are recycled by 90% of all municipalities in the US. The other 5 end up in landfills because there is simply no infrastructure to recycle it. The second, is pure economics. It is cheaper for most companies to buy virgin plastic than it is to buy recycled version because of the labor intensity to separate recyclable plastics vs. non-recyclable. That coupled with the energy to actually recycle the material back into its raw state becomes an unattractive model for most manufacturers who use plastic.
What can I do?
First, understand that on the packaging you buy from food to laundry detergent all have a designation on the bottom in a little rounded triangle that will have a number in it. Next, find out on your local government website what plastics your area recycles curbside. In 90% of cases it will be #1, this is PET and includes products like soda bottles and #2, HDPE which includes products like laundry detergent bottles. While there are some areas that will take additional plastics as part of their curbside recycling programs these are far and few between.
Once you've identified the plastics your curbside recycling takes make sure that is the only plastic you send to them. The easier it is for them to sort, the lower the cost the more attractive the economic model becomes from plastic consuming companies. In larger population areas this could actually allow local recyclers to invest in technologies and find markets for additional plastics.
A few tips on recycling…
On food and household products the plastic designation is on the bottom of the package
Look up what your municipality accepts for plastic – chances are just #1 and #2 but confirm so you can recycle as many plastics as possible.
Make sure only the designations your area takes are in the recycling bin.
Always take the caps off soda, water and other bottles. In a vast majority of cases the actual bottle can be recycled but the top was made from another material that cannot be recycled and must be removed at the recycle facility. Learned that from my fiancé who is a Coke executive.
At the grocery store check the plastic type on the products you purchase to try and avoid types your municipality cannot accept.
Know that no Styrofoam, plastic wrap, sandwich bags or grocery bags can be recycled curbside. These products are a nightmare for recyclers as they slow down sorting and can shut down operations as they get stuck in the machinery. So please don't put your recyclables in plastic bags before you put them in the bin.
For plastic grocery bags, check your local store as some of them have recycling programs on site. Also, STOP USING PLASTIC GROCERY BAGS.
Check your area for recyclers that can take other hard plastics that your municipality will not. I have one of these in my area that I make a monthly journey to drop off other plastics and glass since my municipality does not recycle those products curbside.
While finding and taking plastics to alternative places to be recycled may not be something we can squeeze into all our lives, we can all properly sort our plastics and make sure we are avoiding as many products that cannot be recycled in each our areas.
Moving to the other major component of plastic waste is to reduce it where we can. As we all know plastic is part of our lives, we cannot fully avoid it, but we can all do our part to reduce it.
Let us start with plastic bags. If you are not doing it already, PLEASE use recyclable bags at the grocery store. But we can go a step further. Those plastic bags you put your fruit and veggies in can be put into reusable mesh or cloth containers. You can buy these on Amazon or find in most organic grocery stores or even a Walmart for that matter for a few bucks. Same goes for the bulk food dispensers in your local store.
We use almost 1.6 trillion plastic grocery and shopping bags every year in the US, not counting those produce bags, and this is something we can literally all but eliminate tomorrow. I have personally started bringing re-usable bags when I go clothes shopping since there is simply no reason to transport something I just bought, in a plastic bag from a store to my house so I can throw it away.
But there are many other things than plastic bags we can look to reduce in our lives that can have huge impacts.
Instead of using things like sandwich and freezer bags to preserve food, that get used once and then get thrown away move to reusable products. Even if those products are plastic it is better to have something you can use hundreds of times than once and send it to the landfill.
Purchase bulk vegetables and fruits vs. ones that are packaged in plastic bags and foam trays. This really means try to buy more seasonal foods and stay away from imported options. Farmers markets with reusable bags is another great way to reduce single use plastics.
Refuse plastic straws at restaurants and fast-food places. If you need straws there are several options you can purchase like paper straws, plant based biodegradable and reusable products. Throw a few in the car so you don't have to accept that straw you'll use for 10 minutes and throw away.
When you get food, deliveries specify that you do not want the plastic forks, spoons and knives that typically come with almost any meal these days and mostly get tossed in the trash.
Get rid of your plastic water bottles and invest in a stainless-steel hydration product. Cheaper in the long run, water quality is the same or better and no putting more plastic into the environment.
Where you have packaging choices like milk, eggs and juice go with the cardboard containers vs. their plastic counterparts.
Employ. products like Castile soap that is highly concentrated and has several uses from body wash, to laundry detergent that can reduce plastic packaging.
Many products that employ plastic have other alternatives that you can replace them with. Here is an example of a toothbrush set made from bamboo and natural materials.
We are not going to able to eliminate plastic completely from our modern lives anytime in the near future but if we all think about our actions around how to reduce and recycle it properly, we can make a big impact. If Americans reduced our plastic use by just 10% and increased our recycling to just 20%, we would save almost 8 billion pounds of plastic introduced into our environment every year. That is as much plastic as Japan, the 5th largest global consumer of plastics uses annually.
This is absolutely an issue we can tackle as individual people and have a major impact if we all do it together.
Reduce and Recycle!