You most likely see discarded single-use plastics lying around every day. In the city, they might be on the side of the road, in an alleyway, or falling out of an overfilled trashcan. On the shore, they are strewn all over the beach, and little pieces of plastic are hanging out inside most of the marine life. Farther out to sea, the Great Pacific Garbage patch is twice the size of Texas. In rural areas, plastics and Styrofoam get pushed around by the wind until they end up stuck in the brush, to slowly break apart into smaller pieces over the years. Even the peak of Mount Everest is covered in plastic trash.
Single-use plastics are a part of our every day life. Mass production of plastics began in the 1930’s, and many new kinds of plastic were invented and mass-produced in the coming decades. Plastics were lauded as the new, cheap, and effective medium of production. Polystyrene could be made into a solid form (like plasticware) or a foam (like Styrofoam), and revolutionized take-out in the food world. PVC started replacing metal pipes other building materials. Polypropylene alternatives replaced a lot of tools in the medical industry, and could be used to make dishwasher-safe plastic food containers. Finally, polyethylene became the most common plastic in the world, used primarily for single-use packaging, including plastic bags, wraps, and bottles.
Many plastics are synthetic and derived from petrochemicals (chemicals derived from petroleum). They take an incredibly long time to break down because their chemical makeup doesn’t easily interact with outside chemicals. So once a single-use plastic is made, it’s generally around for the long haul. And being derived from petrochemicals means that it takes limited natural resources from the Earth to be made in the first place, so plastics are a double-whammy of environmental degradation.
So how much plastic is out there? One estimate puts the total global mass-production of plastics at 8.3 BILLION metric tons, with 6.3 billion metric tons now being waste, accumulated in landfills or the environment at large. Only about 9% of the plastics ever produced have been recycled, and another 12% have been incinerated (which comes with its own environmental hazards).
To put it in perspective, the amount of plastic humanity has produced, mostly since 1950, would cover the entirety of Manhattan in trash about two MILES deep.
It was always known, by its very nature, that plastics would eventually smother the planet. But a blind eye was turned to its environmental impact due it’s cost-effectiveness. That’s right, plastics are just another limb on the cephalopodic body of the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the petrochemical industry.
But now that this knowledge is mainstream, the question is, what can we do about it? Well thankfully, there are now a plethora of options:
- Recycle, recycle, recycle! Push your representatives in government for resolutions facilitating plastic recycling in your community. Many communities have implemented programs that give households recycling bins, free of cost, that are picked up the same as trash. And remember, no one person made this mess- Resolutions for recycling targeting large-scale businesses can potentially have a much bigger impact.
- Opt for non-plastic options. This includes things like bringing your own bags to the grocery store, using a reusable water bottle instead of single-use bottles, and buying from bulk-markets to avoid plastic packaging.
- Spread the word about plastic alternatives! Bioplastics are a revolutionary industry, and replacing petrochemical plastics with biodegradable alternatives on a large scale would drastically slow down production of new plastic waste.
Sometimes movements like this can seem impossibly large. After all, plastic is literally everywhere, so is tweaking my lifestyle and talking about alternatives really going to make an impact? If you do it in the right way, ABSOLUTELY. And it becomes a much smaller problem with just a little bit of perspective:
First, it is important to understand that there is a fundamental flaw in market capitalism that nobody really talks about. Usually, the market is coerced by the “invisible hand” of supply and demand. But as you get to the poorer communities, that theory reaches its mathematical lower limit. When people don’t KNOW about, or can’t AFFORD something, then there is no DEMAND for it, at least as far as the market is concerned. This means there is no reason to SUPPLY it.
With contemporary economic inequality being as robust as the petrochemical industries profit margins, the only way to show market demand is to BE VOCAL about your demand. The world at large cannot afford to keep producing plastic waste as it is now- we will drown in it, and they will keep producing it until we do, because it’s CHEAP. But now that we have other cheap alternatives, we must make our voices heard in support of those alternatives whilst denouncing petrochemical plastics.
How do we make our voices heard? Well, just like your mama told you, actions speak louder than words. Those tweaks in your habits produce demand (or lack thereof) in the market. Becoming involved in your local community is another way to make your voice heard. Many, especially in the younger generations, view group gatherings at town halls as excruciatingly analog. But I will let you in on a little secret- That just means that if you are one of the few people that DO go to these meetings, you will usually have a much larger voice than you would expect. You will also find like-minded individuals who were passionate enough to take that leap with you, and from there an activist community is formed! Setting up cleanups in problem areas will beautify your community, and it is often easy to get local media outlets involved, helping to draw attention to the issue.
In the digital world, sharing content can have some impact, but CREATING content is much better, because it adds to the content pool to be shared and makes an issue larger. One ridiculously simple way to create content regarding single use plastics is by taking pictures of plastic trash with company labels on it and adding it to the hashtag #isthisyours on social media. Making this part of your daily routine can create a lot of noise, especially if you also tag your location.
These are things that everyone can do. The generations that exist today will determine the livability of our planet within the coming decades. We already live in a world of climate change, mass extinction, and rising oceans full of plastic. Our complacency will directly correlate with an early death in a toxic world for our children. Action is the only option.
We must fight for our planet, and we must take steps to hold the institutions that knowingly helped to cause these disasters accountable for their actions in such a way that the future of humanity will have something to look back on as they set the direction for the way forward.