“WTF are we gonna do with all this plastic?” This was one of the first questions I asked myself before I created ( r e ) ˣ.
Plastic has only been around for about a hundred years yet it has permeated every square mile of the earth: animals are full of it, oceans are full of it, and landfills are full of it. Changing our lifestyles is no longer the answer to our problems. In addition to the widespread adoption of better habits, we need long-term and short-term solutions for plastic pollution supported and implemented by local, state, national, and global governing bodies.
Let’s explore what some of these short-term and long-term solutions look like.
The World is Drowning In Plastic
If you’ve made your way to this blog, you probably agree with the statement ‘the world is drowning in plastic’. It’s all over the news, it’s the source of political arguments, and it’s a fact we need to accept in order to find a solution.
There’s no question that plastic has helped advance humanity: healthcare, hygiene, and accessibility to name a few. But we’ve gotten lazy and the plastic is piling up. But what is now an environmental problem was once considered an environmental solution.
When plastic was in its infancy, it was celebrated as a win for the environment. No longer were the tusks, shells, and horns poached from animals such as elephants, turtles, and rhinos.
That’s a huge win, but in the 73 years of plastic’s history, roughly 9 billion tons of plastic have been produced. Some of it has been incinerated, some of it has gone to landfills, some of it, roughly 4-12 million metric tons of it, makes its way into the ocean and waterways, and some of it is recycled, but all of it stays on the earth in some shape or form.
Let’s Start With How Plastic Ends Up In The Ocean In The First Place
Plastic sent to landfills is not great bad.
- It sits in a pile of garbage
- It never breaks down
- It leaches its chemicals into the landfill and ultimately into the ground. No bueno.
But ocean plastics are equally as bad. You’re not throwing trash in the ocean, and neither are we, so how does plastic get there?
80% of all ocean plastic comes from Rivers and of that river-borne plastic, 90% comes from just 10 rivers.
1. You’ve driven behind a trash truck before, right? Plastic easily blows right out of the trucks and becomes litter.
2. The litter from above combined with all other types of litter (including illegal dumping) is carried away by rainwater and wind where it ends up in waterways and drains which lead to — you guessed it — the ocean.
3. Plastics inside the products we use such as microbeads in cosmetics, toilet wipes, cleaners, and laundry, swirl down the drain and into the environment because they cannot be removed during the sanitation process.
The Harmful Effects of Ocean & Land Plastic Pollution
1. 180x more plastic than marine life floats on the surface of the ocean. When animals make their way through it, they end up consuming plastics and microplastics. Not only are they missing out on nutrients, but they’re absorbing the chemicals attached to those plastics which means humans will eventually absorb the chemicals through the food chain.
2. Plastic pollution isn’t all plastic straws and water bottles. It’s fishing nets, bags, bottles, and more that animals get tangled in and trapped in causing them to die.
3. Economically speaking, not including the cost of human or marine health, marine plastic pollution costs an annual USD $6-19 billion.
4. Plastics are forever. They never break down completely, they break down into smaller pieces of themselves. Plastics have been found in arctic ice, in rain, and even inside the human body.
5. In addition to having negative effects on ecosystems, plastic pollution can alter the physicochemical properties of the environment (geology, soil quality, vegetation, and hydropatterns).
6. Climate change and biodiversity loss are directly linked to plastic and plastic pollution.
What can we actually do about all. this. plastic?
Changing our habits is a big part (hello, capitalism) but solutions need to look into include holding the manufacturers and companies that are causing the problem responsible for their actions.
Short-Term Solutions To The Plastic Problem
Photo by Pavel Danilyuk:
1. Refuse Single-Use Plastics Wherever And Whenever You Can
Get into the habit of bringing your own reusables or refusing disposables automatically given.
Action item: Ask businesses you frequent often to provide an alternative.2. Don’t Buy Plastic
3. Recycle Properly
4. Participate In Beach & Road Cleanups
Help make your city and beaches cleaner by joining or starting a cleanup.
Action item: Create or join a cleanup group.
5. Pick ONE Single-Use Plastic Item To Avoid. And Avoid It.
Find a single-use plastic item you use often and work towards using less of it. Water bottles are a great one to start with. If you can’t drink tap water, grab a filtered water bottle or portable filter.
Action item: Examine your habits and find one piece of single-use plastic to work towards eliminating.
6. Prioritize Second-Hand/Already Made Items
Almost everything you need probably exists. Before making a new purchase, head over to secondhand, antique, and thrift stores to see if you can find a high-quality item instead of a brand-new one.
Action item: Make a list and check it twice. Make a list of what you need, and the dimensions/size of your space if relevant, and stick to your list.
7. Put Pressure On Manufacturers
Both a long and short-term solution. Short-term you can email your favorite manufacturers and (nicely yet firmly) tell them their use of plastic is going to cost your business. Ask for the changes you want to see.
Action item: Email manufacturers — most of them have some sort of ‘contact us’ page or information publicly available.
8. Contact Your Local Representative
Call, write, petition, do whatever you need to do to get in front of your local representative to let them know what kind of environmental action you want them to take. And how important it is to their constituents.
Action Item: Call your representative’s office in D.C. Tell them why environmental legislation matters in their community or state.
Long-Term Solutions To The Plastic Problem
1. Increasing The Research & Use Of Bio-Based And Biodegradable ‘plastics’
As I’ve mentioned, plastic is great material. It’s flexible, it’s sturdy, it’s lightweight, and it doesn’t need to be made out of fossil fuels. What, wait? Bioplastics act like plastic but are made from organic matter like corn, sugarcane, algae, hemp, food waste, and now Seaweed!
2. Support And Advocate For Policies That Tackle The Plastic Problem
Get involved in local government to understand and advocate for policies that help your city, state, or country fix the plastic problem.
3. Support And Advocate For The Regulation Of Plastic Companies And Their Responsibility For Plastic Waste.
Join non-profits, send emails, get involved in local government, and talk to your own company. Find a way to support and enforce regulation on companies. Big oil and big plastic companies sold consumers on the concept of recycling with the full awareness that it wouldn’t work. "If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment," a former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry told NPR.
- The companies creating the most plastics, specifically virgin plastics, should be leading the industry with the recycling and reuse of the products.
- The companies responsible for causing and perpetuating the crisis should be responsible for footing the bill for cleanup projects.
- They should be taxed to create single-use plastics with that tax money used to implement solutions.
The way we get these regulations and solutions implemented is by getting involved.
4. Increase The Demand For Recycled Plastics And The Prioritization Of Recycling
Support companies that are working towards finding a solution to recycling and finding ways to use recycled plastic (like us). Right now we’re making hangers from recycled plastic, something that can benefit everyone. Other projects include one coming out of the Netherlands, called PlasticRoad, is using recycled plastic to make smarter, more efficient roads and bike paths.
5. Waste To Energy
A controversial topic because they already exist but if not run efficiently, they can do more harm than good. In the U.S. there are 64 waste-to-energy (WtE) plants that burn municipal solid waste (household waste) which becomes steam which is used to power an electric generator. But on the other hand, the more WtE is promoted, the more materials that could have been recycled will be incinerated instead. As more and more waste gets incinerated the more toxins and pollutants are released into the air supply.
6. Support Companies Addressing Plastic Pollution And Waste
This last point is so simple yet so important you’ll hear it said over and over again in every sustainable article ever. Put your money where your beliefs are. By supporting companies like ( r e ) ˣ, you help me to continue to take the plastic waste out of our environment and repurpose it into new products (while creating jobs). You also help me continue to grow and fight against plastic waste. You can also support a non-profit that is working against plastic pollution with your money or your time. A few of my favorites are:
- Oceanic Society
- Plastic Pollution Coalition
- Plastic Soup Foundation
- Cool Earth
- Clean Air Task Force
- 1% For The Planet
- Precious Plastic
- The Story of Stuff