I have read a few articles in the last few days asking if plastic recycling was just a trend from a number of years ago, and if the impression it left on people was lasting in any way. I'm not sure. It felt like at least some people were thinking about it and maybe even moving in a positive direction. And then COVID hit. Not only did it have us using a ton of single use plastics (not only millions of those testers, but even everything else was packaged, sometimes with multiple packaging, and thrown away) for fear of spreading germs. But it also brought up many important socio economic and racial issues which need to be addressed of course. This allowed many people to slide the environment to a lesser place in their landscape of thoughts, as well as corporations and government to stop focusing on positive change without public pressure.
Even now you might be thinking that the environment is a lesser issue or could be put off while other things are worked on. But we’ve reached a critical point where we can no longer ignore the environment. It is also true that a lot of our environmental issues affect and are affected by economic disparity, capitalism and corporate responsibility issues. In a holistic approach, it is all tied together.
For July, perhaps we can narrow our focus from the seemingly unfathomable global environmental crisis to just thinking about single-use plastics. Even small steps toward reducing landfills, protecting the oceans, and reducing the impact on human and animal health can make a difference. Promoting a culture of a non-throwaway society, reducing consumption and production of things that are just excess, and moving toward a more educated community, I think are goals we all can share.
Plastic manufacturing generates between 4% and 8% of global oil consumption. This production is responsible for 232 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses every year in the United States. To get rid of these plastics in the US, our incinerators use 5.9 million metric tons of CO2-eq. And of course we know this happens primarily in poor communities and communities of color. In areas outside of our western culture, where we look down on the people who do these things while encouraging them to take our garbage, plastic is frequently burned in the open where it produces poisonous chemicals with a global warming potential 5,000 times higher than carbon. And so many of these plastic items are used only once and then thrown away.
In our public waters, 8 million tons of plastic is dumped each year, where it creates huge garbage gyres and wreaks environmental havoc. According to the World Economic Forum, we will have more kilograms of plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050, if current trends continue. Plastic is not biodegradable, but sunlight and heat do cause it to release greenhouse gasses as it breaks down, becoming microscopic particles that enter the food chain and bio-accumulate. On average, a person ingests about 5 grams of microplastics per week (about as much plastic as a credit card) through water, food, and even the air we breathe. No one can even know what the long-term impacts on human health will be from ingesting so much plastic, but it would be ignorant to assume that it’s negligible.
Verity Noble, co-founder of Nude Foods Market, a zero Waste grocery store in Colorado, stated that Plastic Free July is a great way to encourage people to reduce their plastic waste; “Many people feel too powerless or too exhausted to stop the tsunami of plastic coming their way, and this month will show us we have the power to create change.”
Plastics are clearly linked to climate change and global pollution. That is more than clear. Plastic could be seen as one of humankind’s superior inventions, but if humankind uses it in such a way that it jeopardizes our environment, then what good is it? The issues that exacerbate this problem deal with human behavior and ineffective waste management / recycling. We may say to ourselves that a lot of the stress of this latter issue are related to government choices and corporate greed, and we wouldn’t be wrong. So what can we do?? I hear you. One thing we do is vote politicians in or out, and we also tell them what we want in so many of our behaviors. We also choose the products we buy. Some people who are very much interested in this cause will choose protests and boycotts and writing to politicians and giving to environmental groups. I think that’s all beautiful, but I know that’s maybe not where most of us are at so we just do what we can, maybe trying to do a little more when we can.
We can recycle. Even better, when possible, we can repurpose, and even better than that- find sustainable ways of not buying those plastics at all. I know to go completely plastic free might not be an option for you. More power to you if it is! But if you reduce your plastic use, and really think, at least for the month of July about not using single serve plastics, you will make an impact.