By Judith Glixon/
This final article about the plastic waste crisis will begin with a few unsettling facts and figures, but continues with a variety of actions we can take to continue to be part of the solution. At the end of the article, you will have a chance to share your feedback, which would be greatly appreciated!
Our beautiful earth has changed
Here is the beginning of a Jewish text (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13) that extols the wonders of the planet: “See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are... Be careful not to spoil or destroy My world...” Contrast this image with the following current reality: Microplastics are now being discovered in almost all of our world's ecosystems. Twenty-four billion pounds of plastic enter the ocean each year. Most untouched areas of the U.S. are seeing 1,000 tons or more of microplastics rain down on them every year. Humans now eat the equivalent of a credit-card-sized worth of plastic each week because of microplastics found in our food and water (both bottled and tap) supplies.
Plastic causes damage at every step of its lifecycle
Over 99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels. Plastic production disproportionately affects low-income communities and people of color, including indigenous communities, by polluting the air, water, and soil. The disposal of plastics by burning and dumping also harms these communities. Toxic chemicals in plastic packaging and products cause irreparable damage to the environment, wildlife, and our own health. To restore and preserve the health of our oceans alone, we will need to reduce the amount of plastic waste in them by 80%.
So, why is almost everything either made of, or packaged in, plastic these days?
We've been led to believe that plastic is inexpensive compared to more natural materials, but when we consider all the damage it has been doing, and how much it will cost us to repair that damage, we realize how expensive it actually is. Consider these facts: Between 1950-2015 (just 65 years), annual plastics production increased from 1.5 tons to over 300 million tons. More than 350 million metric tons of plastic are now being produced each year. 40% of all plastics are used just for packaging. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, 1/3 more plastic waste was created in 2020 than in 2019.
But we have our act together in the U.S., right?
Sadly, we don’t. Less than 9% of plastic is recycled in the U.S., and only 2% of that is effectively recycled (i.e.: recycled into something as useful as it was before). Americans constitute 5% of the global population, but create 70% of the waste. Every year, 32 million tons of plastic waste are burned or dumped by the United States alone, adversely affecting the lives of frontline communities. Meanwhile the U.S. continues to export 225 shipping containers of plastic waste per day to countries with limited or nonexistent waste management systems.
Now that we know these things, we realize we need to change some of our lifelong practices
But that's so hard to do! We been living in a throw-away societyfor so long, complete with planned obsolescence and thousands of single-use items. We can't recycle our way out of this, and it feels like we're swimming upstream against plastic garbage.
As the quotation above continues,“...for if you destroy My world, there will be nobody after you to repair it.” So let's get to work!
Putting our money where our new knowledge is
Our wallets are a great place to start. Conscientious purchasing is essential. Buying (by consumers, manufacturers, stores, restaurants, etc.) plastics serves to subsidize the oil and gas industries, giving them more capital with which to lobby against sustainability efforts, thus adding fuel to the fire (literally). So what can we do about it? There are so many kinds of products to consider. It's overwhelming and can be difficult to know where to start. We just need to remember that even small changes add up to make a significant difference.
We can begin by cutting back on single-use plastics (they're the worst kind and are usually unnecessary). Then, try to find products with the smallest possible amount of plastic packaging. (There are suggestions for products, vendors, and other plastic-free living ideas, in my five previous articles in this series.) To add even more oomph to our purchasing choices, we can contact stores and manufacturers and hold them accountable by letting them know about these choices.
Composting & informed recycling
As for recycling, it's essential to know what is and isn't recyclable. When in doubt, throw it out. Non-recyclable plastics actually contaminate the recyclability of the other items, so it's important not to engage in wishful recycling (or “wish-cycling”). For updated information about what can or can't be recycled, visit www.RecycleSmart.org.
If you're not already composting, try it! Composting reduces some plastic waste because it can be collected in compostable bags. Separating out food waste keeps kitchen trash cans drier, so paper bags can be used as liners.
There are some hopeful signs coming from government these days. For example, many towns are putting limits on single-use plastics. Let's advocate by making our concerns known to local, state, and federal legislators. We can also support the passing of Right to Repair laws and The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021 (BFFPPA).
To learn more about the problem of plastic waste, you may want to check out these videos:
- The Story of Plastic (4 min.)
- Breathe This Air (7 min.)
- The trailer for the feature length version of The Story of Plastic (2 min.)
- This clip from the 3/22/21 Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (22 min.)
There are numerous articles about the plastic crisis. Here are a couple that might interest you:
- 'Plastic, plastic, plastic': British diver films sea of rubbish off Bali; Bali hopes to regain paradise island status with mass cleanup
- The no-packaging movement is gaining momentum on climate worries
And don't forget about reviewing my first five Bulletin articles on plastics!
You can also learn a lot from visiting the websites for these (listed in alphabetical order) and the many other related organizations:
- Environment Massachusetts
- The Story of Stuff
- World Wildlife Fund Plastics Initiative
- #Break Free From Plastic
Now that you're more informed, talk about this issue with your friends, neighbors, family, and co-workers. Model plastic-reducing behaviors and write a letters to the editor of your local paper. Together we can make a difference!
Please share your feedback
Please complete this short survey about this series of six plastics articles. It will be a great help! Thank you.