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Plastics, Health, Wildlife, and Climate

By Judith Glixon/

Don’t get me started on plastics!

“What on earth do plastics have to do with the climate, anyway?” you ask. Well, last month I sat in on the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF)'s remote Actions to Slash Our Trash teach-in, featuring Kirstie Pecci, director of their Zero Waste Program. The biggest take-away for me was her answer to my question about how plastics contribute to the climate crisis.

For decades we've known how damaging plastics are to wild animals. Birds, mammals, and fish have no innate connection to plastic, so they mistake it for food or home-building materials. We've all heard the stories of animals being strangled by six-pack rings or dying from complications of ingested plastics. Now we're also hearing news that plastics (micro- and otherwise) are ubiquitous in the oceans, rivers, atmosphere, and even our bodies.

As useful as plastic is—and we do use it for just about everything—it is also destructive. Plastics are everywhere, and it's become virtually impossible to eliminate them from our lives. Different types of plastic are found in our most commonly used items. For example:

  • Hard plastic is found in water bottles, detergent packaging, clamshell packaging, and single-use utensils
  • Plastic film is used for single-use carry out bags, food wraps, and bubble wrap
  • Textiles are made from nylon, polyester, fleece, and microfiber

What I really wanted to know, though, is how plastic is related to the problem, and devastating effects, of climate change. Here’s what I learned:

  1. Almost all plastics are made from petroleum. Petroleum is a carbon-rich substance made from the decomposition of plants and other organisms that have been buried for millenia beneath layers of sediment and rock. To make plastic, that petroleum is extracted from the ground. Every time we take carbon from the earth, much of it is released into the atmosphere.
  2. Fossil gas (misleadingly called “natural” gas) is also used to make plastics. From the fracking site, all along the way to the manufacturing plant, methane leaks occur. (According to the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], the comparative impact of methane, pound for pound, is 25 times greater than CO2, over a 100-year period.)
  3. Each step involved in the manufacture of plastic creates pollution that contributes to climate change.
  4. Sadly, most plastic isn’t being recycled. The EPA recently reported that in 2017 (the latest year for which data has been published), only a little over six percent of the country’s plastic waste in this country was recycled. The rest was either buried or incinerated. When burned, it creates toxic smoke.
  5. In the ocean, plastics change the chemistry of the water so that the ocean can no longer absorb adequate amounts of carbon, which contributes to rising temperatures.
  6. Every purchase of plastic (by consumers, manufacturers, stores, and restaurants) subsidizes the big oil and gas industries, increasing their funding with which they lobby against sustainability efforts—literally adding fuel to the fire.

So, what can we do about it?

It’s true that plastics are ubiquitous, and that we can't completely eliminate most of them from our households, but we can learn how to decrease our dependence on many of them. I like the expanded motto conceived by the LPS (Lexington Public Schools, MA) Green Teams: “Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Repurpose, Rot (compost is not relevant to plastics), and Recycle.”

In relation to plastics, we can:

  • Refuse – Refrain from accepting single-use plastics. When ordering take-out food online, if there's space for a special request or comment, let the restaurant know you don't need utensils, for example. Carry your own reusable utensils and straws, and keep reusable containers in your car.
  • Reduce – Purchase fewer plastics, especially those that are single-use. Seek products that come with the smallest amount of plastic packaging.
  • Reuse – The more often we use any item, the less of a negative environmental impact it will have.
  • Repair – When an item breaks, before rushing out to purchase a new one, fix it yourself, or find someone who can fix it for you.
  • Repurpose – This is a chance to be creative. Use your imagination!
  • Recycle – Do this as a last resort. The more we practice the above five actions, the less we'll need to rely on recycling or, worse still, throwing plastic items into the trash.

Finally, we can make our voices heard in Washington D.C. by asking our legislators to promote bills making plastics manufacturers responsible for reducing plastic packaging, improving the design of products and packaging to minimize the amount of plastics and other harmful ingredients, increasing the recycled content and recyclability of plastic products and packaging, and ensuring that disposal of their products is safe and harmless.

In my next article I will begin to share what I discover about where to purchase alternatives to the everyday throw-away plastics we use in our homes.

-Judith Glixon

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