What You Probably Don't Know About Plastic Pollution
Let's talk about plastic pollution. This is an issue that has stopped me in my tracks and opened my eyes in such a huge way. Plastic is so ubiquitous in our society that most of us never give it a second thought. Our food comes wrapped in it and bottles of it hold our beauty products. Toys, sippy cups, water bottles, pill bottles, straws, forks, bags, tools, computers, appliances, and so much more are all made of made of this amazing substance, and pretty much everything comes packaged in it. It wasn't even invented until 1907, so we somehow managed to get along fine without it for quite some time, but it has quickly become used in so many products that it's hard to imagine our lives without the stuff. If we tried to do so, most of us wouldn't get past our morning routine which likely involves light switches, milk cartons, and toothbrushes--all made of plastic.
So what's the problem?
The problem is that plastic can take thousands of years to decompose, so for all intents and purposes, it never goes away. That means that every piece of plastic ever created still exists! We create tons and tons of plastic every year, all over the world (an estimated 299 million tons annually to be precise) and all of that plastic is polluting our planet in a big way. Do you know what plastic is made of? Oil. Many of us may not be aware of the negative environmental effects of plastic, but oil and oil drilling are things we know a little more about (gulf oil spill anyone?) Plastic sitting in landfills gives off toxic chemicals that seep into the groundwater and contaminate our drinking supply, and there is plenty of evidence that plastic is harmful to our health in various ways, but what I want to focus on here is the huge problem of what happens to the plastic that ends up in the ocean.
As much as 10% of all plastic produced makes it's way into the ocean (via stormwater drains, streams, rivers, and beaches) and guess what? Our oceans are full of plastic!! It's all over the oceans, but specifically, there is an area in the middle of the Pacific Ocean known as the great pacific garbage patch. It was discovered by Christopher Moore and is a huge area in the ocean where garbage (primarily from North America and Aisa) collects. Because of circulating winds and ocean currents, it's basically a big whirlpool that draws debris. In this area, researchers can let down their fine mesh nets and collect more plastic that living organisms. Hundreds of miles from the nearest shores! All of this plastic is doing a lot of damage to the animal life. Birds, fish, turtles and seals get tangled in and mutilated by our trash. A huge part of the problem is that they will eat the plastic, sometimes thinking it is food, or unintentionally since much of it is broken down into tiny pieces. It's not uncommon to cut open fish in this area that have stomachs absolutely full of plastic pieces. Birds die from having stomachs so full of plastic that there isn't room for food.
Sylvia Earl is a famous oceanographer and marine biologist who has studied oceans her entire life and has logged over 7,000 hours underwater. She's a huge advocate for the oceans (besides being just an all around fascinating lady) and says (in the documentary Mission Blue) "I have yet to make a dive, even in the deepest dive I've ever made, and not see tangible evidence of our presence." Trash at the bottom of the ocean floors. Entire eco systems where she has dived that were once thriving and contained countless species of wildlife that she would revisit decades later and find -- nothing. Everything dead. She says our oceans are sick and in crisis. We are polluting them ruthlessly. We are losing a lot of biodiversity of the oceans--they are dying, and we have no idea what the consequences of that might be.
So how do we stop this already massive problem from getting worse? Diana Cohen, co-founder of the plastic pollution coalition, says we need to "turn off the faucet" and stop plastic from entering the ocean. Recycling can help, but isn't the answer. Only a small percentage of plastic materials are recycled, but even those that are cannot be repeatedly recycled the way glass and metal can. A plastic water bottle can never be a plastic water bottle again, it can only be down-cycled into a lesser plastic and eventually will be trash. Even if we had flawless recycling systems in place everywhere and everyone used them (which we don't and they don't) recycling isn't enough.
We need to discontinue the use of single-use plastics, which is exactly what it sounds like-- plastic products that are designed and intended to use only once and then to throw away. "A throwaway container is the bane of the marine environment. Here we've invented a material that for all practical purposes lasts forever and instead of using it in products that we want to last a long long time, we're using it on products that we may only use for seconds." (quote from the documentary Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch)
Isn't that absolutely crazy? Plastic is creating all these problems, when most of it is 100% unnecessary! From a minimalist perspective, so many of the products we buy are things we don't need anyway and are buying in excess. But a ton of the plastic we use is literally for seconds, minutes, or at best an hour when we could easily use a reusable glass or metal alternative--this includes things like plastic bags, plastic water bottles, straws, the lid to your coffee cup, plastic plates, cups, and utensils. Say no! Don't buy them. Don't use them. Alternatives are available. Much of this change needs to happen at the company level, but as consumers we have a lot more power than we think to change what companies produce and sell and how they package it. My next post will be on what I've done so far to quit disposables (particularly plastic ones) stay tuned!
Plastic Pollution: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Netflix Documentary)
Mission Blue (Netflix Documentary)