We invented plastic to make our lives better but the dependence on plastic has caused an environmental crisis. Will we be able to reduce our use before it’s too late?
Your day has begun by turning off the alarm of your cell phone, you have brushed your teeth, brushed and combed your hair, gotten dressed, grabbed a juice bottle, water bottle, and a breakfast snack wrapped in plastic. So far this morning you have used something made of plastic about a dozen times and you have only been awake for about an hour. We have relied on plastic items that are human made to help us through the day – packaging for your breakfast, juice, water, electronics, which are made from oil and other fossil fuels.
Plastic items are so popular because they are lighter than natural materials like wood or glass, are less expensive and very durable. The qualities that make plastic so useful also make them dangerous to the environment. They don’t ever go away – it breaks down into tiny particles over time and lasts for hundreds or even thousands of years. We have been using plastic straws, bags, and cups which is usually only used once and then trashed. Well that trash is building worldwide to a staggering 9.2 billion tons since the 1950’s – its heavier than the Statue of Liberty (225 tons). We are producing plastic so fast that by 2050 it’s predicted we will have created 13 billion tons of plastic waste. Around the world we are working to reduce the plastic usage by individuals, companies, and entire countries in an effort to reduce this number.
During WWII (1939-1945) natural materials were in short supply so plastic was used in lightweight planes, parachutes, and supplies. Since plastic was cheap and available, companies started to use it after the war to make household goods (plates, cups, utensils). They were marketed as a way to save time and were disposable. The family didn’t have to wash them, so they were considered easier on the housewife since she didn’t have to wash and dry them – a time saver. Its easier but the plastic bags you use for your lunch, the utensils you use at a fast food place, and the packaging of most things you purchase online are causing the rise in the plastic waste we produce.
Some items are meant to be used for a long time – seat belts, car seats, helmets, airbags, and incubators that have made our lives easier and save lives on a daily basis.
Rescuers found a pilot whale off the shore of Thailand that couldn’t swim or breathe due to the fact that it had swallowed about 85 or more plastic grocery bags. On further testing it was found that it had more than 17 pounds of plastic in its stomach. It died shortly after the vet found all that plastic in the whale from the ocean. Some sea life ends up being harmed by the plastic that has been thrown in the ocean. They get caught in it or they eat it and some birds end up suffocating in plastic grocery bags. When the plastic pieces get coated with algae the animals think that it is food because it smells like food. They end up dying from starvation because the plastic fills their stomach and doesn’t leave any room for real food. The toxins in the plastic harm the animals also – it effects their behavior and digestion. When the animal that has eaten the plastic gets eaten by another animal the toxins effect that animal also.
Some cities in the US – Seattle and Washington, DC – have banned the use of plastic grocery bags in order to encourage people to reduce the plastic waste. Companies like Starbucks and Hilton Hotels plan to reduce or eliminate the use of plastic straws at their places of business to help solve the world’s plastic usage.
The US and 192 other countries have passed the United Nations Clean Seas Agreement which is a pact that is a formal declaration of intent to stop polluting the oceans with their plastic waste. We are hoping that these steps work and will ultimately include funding to help developing countries.
In order to help with the reducing of the plastic waste we need to start treating one time use plastic as if it is to be reused over and over again. We also need to come up with waste collecting systems to help with the collection of the waste that is being generated.