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Plastic: let’s break it down

I use plastic. I recycle. What’s the issue?

Hearing a lot about plastic and how bad it is? Wondering what the big deal is? Let’s break down plastic. Plastic was first introduced in the 1950s at the introduction of a new “throw away” mentality. Think paper plates, plastic utensils and the dawn of fast food restaurants. It was the convenient solution: cheap, lightweight and durable and could be thrown away after use. However, as plastic started to be produced and used more and more, people soon realized there is no “throwing away” for plastic and that it in fact never really biodegrades. Most of the plastic that we first used in the last century is still in our environment today. The rapid acceleration of plastic manufacturing, which so far has doubled roughly every 15 years, has outpaced nearly every other man-made material.

You may be thinking “Well, I recycle my plastic, so I’m avoiding putting plastic back into landfills.” To make plastic you need oil, a non-renewable resource with an extraction process that is very harmful to our environment, animals and us! There are roughly 30 million plastic bags used in the U.S. alone per year. For this production, 12 million barrels of oil are required. What’s another common plastic use? Water bottles. 17 million barrels of oil are needed per year for this production. To get this oil, companies drill then transport and then process this oil into plastic materials in a very energy-intensive process that involves burning fossil fuels which ultimately furthers the effects of climate change. The estimate for the amount of carbon released from plastic manufacturing is anywhere between 100 to 500 million tons of carb per year. To provide perspective, that is between 19 to 92 million vehicles on the road. (Mackann, One Green Planet)

Unfortunately, even if you are placing your plastic in the recycling, it might not be getting recycled and made into another product, with oil markets down and without a profitable market to see recycled plastic. Also, if it does indeed get recycled, which is only 9 percent of all plastic, it can only be recycled once and then to the landfill it goes! Other plastic alternatives, like aluminum and glass, can be recycled and reused an infinite amount. If current plastic use trends continue, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills by 2050. That amount is 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building.

So while plastic was first introduced as a tool to make our lives easier, it is in fact proving the opposite, causing irreversible harm to our environment and as a result, us. “We as a society need to consider whether it’s worth trading off some convenience for a clean, healthy environment.” (Geyer, Nat Geo)

Don’t be discouraged; there are easy steps you can take in your daily life to help combat the plastic issue by using less. We’ve already talked about switching to using reusable water bottles, reusable grocery bags and avoiding straws in our last blog. Simple next steps are to avoid plastic packaging (which makes up a huge part of plastic, especially unrecyclable plastic, waste). You can do this by shopping in bulk, shopping at local farmers markets and bringing your own containers and bags, and by bringing your own containers to the grocery stores. Buying lunch meat? No problem! Bring your own Tupperware to the store, weigh it so you can subtract that weight, and you’re good to go. Use old pillow cases for fruit or bread, or bring Mason jars for coffee. There are so many simple ways to get started and be a part of the solution!
Carissa Bishop
Conservation Education Initiatives Supervisor

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