Plastic pollution has gotten far out of hand. To add to the obvious large plastic pollutants found almost anywhere on earth, over time, other plastics have been torn apart and shredded into miniscule particulates—and these little particulates have gotten everywhere, from the deepest parts of the ocean, to the tallest cliffs of Everest (Gramling, Apr. 15, 2019). And really it’s no wonder: plastic has been playing an increasingly integral role in human life since PVC was first polymerized in the 1830s (PlasticsEurope.com, 2020), production ramped up drastically in the early 1900s with the synthesis of Bakelite, and production was again significantly ramped up shortly after WW2. Current estimates suggest that around “8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been created by humans since the early 1950s” (Cole, July 24, 2017)—and save for a couple of minor dips thanks to the odd economic recession, the rates of production don’t seem to be going down at all (Ritchie & Roser, 2018).
Recycling rates have looked equally dismal, especially since prior to the 1980s, plastic generally was not recycled at all, and the volume of plastic incinerated significantly outweighs the volume that has been recycled, even with increased plastic management efforts. In 2015, only about 20% of plastic waste was recycled, about 25% was incinerated, and about 55% was just discarded (Ritchie & Roser, 2018).
Plastic particles get continuously dispersed across the globe in a myriad of ways. While the vast majority of it is still just discarded and left to the winds of time to be shredded and spread out, incineration causes a number of issues as well by creating noxious toxins that eat away slowly at our atmosphere. “Burning plastic and other wastes releases dangerous substances such as heavy metals, Persistent Organic Pollutants, and other toxics into the air and ash waste residues” (No-burn.org, 2020). New incinerator technologies are also having similar problems, as time and time again, technologies such as gasification, pyrolysis and plasma arcing (while producing a meagre energy output) are also exorbitantly expensive on top of merely harvesting the last drops of energy from this damaging refuse (No-burn.org, 2020).
While recycling plastic is a step in the right direction, it isn’t a perfect solution, either. Almost all plastic products are imprinted with one of seven resin codes, which are used by the plastics industry to indicate the general type of chemical compound used to make the product. But while these resin codes can help plastics producers to easier sort and recycle various types of plastics, there are ultimately thousands of different chemical mixtures used to create the various products we all use every day. These codes, while useful for plastics producers, are generally useless for recycling, as they were never intended to be any type of guarantee that any plastic product bearing any given code can be accepted for recycling. In fact, the term “recycling” is in itself a misnomer, and according to Eureka! Recycling the term could be more accurately stated as “downcycling” since there is always some degree of irrecoverable waste created by the current process (2020).
Let’s talk about solutions. Despite the inefficiencies, recycling still creates a more positive outcome than discarding or incinerating. But the best thing that everybody can do to reduce the negative impact of plastic use on our environment is to just use less plastic. Reducing the amount of plastic that you use reduces the demand for it, and that can reduce the amount produced in the first place. But despite that optimistic view, plastic management is still a serious problem that we will have to tackle sooner rather than later. Solutions must be made in order to wean our society off of its dependency on plastics, and we also need to find ways to safely and sustainably deal with the plastic that has already been produced. We all must keep recycling, improve recycling practices, and find more sustainable means of replacing plastics everywhere.
Plastic is everywhere. It’s time we cleaned up our mess. We need to find ourselves a better way.
Editor’s note: check out our “10 More Ideas for how You can Help Fight Climate Change” plan in the OM library today!
Earlier this week, OM featured an article describing 10 ways you can help fight climate change. Today, we’ve decided to throw in a little more friendly advice. Here are 10 more ways that you can help change our climate for the better and help keep our planet sustainable for future generations:
1) Get a home energy audit
Performing a home energy audit can show you exactly how much energy you and your family consume at home and offer you some tips as to how to make your home more efficient. Assessments like these can help homeowners save between 5 and 30% on their energy bills! Using these tips will also take a big chunk out of your own carbon footprint.
2) Install a programmable thermostat
Rather than keeping the house at a constant 21 degrees Celcius, try buying a programmable thermostat! These allow you to customize your temperature timing, so that you’re not automatically blasting the AC when you’re not at home, or you’re not overbaking your living room when everybody’s asleep! This little change only costs around $20 (unless you choose to drop $50 for the Learning Thermostat), so it’s definitely an investment worth considering.
3) Unplug electronic devices when they’re not in use
Just because your laptop looks like it isn’t drawing any power, doesn’t mean that it isn’t racking up your electric bill by idling. According to Sisson, Barber & Walker (Apr. 22, 2018) “[a]bout 25% of all residual energy consumption is used on devices in idle power mode” . These authors also recommend taking a look at disconnecting your cable box, laptop and any extra speakers whenever you’re not using them, and consider grouping appliances together on power strips, so that you can just shut all of them off easily when they’re not in use (great for leaving for a vacation).
4) Build a downspout planter box
If you live in an apartment (and you get rain often enough), then you can capture your rainwater in a planter box while growing foods like carrots or onions! Every little bit counts, and the more you capture, the more energy you save your municipal water management system, chipping away at the industrial-scale energy usage they have to contend with.5) consider removing your lawn
Lawns require extra watering, gas-powered equipment for upkeep, and fertilizer that pollutes waterways. If it’s possible, consider removing parts of lawn (or if you can, the entire thing for the best ecological benefits). There are more options than just a lawn for the front of your house, and Elemental.green (2020) has a couple of ideas that you might find interesting! Of course, it’s a good idea to think long and hard about how this is going to affect your house pricing before you make and radical changes.6) Don't buy a new house, renovate an old one
Older houses are often rife with energy inefficiencies—but Harvard’s been working on an idea. They’re aiming pretty high, too: Harvard University’s HouseZero project seeks to turn housing from the 1920s into a house that is both sustainable and affordable. According to project leader Professor of Architectural Technology Ali Malkawi, their goal is to “make a building so efficient, that the energy generated by the solar panel on the roof the power the office equipment and computers, will be almost secondary” (Curbed.com, May 25, 2017).7) Start an urban farm
Talk with your community and get an urban farm started! A farm in the city of Detroit has been showing a lot of promise over the last few years, and it’s inspiring other communities to do the same. Try talking with your community leaders to see if starting your own agricultural neighbourhood is a feasible idea.
8) Eat less meat
Cattle, sheep, pigs, they all have a tendency to create a lot of methane (Moore, Sept. 10, 2007). By cutting out (or even reducing) consumption of these meats and relying more on fish or chicken, you can put a serious dent in your carbon footprint. Swapping red meats and dairy out for a more balanced diet of fish, eggs and fowl an make a big difference (Weber & Matthews, Apr. 16, 2008).
9) Don't drink bottled water
In the US alone, landfills are already overflowing with over 2 million tons of water bottles. These things take a projected 1000 years to decompose (unless they’re incinerated, which produces toxic fumes). Buy reusable water bottles and just keep filling them up. The environment will thank you for that.10) Take public transit
Yeah, busses can be annoying and trains can get pretty crowded, but they’ll save you money as well as cut a huge chunk out your carbon footprint. One small car driving one person times 1,000,000 is a lot harder on the environment than 20 people to 1 bus times a couple thousand. More than that, taking the bus might not take quite as long as you may fear (so long as your city is keeping up-to-date).