Reduce Your Usage
Without a doubt, plastics have revolutionized engineering, medicine, packaging, and numerous other milieu across the globe.
The first human-made polymer is generally considered to be Parkesine, which was created by Alexander Parkes in 1855. Parkesine was composed of cellulose, a natural component of plant cell walls. By 1907, the first synthetic plastic arrived, in the form of Bakelite. After World War II, mass production of plastics took off. Since 1950, scientists estimate that humans have created more than 9.2 billion tonnes of plastics. Astonishingly, more than half of that figure was produced after 2004. Today, plastic touches nearly every aspect of modern human activity. Ubiquitous are single-use plastic water bottles, food containers, wrappings, and nearly any light material that needs to be molded.
Plastics have enabled many beneficial things, but they have a severe downside. On human scales, the polymers tend to last forever, to the tune of thousands of years. They are difficult to recycle, despite the push from packaging industries to make us think otherwise. We often implement technologies at a much higher rate than we implement the ability to safely dispose of those technologies, pushing the problem toward future generations.
Our love for plastics, specifically the single-use variety, has created monstrosities such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Even when Mother Nature’s disintegrator – erosion – works on plastics, the problem doesn’t disappear. The chains are so hardy that large chunks break apart but the smallest pieces remain in ecosystems. These tiny terrors are known as microplastics. Technically, they are fragments that measure less than 5 millimeters (0.20 inches) in length. And they are now everywhere. Microplastics are in the soil; they are in rivers, lakes, and oceans; they are in the bodies of the planet’s animals; they are in your body and my body. Plastics have literally become a constituent of our bodies. A distressing new study found that microplastics have even now invaded clouds.
Stop to think about how incredible that statement is.
The macro trends of industry and consumerism are notoriously difficult to alter. Individuals often feel paralyzed to make common-sense changes for the good of the planet. If one wants to reduce the amount of plastic one purchases, a quick stroll around any market will demonstrate how difficult the proposition is. Nearly everything you can purchase will include plastics in some way, usually in the packaging. Your paper coffee cup is lined with plastic. Bags provided to weigh and protect fresh produce are thin plastics. Milk jugs. The list is seemingly endless.
How can the individual fight this unceasing wave? Even to many plastic-conscious shoppers, the answer is often a shrug of the shoulders. What change can one person enact? With a global scope, these questions can become quite demoralizing, leading to environmental nihilism. Further, going plastic-free is often more expensive than simply partaking.
As I aged, I began to recontextualize the issue. Individuals might have a minute chance to alter global or national policy or habit, and going plastic-free in today’s world is extremely difficult, but this reality is not a reason to kick the can down the road. Major swings in behavior often require long runways. The apt metaphor is the stone in the pond. One tiny pebble will not empty the pond of its water, as a meteorite might, but the stone will ripple through the water. Tiny decisions can lead to other tiny decisions for myself and others. The behavior I model will become a way of life for my children. Perhaps even if we cannot quickly get to a sustainable point when it comes to plastics, we can cultivate the notion that moving toward that point is important.
Cold plastic turkey is not feasible for most people. Tiny changes are exceedingly possible, though. With that notion in mind, I have looked for baby steps to reduce my consumption of plastic. One might look at any one of the following ideas and think it will not lead to much in the long run. That’s likely true. The point is a cumulative one, across many decisions, with the hope that more and more humans will begin to make small, cumulative choices that benefit the planet.
Here are a few small alterations to life that my family has made in an attempt to lighten our plastic load:
Gone are the days of a bar of soap sitting on sinks to wash one’s hands. Today, we lean heavily on single-use plastic bottles, often filled with liquid soap with wonderful aromas. I love a good scent as much as the next person, but there’s no need to buy a plastic bottle each time the previous one is out. Many stores sell large bottles of soap to be used as refills. A better option is to find a company that takes the environment into mind. My sister put me on to one such business: Blueland. A glass bottle with a plastic top that can be reused for years is filled with a tablet and some water. The tablets are shipped in compostable paper and boxes, leaving the plastic behind. Blueland also peddles laundry, dish, and toilet cleaners. Other companies are out there filling this niche, as well. A Blueland starter pack can help you ditch a bit of plastic.
Plastic straws are unavoidable when eating at restaurants or coffee shops. They are about as disposable a plastic as one could imagine. Ditch plastic straws by beginning to utilize reusable versions. Glass straws are sturdy and will last until you break them. Need a little more style or flexibility? Go with silicone straws. This replacement can be a bit awkward to implement at first. Throw some in a bag in your car and you’ll find you can save a bit of plastic with just a little sucking.
PLASTIC BAGS/GARBAGE BAGS
The utility of plastic bags when it comes to storage and garbage disposal is certainly convenient. Thankfully, some companies make compostable bags that do not sacrifice the amenity. Companies such as HoldOn produce a variety of bags, from sandwich sizes to gallons to garbage sizes. This area of plastic reduction is still rather expensive, so it’s not necessarily the most realistic for many people. Still, it’s a great way to make a small change.
Speaking of bags, stop using plastic bags at stores. A better choice is paper because it can be recycled, though that is not a perfect solution. Better is to buy some cheap, reusable bags to bring with you when you shop. Many stores now sell them near checkout stations. The amount of plastic one can cut from this practice alone is incredible.
This one is a little less straightforward but can make a difference on two levels. Companies produce recycled toilet paper. My go-to is Who Gives a Crap. Not only does this corporation help keep trees from swirling down your toilet, but they deliver it to you without plastic packaging. Further, they donate a portion of every sale to increasing sanitation conditions in parts of the world that currently lack the infrastructure. It’s a wonderful organization. It’s not the cheapest and you will sacrifice a bit of the softness on your rear end, but I find the upsides worth it.
SINGLE USE/ALTERNATIVE PACKAGING/CREATIVITY
Plastics are not inherently negative. They have a plethora of positive uses. The main scourge on the planet is the single-use plastic item. It’s easy to understand why they arose. They’re fast, they’re sanitary, they’re easy. But we can do better. Get coffee daily or often? Bring a mug to the shoppe. See a brand in the store that eschews plastic packaging? Give it a try. Patronize businesses and corporations that prioritize non-plastic containers. Nothing talks like your cash. Find yourself with a plastic container you can’t recycle at a plant? Try to find a non-traditional use for the jug or bottle.
Unfortunately, many reports about plastic recycling are not encouraging. A lot of the items we discard, which claim to be recyclable, are often not able to be repurposed in all areas. The ability of an area’s recycling plants will vary widely. Still, it’s important to give it your best shot. Discover what the numbers mean on your plastics and figure out where you can take them to give them new life. As our technology improves, our proficiency in recycling plastics should also improve, so it’s important to foster good habits now.
Each one of these ideas is minuscule in comparison to the worldwide issue of microplastics. Yet adopting one is a great first step to working toward a sustainable future. This missive is not intended to criticize an individual’s usage of plastic. In many ways, it’s no one’s fault that we are so dependent on these polymers. It’s difficult to gather perspective on how little things add up in our lives. If we all take tiny steps, we can turn our ripples into tsunamis. Maybe one day those tsunamis will churn through oceans that aren’t filled with microplastics!
Further Reading and Exploration
What are microplastics? – National Oceanic Service
Microplastics – National Geographic
Microplastics are carried in clouds and could be affecting the weather – Natural History Museum