Plastic Everywhere

Posted in Environment on January 3, 2012

I admit, I had no personal epiphany. Last year my business partner Dan and his wife Alissa had a sort of realization and pointed out how much plastic is in our modern lives. Look around you right now, plastic abounds. If you are like me and born into the plastic age, your first thought might be “so what?”  But it turns out that our use and overuse of plastic is indeed a problem. It is made from fossil fuels, stays around forever, and can cause harmful health effects on humans and other animals (aka the ecosystem).

If you care about global climate change, reducing fossil fuels should be a priority- so add plastics to your list. But even worse than the resources it takes to produce plastic, is the time it takes for that plastic to break back down. In human terms, this is never. All the plastic stuff you have sitting around you right now will likely still be in that same form (at a molecular level) when you die, and will remain intact throughout your children’s and grandchildren’s lives.  Where does all this go? Landfills and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  When it is sitting in the ocean, that plastic breaks down into polymers and poisons the ecosystem.

The thing I’m finding so alarming about plastic is the lack of awareness or concern for this giant problem.  Sure we have a lot of ecological challenges, but there are lots of people working on the energy production problem or wildlife conservation. I don’t know any professional organization dedicated to this plastics problem, and manufacturers just keep cranking out plastic goods- then packaging them in plastic!

What can we do? First is to simply bring awareness to the issue.  Once you can see the plastic surrounding you and think of the implications of that, you might change some of your buying habits. Alissa Hansen has been able to take this to an extreme- the Hansen family consumes almost no plastics, which is an interesting and difficult experiment.  Just try to not consume plastic all day.  The difficulty of doing that will illustrate just how pervasive plastic is, and the difficulty in trying to live “plastic free”.

Recycling you say?  Sadly, few plastic products can be fully recycled, something they don’t often tell you. I’ve been recycling for years and thought that was good enough, but it turns out that only types 1 and 2 can be recycled, and even those have some issues. You may have seen the newer, plant based plastics- Starbucks uses it for Frappacino cups. It can biodegrade, which makes it much, much better than petroleum based plastics. That is the type of innovation we’ll need to reduce the giant island of trash in our ocean.

But yes, ultimately I too am a hypocrite- we have plenty of plastics around my house. Just taking a shower this morning, I could count 3 plastic bottles around me. We still buy orange juice (if you don’t want to squeeze it yourself, you pretty much can’t find non-plastic containers to buy OJ in). But you know what? I- you- the world- can’t change all at once.  Like it or not, plastics and cheap disposable plastic goods and packaging are part of our infrastructure. What we need to do is change that infrastructure- something that can only be done though time, perseverance, and consensus.  I want manufacturers to use less plastic, finding eco-friendly alternatives. I don’t have the time to make everything from scratch and remove myself from the supermarket economy. Most of us don’t.

So then, what can you do about it? Here are a few ways you can help start the reversal of this ecological calamity:

  1. Use all plastics you already own to their full extent. Ideally, items like Tupperware can last your entire life.  Other items, like resealable plastic bags can be used at least several times before they need to be tossed.
  2. Look for alternative packaging.  While we still buy OJ, there are other products like Peanut Butter, where you can reward companies that use glass over plastic. If everyone did this, manufacturers would certainly get the message and use paper, glass, and metals instead of plastics.
  3. Spread awareness.  Even if you don’t blog, you can bring up the problem with family and friends. I’ve done this within my own family, and like me, they see the world a little differently after bringing consciousness to the plastic abounding around them.
  4. Recycle. Yeah, I know its not perfect, but it is better than nothing. You should be recycling all your glass, tin, and plastics. I send all plastics to the recycling plant, and let them sort it out. Meaning, I don’t analyze the plastic number (1 and 2 can be recycled, but you will find all sorts of numbers of plastic). I figure at the very least I’m putting pressure on recycling plants to push for more 1 and 2 plastics.
  5. All the little things.  Like, we bring bags to the grocery store- and even if we didn’t we’d opt for paper over plastic. When you go out to eat and order a soda- ask the waiter to not bring that plastic straw. Or if you don’t finish your meal, see if there is a non-plastic (including Styrofoam) box for the leftovers. Even better, bring your own container. Opportunities to reduce and eliminate plastic use happen all the time, it just need to occur to you to do it.

Looking around me now, I can see so many plastic products- my keyboard, the mouse, the computer tower, my headphones, my reusable Starbucks cup, even some decorative R2D2 Pez dispensers. All that and more in 3 square feet of office.  All of that is a problem, I admit, but for now I’m going to take care of these items and use them until they cease to function. In the meantime, I consider disposable plastic packaging enemy #1. That is the first beast of the plastic horde we must slay. But to do that, we need more people to join the battle.

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  1. #1 by Bobby on January 4, 2012 - 11:54 am

    Great Article. Seems Overwhelming at times but this is exactly the kind of stuff that people need to know about our footprint on Earth and what actually happens when we put plastics in the trash or recycling bin.

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