Technology is a funny thing. Alongside every modern advancement or new technology comes a double-edged sword. The lightbulb, for example. While the invention itself allowed for improvements in education, safety at night, and widespread economic benefits, it also brought along with it greater reliance on fossil fuels and environmental impacts where greenspaces were impacted to deliver electricity to far reaches of the landscape.
Plastic, at the time, was a revolutionary material. Plastic single handedly reduced the costs of goods and services, providing a cheaper alternative to building materials such as wood, metal, or glass. As the years moved on, plastic became ubiquitous with modern society, bringing us to modern day where nearly every consumer item relies on the material for packaging and construction.
Science, however, has been warning us for decades about the downside to plastic.The impacts of plastic on the environment have been well documented and illustrated over the years, spurring a push for Earth-friendly recycling efforts. Unfortunately, with billions of metric tons of plastics polluting our world, merely recycling is no longer sufficient. Recent studies have shown that not only are plastics killing our environment with their 400-year decomposition timeline, they are literally killing all of us. The importance of living a zero-waste, plastic-free, and Earth-friendly life focused on sustainability is more important than ever, and each person on this planet will play a role in creating a sustainable and healthy planet for future generations to come.
Consumer Habits are Harming
While the material itself is damaging to the planet, plastic is not the true culprit when it comes to the potentially irreversible damage that its creation has had on Earth: Our consumer habits are almost entirely to blame. A society built on convenience and disposable materials, humans and our ever expanding need for quick, easy, and cheap goods and services bears the bulk of the guilt when it comes to the current state of our environment. From grocery bags made of plastic to single serve coffee pods, disposable razors to toothpaste, or Tupperware to sandwich bags, humans are choosing a lifestyle where items are used once and then thrown away to sit in a landfill. The advancement of the disposable lifestyle has created an environment where plastic grows exponentially in our landfills and oceans, impacting the land, the atmosphere, and the wildlife. For many consumers, an assumption remains that plastic can be recycled and reused, giving a false impression that increased use on single-serving items is harmless. Unfortunately, as you will see, that simply isn’t true.
Non-Recyclable Plastic Problems
Even mindful consumers with the best intentions when it comes to recycling can create millions of pounds of plastic waste. While the average consumer believes they are creating a positive sustainability impact when recycling plastic, most are adding to the problem, as the vast majority of plastics cannot be recycled. Of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced worldwide, over 6.3 billion metric tons have become plastic waste, filling up our landfills and oceans. Of the plastics sent to the landfill, only 12% of are incinerated, resulting in over 91% of all plastics worldwide being left unrecycled. Of the plastic waste produced across the planet, over 8 million metric tons of plastic enter our oceans and water ways every year. Recent studies have shown that if current non-recycling trends and consumer habits continue, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic littered throughout the world and ocean by the year 2050.
Micro-Plastics Cause Macro-Damages
Scientists have been working tirelessly to identify the potential harms of plastics on the environment, and during those studies, uncovered a silent killer that is infiltrating nearly every aspect of our lives: Micro-plastics. What are micro-plastics? Tiny fragments of plastic less than five millimeters in length. As plastics degrade, microscopic pieces disseminate into the atmosphere and are often ingested and consumed unknowingly by wildlife and plant life. While it seems unfathomable that something so small cause such damage, the early outcomes from the scientific explorations are frightening. While the full risks, damages, and impacts of micro-plastics are still being assessed, the early result are terrifying. Solid evidence has shown that micro-plastics can be found in almost every form of ocean life, having the greatest impact on respiratory and digestive functions. In addition to creating health problems for oceanic vertebrates and invertebrates alike, micro-plastics have been found to create full destruction of corals, causing them to become stressed and bleached. With the death of corals, large swaths of ocean life are directly impacted through the loss of their environment and contaminated food sources. On a more microscopic level, zooplankton and phytoplankton have been found to absorb micro-plastics and produce fecal waste that contains the micro-plastics, resulting in filter feeders and other animals to then ingest the material.
Future Generations at Risk
Sounds like the major impact of micro-plastics are limited to only sea-life? Think again. Fish and seafood account for over 6% of human protein intake worldwide, meaning humans are consuming micro-plastics through seafood consumption. Micro-plastics have been definitively shown to contain toxins and carcinogens, resulting in birth defects and increased risk of cancer. Among the birth defects associated with micro-plastics are significant penile and testicular development delays or defects. Additionally, early reports indicate that micro-plastics can cause sustaining damage to the liver and create hormonal imbalances that impact everything from puberty, to weight gain, to mental cognition functions. To date, the average human consumes over 70,000 pieces of micro-plastics every year, a number that is sure to exponentially increase if a zero-waste, plastic-free lifestyle is not adopted world-wide in the immediate future. Generations of children will be doomed to increased risks of cancer, liver disease, and an unknown number of other health-impacts if our societal dependence on plastic use is not confronted.
Better Habits Lead to Better Futures
The key to creating a plastic-free, sustainability positive, and zero-waste world for future generations to come relies on a commitment to changing our daily and consumer habits. Here are a few simple steps you can take to reduce the use of plastic in the world, and reduce the negative impacts that plastic have on Earth:
- Intentional Recycling: Take the time to fully clean and appropriately recycle plastic items you come in contact with. Choose to reuse plastics as much as possible, only purchase plastics that you can confirm are recyclable, and be mindful of where you send your recycling.
- Sustainable Alternatives to Plastic: There are literally dozens of alternatives to plastic, ranging from plant based/compostable materials to bees-wax coated cloth.
- Be Mindful of Materials: Skip the plastic bags at the grocery, bring your own. Bring your own glass leftover container to the restaurant to bring home your leftovers. Eliminate plastic cutlery, straws, or single-use coffee pods from your life, instead focusing on reusable and sustainable products.
Plastic has become a technology that has fully outlived its purpose. With a myriad of alternative materials and a greater awareness of the negative impacts the material presents, there simply is no reason why a zero-waste and plastic-free future should not be a priority for this and future generations to come. It is time to say goodbye to plastic, or suffer the consequences for centuries to come.