As she was starting to write her book, Plastics: A Love Story, Susan Freinkel decided to see how long she could go without using plastic of any kind. A few minutes later, she headed to the bathroom, took one look at her plastic toilet seat, and decided to rethink her experiment.
Instead, she wrote down everything plastic with which she came into contact over the course of one day. The list was staggering.
“Alarm clock, mattress, heating pad, eyeglasses, toilet seat, toothbrush, toothpaste tube and cap, wallpaper, Corian counter, light switch, tablecloth, Cuisinart, electric tea kettle, refrigerator handle, bag of frozen strawberries, scissor handle, yogurt container, lid for can of honey, juice pitcher ...,” she writes.
And that was just before breakfast.
“We’ve produced nearly as much plastic in the last ten years as we have in all previous decades put together,” Freinkel writes. “Our annual global plastics production, if present trends hold, could reach nearly two trillion pounds by 2050. If it feels like we’re choking on plastics now, what will it feel like then, when we’re consuming nearly four times as much?”
Not all of the plastic story is bad. Plastics have made lifesaving surgical and water filtration equipment possible, and they’ve been molded into integral components for solar panels, personal computers, bulletproof vests for police officers, and other devices that make life as we know it possible.
But this pervasive plastic use has a dark side, as well.
The Real Plastic Garbage Patch
Americans generated 35.4 million tons of plastic waste in 2017, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Much of that plastic is only meant to be used once before it is thrown “away.” But there is no “away,” really. The resistance to decay that makes plastics so versatile means we’re stuck with them long after their useful lives are over.
While the most common types of single-use plastics—those with #1 and #2 resin codes—are easily recyclable, US recycling rates are dismal, hovering around a scant seven percent, according to the EPA. In 2017, 8.4% of plastics were recycled, but that figure could see a dramatic drop if more Asian countries enact anti-import laws, which already caused the 2018 rate to drop to 4.4%. That figure includes bioplastics made from plant matter, rather than oil, which are only an environmental boon if they’re actually composted.
Consequently, much of the wasteful, single-use plastic consumed worldwide either ends up in landfills or as litter on land and in the streams and rivers that lead to the ocean. Around 0.2 to 0.3 percent of plastic production worldwide eventually ends up in the ocean, write Mike Neal and Dr. Anthony Andrady in a 2009 research paper published in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transitions B. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but consider that more than 500 billion single-use plastic bags are given away worldwide each year, according to the Pacific Regional Environment Programme. Do the math, and you have hundreds of millions of plastic bags blowing into the ocean every day. Then add in the other types of plastic trash, and you end up with a mind-boggling amount of plastic floating out to sea.
This plastic comes from a variety of sources—dumped from ships, blown in from landfills and litterbugs, or washed away from trash-strewn beaches. But the effect it has is the same: So much plastic has now pooled in the oceans that birds and marine life are getting sick from it.
Dr. Wallace J. Nichols has studied sea turtles since he was a kid. As a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences, and co-founder of the ecotourism nonprofit SEEtheWILD.org, Nichols spends a lot of time on the world’s beaches and in the oceans—and what he’s seen isn’t pretty. He calls sea turtles “the poster animal for the effects of plastic pollution.”
“They get hit with this stuff at every stage of their lives,” says Nichols. “[I’ve seen] turtles climbing over plastic to get to where they nest. When hatchlings come up, they are sometimes stuck in or behind plastics.”
The problem isn’t just on the beaches, but in the middle of the ocean, where plastics can float thousands of miles away from land.
“They’ll eat plastic because they think it’s food,” he says. “If they come upon a big plastic bag, they bite it and use their flipper to try to rip pieces off, and so they get tangled in it. I’ve pulled turtles out of plastic bags that were slowly amputating their flippers.”
Turn to a news story on plastics in the ocean, and you’ll often find mention of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a system of rotating currents in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where alarmingly high concentrations of plastic trash have been trapped.
But while the Garbage Patch provides a troubling mental picture, Nichols would like everyone to focus instead on the plastic directly in front of them.
“The idea of this patch of trash in the middle of the ocean is provocative, but I don’t think people should be misled to think that’s where the problem is,” he says. “In the next ten minutes, I’ll walk past plastic on the side of the road that’s on its way to some body of water and could end up in the ocean.
“The Plastic Garbage Patch isn’t some mystical patch far away: It’s all around us. It’s in your shopping cart.”
The Plastic Chemical Burden
It’s not just marine life that’s getting hit—plastics affect human health, too. Every type of plastic contains a host of chemicals to make them strong, malleable, and resistant to decay.
“Plastics are rarely used by themselves; typically, the resins are mixed with other materials called ‘additives’ to enhance performance,” write Andrady and Neal. “These may include inorganic fillers (e.g. carbon or silica) to reinforce the plastic material, thermal stabilizers to allow the plastics to be processed at high temperatures, plasticizers to render the material pliable and flexible, fire retardants to discourage ignition and burning, and UV stabilizers to prevent degradation when exposed to sunlight. Colorants, matting agents, and [additives for opacity and lustre] might also be used ... .”
Several studies have found a link between just one of these additives—bisphenol-A (BPA)—and hormone disruption, which can lead to birth defects, obesity, diabetes, and cancer. But avoiding toxins like BPA may not be as simple as avoiding certain types of plastics.
A study published in the July 2011 issue of Environment Health Perspectives looked at 500 diverse types of commercially available plastic products, from packaging to water and baby bottles to bags. The researchers found that particularly when the plastics were heated by sunlight, microwaved, or exposed to moist heat through boiling or dishwashing, they released estrogen-mimicking hormone disruptors—regardless of their resin code and even when labeled “BPA-free”. Even low doses of a hormone disruptor can adversely affect humans.
In other words, even the previously presumed “safe” #1, 2, 4, and 5 plastics can release toxins.
Also, write the study authors, “the exact chemical composition of almost any commercially available plastic part is proprietary and not known. A single part may consist of 5–30 chemicals, and a plastic item containing many parts (e.g., a baby bottle) may consist of [more than] 100 chemicals, almost all of which can leach from the product, especially when stressed.”
A Plastic-Free Life
Green America member Beth Terry knows that it’s not realistic to ask people to give up all plastics. But, she feels that if everyone could be more mindful about curbing wasteful, single-use plastic, we could create powerful, lasting change for the better.
In 2007, shortly after seeing Al Gore’s climate-change film An Inconvenient Truth, Terry was feeling disheartened about worldwide environmental crises and looking for a way to take meaningful action. Then she stumbled upon a photo on the Internet of a dead albatross whose stomach was filled with bottlecaps and other plastic bits.
“It was the kind of stuff I use in my everyday life,” she says. “That really hit home, because I suddenly made this connection between my personal actions and harm to another creature.”
So she asked, would it be possible for someone to live without plastic?
She set up a spreadsheet to track her plastic waste—similar to one she’d used to track her miles while training for a marathon. (“Giving up plastic wasn’t all that different!” she says.) Like Freinkel, Terry was shocked by the amount of plastic she’d accumulated in a week. Then, she started taking steps to curb it.
She quickly realized that two small actions had a very big impact: replacing single-use plastic grocery bags with reusable bags, and giving up bottled water.
Then, she started buying items in bulk, particularly from stores where she could bring her own reusable containers to get food from bulk bins. From there, the project spiraled into an ongoing challenge to live a plastic-free life.
Today, if there’s a reusable alternative to plastic, Terry undoubtedly uses it. She’s stopped eating frozen convenience foods (almost always packaged in plastic), started an organic garden, makes her own cosmetics, and more. She shares her efforts with the thousands of people who visit her blog, and in spring 2012, she’ll publish a book called Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and You Can Too on the subject.
Terry still tracks her plastic waste on her blog, where she invites others to join her for at least a week. In 2010, her plastic trash was two percent of the US average, one small bagful over the entire year.
“You can’t just replace one plastic thing with another thing; it also has to be about reducing consumption,” she advises.
A Challenge for Green Americans
The most efficient and cost-effective solution to the harm plastic does to human health and the environment is to refuse wasteful single-use plastic.
Try removing one type of disposable plastic from your life every week, starting with grocery bags and water bottles. From there, be mindful about the plastics you allow into your life. On the pages that follow, you’ll get our best tips to help.
When you need reusable plastic items, purchase those that can be easily recycled by your municipal waste program or by companies that take back their products.
Encourage recycling, and keep plastics away from heat and sunlight to prevent chemical leaching.
“If everybody cut their plastic use in half, it would be a big deal,” says Nichols.
He notes that though it’s easy to get caught up in the bad news about plastic pollution, people should know that they have the power to directly change it.
“We have better, reusable alternatives to most of the stuff that gets picked up on beach clean-ups all over the world,” he says. “We used to use many of them. We need to use them again.”