It’s impossible to grocery shop in the United States without coming across single-use plastic. We put our produce selections into thin plastic bags before we put it in the cart. Premade meals are in plastic wrap or containers. Take out is in plastic with utensils made of, you guessed it, plastic. Straws, candy wrappers, water bottles, the list goes on and on and on.
How is plastic packaging affecting our environment? Keep reading and find out. Along the way, we’ll include any solutions or tips that can help you do your part.
What Is Plastic?
Quite a few components fall under the general category of plastic. They are synthetic materials created from natural sources like coal, natural gas, salt, cellulose, and crude oil. In 1988, The Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) created a system to classify plastics by numbers one through seven. The classification distinguishes whether it can be recycled.
Types of Plastic
You can typically find the SPI code at the bottom of your container. The number inside the round-edged triangle stands for the categories listed below.
Type 1 - Polyethylene Terephthalate
Type 2 - High-Density Polyethylene
Type 3 - Polyvinyl Chloride
Type 4 - Low-Density Polyethylene
Type 5 - Polypropylene
- Able to stand high temperatures and is durable
- Used for margarine containers, yogurt pots, syrup bottles, lunch boxes, plastic caps, and prescription bottles
- Recycled on occasion.
Type 6 - Polystyrene
Type 7 - All the Other Plastics
How Is Plastic Impacting The Environment?
Some of the plastics in those seven categories are commonly thrown into the recycling bin while others not so often. That doesn’t mean your plastics are actually recycled. We think when we throw our empty milk bottles into the blue or green container near our garbage that we are green but, as it leaves our sight. it also leaves our mind.
The fact is, only nine percent of the plastic created in the world is recycled. It was first created in 1907, since then humans have created more than 8 billion metric tons of synthetic polymers. Plastics take more than 400 years to break down, which is horrifying to comprehend. Ninety-one percent of it is somewhere taking up space and littering our Earth.
Where Does It End Up?
We think our recycled plastic is disposed of responsibly or we don’t recycle. Either way, here are a few places your used SOLO cups might end up.
Waste handling facilities tend to dig large holes called landfills to dispose of our waste. Unfortunately, a lot of the plastic we use ends up in that landfill, which is harmful to us and the environment. Many of the plastics we listed are toxic, and they bleed into the soil surrounding that landfill. From there it can reach our drinking water.
When you take a hike down the local riverbed or go fishing and see a plastic shopping bag spinning in a breeze or hanging from a tree branch odds are it made its way there because someone didn’t dispose of it correctly. Litterbugs are all around us and the overwhelming amount of cigarette butts, which are made from plastic.
In the middle of North America and sitting between Canada and the United States sits one of the most massive bodies of freshwater in the world called the Great Lakes. It is composed of five connecting lakes by the names of Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. In this one small corner of the globe over 22 million pounds of plastic find their way in it every year.
Have you heard of garbage island? Well, it isn’t truly an island. It’s a mass of garbage that collects in oceans where they create natural whirlpools. Debris finds its way there when new waters come in and go out. Water bottles and garbage bags aren’t the only types of plastic found in these garbage patches in the oceans.
A lot of it is small pieces of plastic, or microplastics, that are too fine to remove easily. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration likened it to pepper flakes floating in a bowl of soup.
The fish in the ocean eat these small pieces of plastic believing they are plankton. Birds have been found dead with stomachs filled with all types of plastic. We’ve seen turtles whose shells had to grow around plastic six-pack rings and images of whales washing up on the beach dead from consuming too much plastic.
Marine animals are not the only ones who are impacted by this excess of polymers on our planet. Bears get their heads stuck in them, raccoons mistake plastic for food, and deer have died from getting twine stuck in their antlers.
Food and Water
Due to sewage, which distributes a good portion of microplastics, is commonly used to fertilize fields. Those tiny plastic pieces wind up in our dirt. This change in the ground affects the way the earthworm burrows, which changes the composition of the soil.
Certain plastics release chemicals in the soil, which end up in local water sources and the surrounding ecosystem. These added synthetics leach chemicals into the drinking water.
How Can I Help?
We are glad that you asked. There are quite a few things you can do your part to help lessen the impact of plastic on the environment. Here are some suggestions from Eathday.org.
Try to figure out how much you use. We realize that it is impossible to stop using plastics all together, but there are ways in which we can diminish how much we put into the system. Products like peanut butter, milk, and mustard come in glass jars as well as plastic. Choose those instead.
I’ve stopped purchasing new plastic containers for leftovers. I reuse what I have and wash sturdy take-out containers make use of those as well. Wash out those empty glass jars that once held your mustard or peanut butter. They make versatile containers for everything from nails to salad dressings.
Don’t purchase bottled water. Install a water filter to your faucet or get a filtered pitcher. Get a reusable bottle made from metal and make it a habit of bringing it with you wherever you go. Most places will allow you to fill your water bottle for free. You can take it one step further and bring your reusable bottles and mugs to the coffee shop instead of using disposable ones.
Ask for glass opposed to plastic cups when out and refuse a straw. Don’t use plastic beverage tops when out.
When you come across plastic trash outside of your home pick it up and throw it away. It’s a shame everyone can’t take care of themselves, but we need to be proactive if we want to make a difference.
This step goes a bit further than putting your plastics into a designated container. Make sure you are recycling appropriately and cleaning out your plastics before putting them in the bin. Return those plastic shopping bags to stores that recycle them. Water filters are made from plastic and need to be recycled appropriately. Do your research and know how it works in your area then comply.
Join the rest of us in doing our part to let the rest of the people in our communities know how to help as well. Start a group, join a local environmental party in your area. Vote for candidates that support eco-friendly initiatives and focused on diminishing plastic waste. There are plenty of ways you can get involved.
Where Are We Headed?
Scientists project that by the year 2050 humans will have created and wasted 26 billions tons of plastic. Elephants weigh anywhere from 2.5 to 7 tons, so it is difficult to imagine that amount of decaying plastic. Currently, our oceans there is roughly the equivalent of 25 million elephants, and the number climbs higher every year.
In The End
We still believe humans can make a difference and turn around the negative impact our species is having on this planet. It is imperative that we all work together, educate each other, and find innovative new ways to lighten the impact of single-use plastic in our society.