Drowning in a Sea of Plastic

< old habit :: the use of single use plastic items like plastic bottles >

I’m packing for the group meeting over lunch:  PowerPoint presentation: check, business cards: check, notepad and pens: check, cell phone: check, anything else?  When I got to the last meeting the coffee was served in a Styrofoam cup: better take along my travel mug.   Last time the lunch was served with plastic silverware that was tossed in the garbage: better take along my own tableware.   Arghh… they still serve bottled water: I’ll pack my own water container filled with tap water.    

Why does this matter?

Plastic is everywhere: water bottles, plastic tableware, plastic wrap on food, the pens we use, the clothing we wear, even the cars trains and planes in which we ride.  Plastics can be lightweight, strong, durable, and easily manufactured.   Worldwide over 300 million tonnes of plastic was manufactured in 2014 and about a quarter of the plastic manufactured (by volume) is used in packaging (WEC, 7).  Other big uses of plastic are in construction, consumer products and transportation.  Example of plastic used for packaging include: the plastic case over some brands of eggs, plastic wrap, as well as water and soda bottles.  Most of the plastic packaging is designed to be use once and then discarded.  About 14% of this packaging material is recycled, about 14% is incinerated, about 40% is put in landfills and 32% is uncollected (WEF, 14).  Of the 14% that is collected for recycling, 4% is unrecyclable, 8% is used in other applications (that may or may not be recycled) and only 2% is returned to the “feedstock” for the next round of plastic products.  The feedstock, or raw material used to manufacture plastic, is currently oil (about 6% of the world production) and natural gas.  The manufacture of plastics currently contributes about 1% to the world’s carbon budget. (WEF, 14)

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What about the 32% that isn’t collected?  Since plastic takes a long time to decompose in the environment, this 32% simply builds up over time, both as illegal dumping as well as in the oceans.  The amount of plastic that is deposited in the oceans is somewhere between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tonnes each year (Jambeck et. al.) with approximately 82% having its origins in Asia (WEF page 22).  The effect on animals in the marine environment can be deadly.  Birds eat the plastic, which cannot be digested, clogging up their digestive track killing them.  This has been well documented for the birds on Midway island in a short documentary MIDWAY a Message from the Gyre available here.  The ocean also grinds up the plastic into pieces small enough to be ingested by animals that eat plankton.  When plastics are manufactured chemicals are added to stabilize, color, and make the plastic more flexible.  These chemicals can leach out of the plastic entering the ocean environment.  Some of these additives (like BPA) are known to be harmful.   

> New Habits? <

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  1. Reduce your use of single use plastics: bottled water, plastic tableware, disposable cups (even paper cups are often coated with plastic on the inside making them unrecyclable), and plastic wrap.  Bring your own water bottle or travel mug, put tableware in your briefcase, knapsack or purse, use containers to store food rather than covering the pot with plastic wrap.
  2. Reuse plastic containers.  When takeout is delivered in plastic, reuse it to store food rather than purchase plastic containers at the store.

3. Repurpose plastic materials for other uses.  Google “repurposing plastic containers” and you will find a large number of suggestions for how you can reuse plastic containers. 

4. Recycle what plastic you use.  This means knowing what plastic is recycled in your neighborhood or workplace.  Recyclable plastic is usually marked with a code (see here for an explanation of the codes) and you should be able to determine which codes are recyclable in your location.

So next time you leave the house, even if you are finished your morning drink, bring your travel mug….

Written by David Larrabee

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