Environmental Issues: Plastic Pollution

Cannon Beach, September 2011

Salty sea breezes, crashing waves and footprints in wet sand. A visit to the beach brings back nostalgic memories of youth, offers opportunities for discovery, and leaves one with a refreshed perspective as we stand before the frothing tide and gaze outward at the vast ocean. When we look at the ocean, we see an immense body of heaving water stretching to a horizon we'll never reach. What we do not see is the alarming volume of plastic churning within those waves.

While holding the title as the singular material responsible for the convenience and ease of our daily lives, plastic is also causing an ecological disaster. I recently attended a workshop put on by the King Conservation District, Horses for Clean Water, and Plastic Ain't Our Bag on the subject of reducing our use of plastics. Although this is an issue with which I've long been familiar, even I was surprised at the information that was presented on the issue as I sat in horrified awe in the classroom at Brightwater Environmental Education Center late one Friday evening.

Plastic by the Numbers

  • 300 million tons of plastic is produced annually
  • More than 8 million tons of plastic enters the oceans annually
  • Of the plastic entering the oceans, 80% comes from watersheds, meaning it is discarded on land and washed into the ocean through rivers, creeks, etc. 
  • Less than 10% of plastic is recycled. It is more cost-effective to produce new plastic than to recycle existing plastic
  • 100% of the plastic ever made is still in existence
  • 50% of the plastic in existence was produced just within the last 13 years [article]

The Problem with Plastic

Plastic seems an innocuous enough material, and we can recycle it, right? So where's the issue?

The biggest problem with plastic is that it never goes away. As noted above, every piece of plastic ever made since the material was introduced during WWII is still in existence today. Plastic does not biodegrade - if it breaks down at all, it simply breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces over time. These plastics typically end up in the marine environment, where they cause big problems. Fish, plankton, and sea birds consume the plastic, which either causes them to be a toxic meal for whichever predator eats them, or kills them outright as their bellies fill with non-digestible plastic, as happens to so many Laysan albatross chicks. It has been estimated that salmon ingest 30 pieces of plastic per day, and whales can ingest 300,000 pieces per day. Alarming for us humans is the finding that the average seafood-eating person consumes 11,000 pieces of plastic per year in the form of micro-plastics that we cannot see.

Another issue with plastic is its toxicity. Made of petroleum and other harmful chemicals, plastic itself is toxic enough. But set bits of plastic loose in the ocean, and they become sponges for other hazardous materials like persistent organic pollutants (POPs) present in the water, causing plastics in the ocean to be one million times more toxic than the seawater around them. One MILLION times more toxic. Makes one consider that perhaps when a piece of plastic washes ashore, it should be roped off for public safety and removed by someone in a hazmat suit.

Consider plastic's persistence and its toxicity, and you've got a recipe for another issue. Plastics and their toxic loads bioaccumulate. This means that with each step up the food chain you go, the greater the concentration of plastic toxins. This is a problem for those animals at the top of the food chain (like humans and orca whales) who can experience adverse health effects such as hormone disruption from toxins accumulating in their tissues.

Recycling is Not the Answer

Especially not now. Just weeks ago, China imposed a ban on importing plastics and mixed paper from the United States, which has left American recycling companies without a market for these materials. You might be thinking hold on a minute - I thought the recycling companies like Waste Management and Republic Services actually recycled the things I put in my curbside bin? I thought so too, but as it turns out, those companies typically only collect and sort our recyclables, which are then compressed into bales and sold to other entities who do the actual recycling. Chinese recycling companies have found plastics coming from the US are too contaminated to be feasibly recycled, which means that because we Americans aren't rinsing our laundry detergent jugs and scraping out peanut butter jars well enough, we may now be without an option to recycle our plastic items.

I was shocked to learn of this development when I attended the workshop. Why is no one talking about this, especially the companies who provide our recycling service?! I have heard NOTHING from Waste Management about this problem, although I now have an inquiry in to them to see how they're addressing the issue. We shall see if they respond. In the meantime, the plastic items in our recycling bins may soon be destined for the landfill rather than new life as a recycled item.

[Update 11/10/2017: Waste Management replied to me with this information: The ban limits contaminated recycling from entering the country, but WM is continuing to focus on quality improvement to ensure that the recyclables are clean, high-quality products. Additionally, WM has well-developed relationships with a variety of end-market recycling companies. For example, many recyclables will be shifting to an end market in Spokane, WA by the end of the year. Good news for my recyclables, anyway...]

We All Contribute to the Plastic Problem

You don't have to litter to contribute to the issue of plastic pollution. Even those who dutifully recycle their plastic and who would never consider tossing that empty pop bottle or used plastic fork out the car window are still participating in the problem. If you purchase items packaged in plastic, if you use cleaning products or personal care products containing plastic microbeads, if you wear synthetic clothing, if you use any plastic in your life at all - and that's all of us - then you're complicit. We pollute waterways with plastic simply by showering, washing laundry, and cleaning the house, so it's important that we recognize our part in creating the problem, and our responsibility to address it, by making changes in our own lives and as consumers demanding that manufacturers do the same.

Just think about this for a minute... when you purchase a six-pack of soda or beer, what do you do with the plastic rings that hold them together? We all do what we were told, which is to cut the rings so that no animal, fish, or bird can become entangled in it. Then we toss it in the garbage. We are acknowledging, by the very action of cutting the rings apart, that this piece of plastic will likely end up in the environment after leaving our possession, whether in the ocean or on land, and we do not want to be responsible for entangling and killing a wild creature.

Okay, so we have a material that is persistent, toxic, produced in huge volumes, and soon may not be recyclable. This is not sustainable.

It's time to consider a new approach to our lives that involves less plastic. Much less. No plastic, if possible. It will be better for our own health, better for the oceans, better for wildlife and the environment as a whole. Plastic pollution is an enormous issue. I presented an overview of the problem here, and in an upcoming Going Green post I'll share some solutions, after I do some investigating and experimentation with my own routine to find plastic-free options that work. In the meantime, here are some simple steps you can take right away to reduce your use of plastics:
  • Reusable grocery bags. Keep them in your car, and you'll always have them at the ready.
  • Reusable (non-plastic!) water bottles and hot beverage travel mugs.
  • Say no to plastic straws and silverware: stash a reusable metal or glass straw and a spork in your bag for dining out.
  • Ban microbeads. Forego the soaps, toothpaste and cleaning products with microbeads and opt for more environmentally-friendly options with natural ingredients. Healthier for you, too!
  • Avoid purchasing products packaged in plastic. For instance, give regular old hand towels a try in place of those Costco paper towels, which are individually wrapped in plastic, then wrapped in more plastic to hold them all together. Being able to recognize excessive plastic packaging for what it is - rather than assuming it's normal - is an important first step in making these changes!
Stay tuned for more.

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  1. Thanks for this post Lainey. I have been very concerned about plastics since I participated in the annual beach cleanup on the WA coast in 2014. There needs to be a global ban but we know that isn't going to happen. So easy to slip and be complacent. Hard when I buy contact solution, toothpaste, lip glass, many products sold in excessive plastic packaging, etc. Have you read Cradle to Cradle? It lays out the ideal path....but...huge uphill struggle, especially in the current US political climate.

    1. I haven't read Cradle to Cradle, but I have heard of it! I will have to check that one out.

      We absolutely need to move away from using plastics, but sadly I don't see that ever happening completely. Plastic is too cheap and convenient compared to the alternatives, and I think most people will choose convenience over the environment. It was interesting though... when I went to the workshop, there were a few women there in their 50's or so, who commented that they remembered life without plastic during their childhoods - so it is possible!

      Someone needs to start a chain of stores where you can bring your reusable containers to get refills of commonly used things like soap, shampoo, laundry detergent, toothpaste, etc. Having to buy a brand-new plastic container every time is so wasteful, and many of those things are too time-consuming for the average person to try and make at home themselves. We did make some toothpaste at the workshop out of baking soda, coconut oil and peppermint essential oil... but I'll be honest, it tasted awful!


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