Plastic is an incredibly useful material and it has revolutionized our lives. Plastic is cheap to manufacture and easy to manipulate for countless uses. It can be thin and pliable, or hard and sturdy. The use of this versatile and handy petroleum-derived material has allowed the mass production of products and has kept consumer costs down.
However, plastic has a dark side. As a result of its versatility, plastic has replaced many traditional materials (i.e. wood, metals, glass, stone, paper). Has plastic expanded from revolutionizing our lives, to taking over our lives? More importantly, what are the environmental and health impacts of having this synthetic material literally at our fingertips every single day?
Plastic contains numerous compounds that have been accused of being endocrine disruptors and carcinogens. One of these compounds, bisphenol A or BPA, has been subject to scrutiny because of its likeness to the hormone estrogen. As a result, BPA in plastics has received negative pressure from consumers and has been outright banned in many countries including France.
Besides harmful chemicals, physical pieces of plastic also pose harm to organisms because plastic does not biodegrade, but instead photodegrades. When plastic is exposed to solar radiation, it breaks down into smaller pieces. Pieces of plastic become smaller and smaller until they become microscopic. This means, that although we many not be able to see it, every ounce of plastic ever created is still in existence today!
There are many documentaries that focus on plastic and its overwhelming role as a litter nuisance and as troublesome pollution: Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Addicted to Plastic, Plastic Planet, Plastic Shores, Bag It: Is your life too plastic? An overarching theme to these documentaries is the way plastic pollution is impacting our oceans and marine life. And people seem to be listening.
Clean up projects, like The Ocean Clean Up Project, have huge potential to remove plastic pollution from our oceans. However, these projects only target plastic pollution on the surface. According to the U.S. EPA, only 46% of plastics float. Therefore, these clean up efforts cannot reach more than half of the plastic discarded in our oceans.
So, while removing plastic from our environment is important, this only treats the symptoms of a larger problem: our large consumption of single use plastic products. It is important to recycle plastic when possible. However, plastic is a complex material, so to is the complexity of recycling it. Many factors influence the ability to recycle plastic. For instance the type, grade, and purity, as well as what method was used to manufacture the original plastic, can determine whether a municipality can recycle the product. (Find out what you can recycle in Columbus, Ohio and where to recycle other materials.)
Better yet, we should break the plastic addiction. Reduce plastic pollution by choosing products that do not contain plastic. Choose a reusable glass water bottle over a plastic one. Avoid using single use items made from plastic (i.e. plastic plates and cutlery). Another easy action is to bring your reusable bag to the store instead of accepting a plastic bag for every purchase. Learn more about ways to reduce your plastic consumption and read about the Zero Waste Initiative.
“It’s the little things that citizens do. That’s what will make the difference.”
– Wangari Maathai, Environmental and Political Activist
Want to know more about plastic? Watch the mentioned documentaries or read Jerome Groopman’s in-depth article, “The Plastic Panic“.