The global plastic problem is blowing up, and action is needed at every level—individual, business, government, science/tech, and design.
What we can do as individuals, starting today.
A major wake up call on the plastic issue came in June 2018, when a new study showed plastic piling up in overwhelmed recycling systems across the US and the rest of the world, because of China's recent ban on plastic waste imports. China has been the destination for 45% of the world's plastic trash, including large amounts of plastic sorted for recycling. The implications are ominous—less reuse through recycling, more landfill, more plastic in our waters.
Even before China said basta, a groundbreaking research project conducted at The University of Georgia in 2015 found approximately 18 billion pounds of plastic flows into the oceans every year. Visualize five grocery bags of plastic trash stacked on every foot of coastline around the globe.
All this plastic is estimated to take hundreds to thousands of years to breakdown, turning into microplastic—tiny particles that accumulate and get into every thread in the web of life. The take-away message, so to speak, is that single-use plastic consumption and production have to be dramatically reduced. We're running out of places to put all this petroleum based perma-crap. It's killing sealife, and microplastics are getting into our bodies through seafood and drinking water.
In short, a few minutes of convenience = a problem that lasts forever.
The magnitude of the plastic problem is so great, it was the 2018 focus issue for the UN's World Environment Day and for Earth Day, spawning campaigns across the globe including the #rethinkplastic and #strawsSUCK movements (see resources at post end).
Ready for action?
Ditch single use disposable straws, bags, bottles, cutlery, cups and food packaging. Say no whenever possible, recycle, and pick up cool reusable alternatives.
Plastic straws suck, in both senses of the word. They were the fifth most common item found in the most recent Ocean Conservancy marine pollution survey.
While straws are kind of fun, I can't help but think: is a few minutes of suction delight worth it, knowing that same plastic straw may wind up stuck in a sea turtle's nose? Plus, the human mouth is pretty well designed for drinking without them. That said, if you or your kids want the straw experience, why not do it in style with stainless steel straws? There are also paper and glass options out there, and even bamboo for a refined castaway look.
1 million plastic bottles are bought every minute—nearly 20,000 per second. Skipping plastic bottled water is a no-brainer. While it's harder to find other beverages in glass or metal, there are usually some in every store. I've gotten creative with DIY juices and green drinks, making them in the morning and taking them to go in a reusable bottle. I recommend going with stainless steel or glass., since research on chemical leaching in plastic bottles demonstrates health risks.
My top pick from a design view has to be the brand S'well. They're also woman-owned, a certified B Corporation, and they partner with UNICEF on clean water access projects. Another standout is Ello, for their glass bottles protected with decorative silicone sleeves. For travel and hiking, my go-to is Klean Kanteen, a pioneer in the reusables movement. Their no-nonsense stainless steel bottles are super durable and are available with a variety of caps, including bamboo.
Single use plastic bags.
In the US, shoppers use approximately one single-use plastic bag per resident each day. Shoppers in Denmark use an average of four plastic bags a year. Worldwide, a trillion single-use plastic bags are consumed per year—about 2 million every minute. The vast majority are not recycled. Bans and taxes have helped take a small bite out of the plastic bag scourge. But it's a monumental battle, as use-and-toss habits take hold in Asia and South America, and rage on here at home.
Getting into the BYOB (Bring Your Own Bag) habit makes it simple to say "no...thanks, I have one" at check out. Most of us own a few tote bags already, since they are common swag or gifts. If you're looking to buy a super-green tote that's also ethically made, Eco Bags offers certified organic cotton and recycled cotton options. For a pocket-sized solution, keep a folding bag on hand.
Disposable Coffee Cups & Lids.
It’s estimated that 50 billion coffee cups are being thrown away in the USA every year. There is a common misconception that paper coffee cups are recyclable. In fact, only 1 in 400 coffee cups are recycled. They problem is two-pronged. Most coffee cups are tossed in the regular trash, and those that do make it into recycling bins usually aren't recycled. The issue is that “paper” cups are actually a hard-to-separate combination of paper and a plastic liner (polyethylene). This mixed material means they cannot simply be recycled with paper or cardboard, and end up in landfill. Coffee cup lids are bad news too. Made of EPS (aka, styrofoam), they can't be recycled.
If you're ready to start bringing your own cup but don't want to deal with the bulk of carrying a 3D cup, try the ingenious Stojo. A collapsible, heat-resistant cup, the Stojo turns into a flat disk ready to slip into a purse, bag or pocket. The lid seals too, so you can stroll into your local coffee spot and get served eco-style. For a thermal mug option, S'well gets big points again, for their selection and lovely designs. Ello's camp mug inspired offerings are a great choice too. I especially like the elegant natural cork detailing.
Cutlery (Forks, knives, spoons).
For to-go situations, my staple is a bamboo fork, knife, spoon set. It comes in a handy compact, washable sleeve and is very inexpensive. If you’re planning a party or picnic, there are also packs of lightweight bamboo utensils available that can be reused.
Bamboo rocks because it is a fast-growing grass that doesn't require chemical inputs. It also decomposes completely into organic material when composted. This is a real selling point over compostable or biodegradable plastics—many require special conditions only found in certain industrial composting systems. If they do wind up in the right composting conditions, most will simply breakdown into microplastic faster than conventional plastic. So, if you do try biodegradables, keep in mind there is a lot of greenwashing in this product category. The Biodegradable Products Institute is a third party certifier for bio-based wares for independent verification.
As a busy urbanite, I can't ignore the elephant in the room - food delivery. Kicking back and ordering delivery is one of modern life's great pleasures. Yes, it also generates a lot of plastic waste (sorry!!). Living sustainably is not about achieving perfection. It's a process of making better decisions and living consciously. Saying "no plastic cutlery" when ordering helps, and Seamless even has a clickable option: "Spare me the napkins & plasticware. I'm trying to save the earth".
By now all these mind-boggling plastic consumption stats are probably becoming mind-numbing, so I'll just summarize the plastic packaging waste data by saying 40% of all plastic produced is packaging.
When making purchasing decisions, try to factor in the packaging. Is it made of renewable materials? recyclable? compostable or biodegradable? Consider buying in bulk, with refillable containers. The Package Free Shop is an amazing online resource, with a brick and mortar shop in NYC. Also check out Life without Plastic for a whole range of functional, reusable food containers to take lunch to work, or bring home restaurant leftovers.
Join Forces with Leaders Fighting the Plastication of Our Planet
To multiply your impact, consider giving dollars or time to these kickass groups:
*Note: any products or companies recommended on this website are selected because I believe they are making a positive difference in the world. Some of them pay me a small amount when my readers make purchases through links in this article. All views expressed on this website are mine. When citing facts and statistics, I attempt to find the most reliable sources available.