The Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years. Yet, it’s only been a little over 100 years, that one of the major factors threatening wildlife extinction first emerged. Plastic was invented in 1907 by Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a Belgian-born American. While wildly acclaimed a miracle of the ages, mass production of plastics has accelerated so rapidly that it’s created 8.3 billion metric tons - most of it in disposable product that ends up as trash.
He created a a monster . . .
Perhaps had Baekeland realized the threat he was unleashing on the world, he might have thought differently.
“We all knew there was a rapid and extreme increase in plastic production from 1950 until now, but actually quantifying the cumulative number for all plastic ever made was quite shocking,” says Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia environmental engineer who specializes in studying plastic waste.
Researchers a few years back set out to determine how much of a problem we were actually facing. It was predicted that by mid-21st-century, the oceans will contain more plastic waste than fish, ton for ton. By 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills. To put this in perspective, that quantity is 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building.
This realization became a rallying cry to enact change.
The Final Sink
Of the tonnage that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that, only nine percent has been recycled. 79 percent is accumulating in landfills or surfacing in the natural environment as litter. This boils down to the majority of it ending up in the oceans, Earth’s “final sink”
“We weren’t aware of the implications for plastic ending up in our environment until it was already there,” Jambeck says. “Now we have a situation where we have to come from behind to catch up.”
Getting a handle on plastic waste is now such a humungous problem that it calls for a comprehensive, global approach. This takes rethinking plastic chemistry, product design, recycling strategies, and consumer use. The United States ranks behind Europe (30 percent) and China (25 percent) in recycling, the study found. Recycling in the U.S. has remained at nine percent since 2012.
Harmful to our wildlife . . .
From crabs using wrappers as camouflage to hyenas sorting through mounds of trash for food, our animals are having a difficult time coping with the problem.
According to National Geographic’s Elaina Zachos, “Whales surfacing with discarded trash bags bursting from their stomachs. Birds building homes out of broken glass and plastic pieces. An old shopping bag found thousands of feet below the ocean's surface in the world’s deepest trench.”
Birds will use plastic to construct nests, since the material so readily available. And animals such as seals and turtles frequently become entangled in discarded plastic “ghost nets.”
What can we do?
While plastic has become commonplace in our everyday lives, there are ways to diminish its pernicious affects.
Some folks have gone to the extreme to make their lives virtually plastic-free, but other measures are more immediately achievable.
For starters, giving up plastic bags, straws, and bottles are some basic-every-day steps we can take to reduce our plastic waste. Buying in bulk and avoiding items packaged in plastic also helps, since about 40 percent of non-fiber plastics are created from single-use packaging. Recycling when possible and not littering will also cut down on plastic pollution.
The Green Education Foundation has listed other ways:
- Use a reusable produce bag. A single plastic bag can take 1,000 years to degrade. Purchase or make your own reusable produce bag and be sure to wash them often!
- Give up gum. Gum is made of a synthetic rubber, aka plastic.
- Buy boxes instead of bottles. Often, products like laundry detergent come in cardboard which is more easily recycled than plastic.
- Purchase food, like cereal, pasta, and rice from bulk bins and fill a reusable bag or container. You save money and unnecessary packaging.
- Reuse containers for storing leftovers or shopping in bulk.
- Use a reusable bottle or mug for your beverages, even when ordering from a to-go shop
- Bring your own container for take-out or your restaurant doggy-bag since many restaurants use styrofoam.
- Use matches instead of disposable plastic lighters or invest in a refillable metal lighter.
- Avoid buying frozen foods because their packaging is mostly plastic. Even those that appear to be cardboard are coated in a thin layer of plastic. Plus you'll be eating fewer processed foods!
- Don't use plastic-ware at home and be sure to request restaurants do not pack them in your take-out box.
- Ask your local grocer to take your plastic containers (for berries, tomatoes, etc.) back. If you shop at a farmers market they can refill it for you.
- The EPA estimates that 7.6 billion pounds of disposable diapers are discarded in the US each year. Use cloth diapers to reduce your baby's carbon footprint and save money.
- Make fresh squeezed juice or eat fruit instead of buying juice in plastic bottles. It's healthier and better for the environment.
- Make your own cleaning products that will be less toxic and eliminate the need for multiple plastic bottles of cleaner.
- Pack your lunch in reusable containers and bags. Also, opt for fresh fruits and veggies and bulk items instead of products that come in single serving cups.
- Use a razor with replaceable blades instead of a disposable razor
Primary Source: National Geographic