Care2 Earth Month: Back to Basics
This year, Care2 decided to expand Earth Day into Earth Month, since there is so much to explore when it comes to the environment. Every day in April, we’ll have a post about some of the most important topics for the environment, exploring and explaining the basics. It’s a great tool to help you get started with helping the environment — or help explain it to others. See the whole series here.
No modern substance has insinuated itself into daily life more thoroughly than plastic. Made from oil and natural gas, containing toxic chemicals and confoundingly durable, plastic is everywhere, causing massive environmental damage and posing a health danger to people and other living things.
The production and daily use of plastics has multiple known negative effects on our health. Chemicals from plastic migrate into our bodies and are linked to occurrences of cancer, asthma, skin diseases, endocrine disruption, birth defects, and more.
Research into the health effects of plastic continues to uncover plastic problems. A recent Swedish study claims that exposure to the phthalates found in plastics (in clothing, some paint, printing ink, food wrap, even blood bags) could double the risk of adult onset diabetes among older people.
Plastic is light-weight and long-lasting; the same qualities that make it useful also make it a scourge when it is released in huge amounts into the environment. Some 10 million tons (20 billion pounds) of plastic enters the ocean each year, where it swirls and circulates for decades without breaking down. The plastic is swept by currents into enormous vortices, such as the so-call Pacific Garbage Patch, a stretch of ocean the size of Texas containing six pounds of plastic for every pound of plankton. Marine birds, mammals and sea creatures consume the plastic and the chemicals are passed along the food chain, killing and poisoning creatures at every step. The plastic doesn’t all float. Greenpeace reports that about 70 percent of it sinks to the bottom, where it litters the sea floor, further disturbing marine life and health.
But It Gets Recycled, Right?
While there has been a huge growth in the number of recycling companies and efforts in the US and elsewhere, very little of the plastic created is recycled or otherwise recovered. Plastic comprises 12.4% (or 30 million pounds) of the 250 million pounds of solid waste generated in the US. every year. An estimated 2,480,000 tons of plastic bottles and jars were disposed of in 2008. What doesn’t jam our landfills ends up moving, via storm drains and watersheds, to clog waterway, damage marine ecosystems and enter the food chain.
According to the EPA, in 2010 just over 12 percent of plastic containers and packaging discarded was recycled, mostly from soft drink, milk, and water bottles. In comparison, over 33 percent of glass containers were recycled while about 23 percent of wood packaging, mostly wood pallets, was recovered (i.e., not sent to landfill).
The U.S. has a long way to go in plastic recycling; other countries are showing the way. Plastic recycling is at 33 percent in the European Union, but Japan leads the world with a 77 percent plastic recycling rate.That success is attributed to a combination of laws and regulations, technological innovation around recycling, and public awareness. Japanese businesses and consumer have been required to separate plastics from other trash since 1997. Certainly culture plays a role in environmental sensitivity, along with a the pressure of the lack of landfill space for a crowded island nation.
Bag Bans Carry Weight
Alternatives to plastic are feasible, but what really needs to be addressed is the notion of disposable or single-use packaging and containers. No matter what material we use, throwing away, burning, or otherwise getting rid of anything after a brief single use is not feasible in a world of limited space and seven billion people. A growing number of cities and counties in the U.S. and around the world have enacted forms of plastic bag bans; the website plasticbaglaws.org has information and resources for how to structure laws to discourage single-use plastic bags.
Be mindful. The easiest way to make a difference is to work to take plastic out of your life and reuse all materials. It helps to measure and be mindful. Blogger Beth Terry decided to go plastic-free back in 2007, and she started a blog that details her plastic avoiding adventures along with tips and a guide to going plastic-free.
Get plastic out of your personal food supply. Use glass or ceramic storage containers, skip the plastic bags for produce, and of course, bring your own reusable bags to the supermarket.
Skip the pricey bottled water. there are many attractive refillable water bottles now that will help you save money as well as the planet.
Support plastic bag bans in your city and state.
Take part in neighborhood and waterway cleanups. Not a joiner? Just pick up what you see on your daily walk. In the fight against plastic weight, we can all be effective warriors.
Image: A mute swan reuses plastic to build its nest CC license via Wikimedia