By Dianna Cohen
Look around you. Our world is full of single-use plastic, meant to be used once and thrown away. And though some of it — depending on the type of plastic — could potentially be recycled or downcycled, the truth is that the majority of it becomes instant garbage, and much of it is winds up fouling our oceans and environment.
While our modern society no doubt depends on, and often benefits from, numerous products made from plastics and synthetic materials, we all too frequently default to single-use and disposables when there are perfectly good, often better and certainly healthier and longer lasting — perhaps even natural, alternatives.
To illustrate the point, consider a meal at your local eatery. Food may well be served to you on a single-use plastic plate with disposable plastic utensils. Often, your drink will come with a plastic straw – the cup itself made of plastic. If the restaurant serves wine, enjoy, but it’s possible the bottle will be sealed with a plastic stopper or aluminum screw cap lined with a plastic coating. When it’s time to leave, your leftovers may well be handed to you in a plastic or polystyrene container.
Is all this plastic a good thing? The world produces 300 million tons of plastic each year — and while much of it may be marketed as “disposable,” in the U.S, less than 22 percent of the material is actually recycled. As actor, activist and Plastic Pollution Coalition ambassador Jeff Bridges says in a new video: “Plastic is a material the earth cannot digest. Every piece of plastic ever made is still with us.” It continues to accumulate in the environment, to leach toxins into our groundwater and foul our oceans. And harmful chemicals leached by plastics are present in the bloodstream and tissue of almost every one of us, including newborns.
Don’t believe the price of convenience in our throwaway culture is too high? Look also at these compelling images by Chris Jordan, which capture plastic pollution in the stomachs of dead, desiccated, adolescent Laysan albatross nesting on Midway Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
These birds are a metaphor for us. We are stuffing ourselves full of plastic and the toxins that leach from plastic into our bodies, and we don’t even know it.
What can we do about it? We can start by refusing and replacing the most common, easily avoidable single-use plastic items in our lives:
- Plastic bags: Carry a reusable bag or bags instead.
- Plastic water bottles: Carry a reusable glass or steel bottle.
- Plastic cups with plastic/polystyrene lids: Carry a reusable glass, ceramic or steel cup.
- Plastic straws: Whether made from oil-based plastics or bioplastics, just say, “no straw please,” when ordering a beverage.
- Plastic wine stopper: Choose wines with real, natural corks.
- Plastic take-out utensils: Bring your own reusable utensil set, or ask for real steel utensils.
- Plastic and polystyrene take-out containers: Bring your own glass, ceramic or steel container.
- Cigarette butts and filters: Yep, they are plastic, too.
While it takes vigilance and effort, the objective should be to avoid ubiquitous, single-use plastic whenever possible. Let’s revisit that local restaurant. You can simply choose to refuse anything single-use, and you can bring your own reusable cup, bottle, to-go container, utensils and bag with you. This is an easy habit to adopt. There are plenty of companies that sell attractive, well-designed, utilitarian and portable cups, bottles, utensils, and straws. A great place to get a plastic-free start is at LifeWithoutPlastic.
The ripple effect from the tiniest examples can be telling. Take plastic wine stoppers: While they may appear to look like natural cork, they are in fact made of plastic derived from petroleum. And exotic workarounds like stoppers made from bioplastics — plant-based plastics — are often made from crops like sugarcane which have their own environmental consequences. And ultimately, they’re still plastic.
There are myriad benefits to be gained from using real stuff. For example, natural cork is sustainably harvested from the bark of a species of oak tree in the Mediterranean, and its vast cork groves are the anchors of a rich ecosystem, providing habitat for hundreds of plant and animal species, while absorbing carbon and doing their part to curb climate change. It’s not only renewable, recyclable and reusable, but it is actually, truly biodegradable. Try putting some corks in your home compost in the yard. Yes, they will actually break down and go back to the soil.
Whether at home, on the road, at cafes or in restaurants, we must push back on the single-use onslaught and demand real stuff: materials that can be reused countless times and whose production contributes to the health and well-being of the planet. At Plastic Pollution Coalition, we have built a global alliance of individuals, organizations, NGOs, businesses, policymakers and academics to develop replicable and sustainable approaches to reduce single-use plastic. Visit our website to learn practical tips to live plastic free, and please join our coalition.
By making conscious choices every day about the materials we use, and by refusing single-use and disposable plastic products, we can make a huge difference collectively. If we’re really serious about reducing our carbon footprint, let’s start by reducing our “plastic footprint.”
When in doubt, simply use real stuff.
Image credit: Flickr/Kate Ter Harr
Dianna Cohen is CEO and Co-Founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition.