We have all heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—the plastic mass twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean. Most of this 617,000 square-mile vortex of floating trash is food-related plastic, everything from discarded fishing nets to water bottles. We have become dependent on plastics, and now we are drowning in them.
This plastic island is a painful reminder of our impact on the world. It’s easy to push this image out of our mind, to think, “That’s not myplastic in the ocean. I recycle.” But most plastic isn’t recycled, and scientists say that of the 8 million tons of plastic ever produced, most of it has become waste. The continent of floating plastic should come to mind each time we enter the grocery store, pack lunches, and purchase take-out food. Every time we put produce in a plastic bag at the grocery store or buy overpackaged products, we are contributing to plastic pollution.
Many of us grew up with sandwiches wrapped in wax paper, cola and milk in glass bottles, and groceries carried home in paper bags. We survived without plastic then, so we should be able to do so now. It’s time to change the way we do things—time to end our obsession with single-use plastics and save our rivers and oceans. It’s not impossible, but it will require commitment.
Plastic through time
It’s difficult to imagine that plastic was once celebrated as protector of nature. Pool balls were among the first plastic products, produced as an alternative to ivory from elephant tusks and introduced in 1869. Over the years, plastic replaced horn, bone, tortoiseshell and, as it evolved, steel in cars, wood in furniture, and paper and glass in packaging. Plastic is inexpensive, easy to manufacture, versatile, and waterproof. We produce and consume it without limits—and until recently, we didn’t think about how it is damaging the natural environment and ourselves.Now it’s time to reduce how much plastic we use. Here’s how:
7 R’s to shake our dependence
“Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot (in that order) is my family’s secret to reducing its annual trash,” says Bea Johnson, bestselling author of Zero Waste Home. (To make it seven, we can add “rally” and “readapt.”) What began as a blog has turned into an international movement toward waste-free living. Johnson has created a shopping kit whose items looks very familiar to those of us who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s. Her alternatives to plastic food wrapping and storage include glass jars, stainless-steel containers, cotton and burlap produce bags, and fiber shopping bags. We cancome full circle. And let’s not blindly believe that recycling is the solution. It should be our last resort.
Refuse and reduce
Say no to single-use plastic. That means being prepared to turn down plastic bags, straws, utensils, water bottles, produce bags, and garbage bags. Scientists estimate that it takes from 450 years to forever for plastic to break down in our landfills. Many communities have turned away from single-use plastic shopping bags, and Seattle became the first major city in the U.S. to ban plastic eating utensils and straws (though that scarcely puts a crimp in the staggering number of straws that Americans use every day). Pay attention to product packaging and let it dictate your shopping decisions. Consume less.
Saying no means having alternatives handy. Carry a stainless-steel straw, reusable utensils, and a hot/cold travel mug. Invest in reusable glass or stainless-steel containers for storage and lunches. Bring your own container to restaurants for takeout or leftovers. Buy food in bulk, using refillable bags, glass jars, or recyclable paper containers. Use cotton and mesh shopping and produce bags. Purchase or sew your own cloth bags for produce, bulk dry food, bread, sandwiches, and nuts. You can even make your own reusable cloth shopping bag from a T-shirt. Use empty pet food bags for garbage or re-use grocery, bread, and chips bags. And pledge to never to buy plastic bottled water. If you don’t like plain tap water, buy a water filter for taste or a carbonation machine for bubbles.
Take action. Sourcing organic produce and meat used to be difficult. Not anymore. Voicing our concerns regarding plastic packaging can change things. Consumer choices mean voting with our dollars. Some big-box stores like Costcoare working to reduce their use of plastics, and asking retailers to reduce plastic packaging and boycott plastic-packaged products can move them forward faster.
Contact your local elected leaders, urging them to support not just plastic bans but plastic alternatives. Vote for candidates committed to protecting and improving our environment. Encourage your friends and family to make changes regarding their plastic use. Challenge them to reduce consumption of single-use plastic by taking National Geographic’s Planet or Plastic Pledge.
The kitchen is a plastic hotspot, so start there. If you do nothing else to reduce your single-use plastics, buy a supply of French canning jars. Bea Johnson’s family owns 100 of them. They eliminate foil, plastic wrap, wax paper, and zip-lock bags. They are dishwasher safe, have lids attached, and rubber seals prevent leaks. Jars can also be used to store bulk food, pack snacks, and freeze leftovers.
Large stainless-steel containers are ideal for bigger items like meat, fish, and poultry. Swing-top bottles are spill proof for oils and vinegars. Jars look orderly on shelves and can be recycled if they break. Learn how to make your own reusable food wrapwith beeswax. Share the love and give it as gifts.
Innovations like bioplastics and ocean-cleaning technologies are all a step in the right direction, but they do not address the real problem: plastic consumption. If we change the way we shop and store food, we change the garbage we produce. Readapting means trying something new, changing our daily habits. Grow your own food. If you don’t have space, join a community garden.
If your city doesn’t offer green bin services, compostnatural materials like food scraps, cardboard, and clothing. Build a worm compostbin to handle your fruits, vegetables, cooked foods, tea bags, and coffee grounds. Paper bags, paper straws, and wooden stir sticks are better than plastic ones. Certified compostable bags are better than biodegradable ones, which can still leave tiny pieces of plastic.
Recycle—the last resort
The plastic industry first came up with the solution of recycling in the 1980s. But most recycling infrastructures in our cities are inefficient. Only one fifth of the world’s trash is being recycled. Until recently, many Western states sent much of their recycling to China. However, China has now placed heavy restrictions on importing foreign garbage and no longer accepts “impure loads” of garbage that recycling facilities could not recycle. Look up your local curbside collection rules to learn what goes where. (A few examples from King County: greasy pizza boxes can go in the food-waste/compost cart; Styrofoam cups and dirty diapers must go in the garbage.)
Plenty of good news
There is hope.San Francisco implemented a ban on plastic carry-out bags in 2007, and more than two dozen communities in Washington state have done the same. Boston is using a combination of taxation and bans to address its plastic problem.Nudged by the Strawless in Seattle campaign, companies like Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Alaska Airlines are listening to their customers by phasing out plastic straws.
In 2002, Bangladesh was the first country to ban plastic bags. Countries like China, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Italy, and Tanzania realized that plastic bags were clogging their drainage systems and contributing to deadly floods, so they, too, have banned thin plastic bags. Rwanda and Somalia have banned plastic bags altogether. The United Arab Emirates banned all plastic bags except oxo-biodegradables because of pollution and the threat to camels. The European Union recently voted to ban a range of single-use plastics such as cutlery, plates, and straws. Bans will push manufacturers to come up with more environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic.
It’s time for each of us to commit to taking at least one firm action to reduce single-use plastics. We can demand that manufacturers redesign plastics to be non-toxic, sustainable, biodegradable, and more easily recycled. We can demand that stores use less packaging. But the best thing we can do is take a bigger step: eliminate plastic from our grocery carts and our kitchens.
Scientists estimate that the amount of plastic in the oceans will outweigh all the world’s fish by the year 2050. Plastic or fish? It’s our choice.
As a freelance writer, Cathy Kuntz finds inspiration in the wilderness, waters, and people of the West Coast. She is passionate about stream-keeping, fly-fishing, and writing personal memoirs. Cathy helps people celebrate their lives and legacies by creating unique photo memoir books. Learn more at CottageWordsmith.com.