This post is a humble plea to help be part of the solution to a problem that is much bigger than any of us… the growing amount of plastic in the ocean. We’ve known for a while some of the health issues related to plastic use, and now the environmental concerns are becoming increasingly alarming.
The Growing Problem of Plastic in the Ocean
We all encounter plastic everyday. In fact, I’d guess that it would be almost impossible not to encounter plastic in some form for even a single day since it is used in everything from clothing to automobile interiors to computers and phones. Our planet is starting to feel the effects of this massive plastic use.
Some sobering stats on the plastic problem:
- Last year, just one of the major soda companies created over 110 billion plastic bottles worldwide.
- There are an estimated 5+ trillion pieces of plastic floating in our oceans, weighing over 300,000 tons.
- Surfers Against Sewage reports that the world produced 1.5 million tons a year of plastic in 1950, and now we produce over 320 million tons a year. And this number is set to double by 2034.
According to Vox.com, just some of the consequences we face due to growing plastic use are:
- Over 100,000 marine mammals and 1 million sea birds die each year.
- Two thirds of fish species suffer from for plastic ingestion and by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.
- 5 massive garbage patch plastic islands have formed in the oceans, including one between Hawaii and California that is as big as Texas!
- This plastic is also increasing the acidification of the ocean and drastically increasing the chances of coral getting sick.
Recycling Isn’t the Answer
Plastic is designed to last a really long time. This means it can take up to 1,000 years to fully break down, and when it does break down it releases harmful compounds. Recycling is often presented as the solution, but it isn’t a complete or even viable answer for several reasons:
- Only a small percentage of the world’s plastic is even recycled.
- When it is, it costs thousands of dollars to recycle and the newly recycled plastic can’t even be sold for as much as it costs to recycle it.
- We’re producing more plastic than we can possibly recycle and more types that can be easily sorted, which makes the process slow and inefficient.
- Most of plastic is recycled into unusable forms that can only be made into park benches and rugs but not bottles, so more plastic is still being created.
See this article for more convincing reasons why recycling isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…
Bottom line: Recycling is better than not recycling, but it doesn’t reduce our overuse of plastic. We all (from individuals to companies and countries) need to start focusing on reducing our plastic use in the first place.
The Worst Offenders
Sadly, the plastic problem is one where individuals shoulder the blame while companies reap the profits. A January 2018 article in Scientific American explains how increased profit margins have encouraged major companies to lobby for continued use of these products.
In short, these companies have resisted measures like the five-cent deposit on plastic or glass bottles that led to a sharp increase in recycling. At the same time, they spend millions on ad campaigns like “Keep America Beautiful” and “I Want to be Recycled” that let us feel like we’re accomplishing something beneficial for the environment when our individual efforts can do little in the face of corporate plastic overuse.
Statistically, states and cities that enact an extra charge on plastic bottles and bags see use of these products reduce by 80%. We could even ban or create an opt-in only policy on single-use products like styrofoam and plastic straws. The problem is so widespread that legislation might be necessary, but I also always like to consider what we can all do individually without the need for laws and regulation.
What We Can All Do to Reduce Single-Use Plastics
This leads me to the small changes we can each make, which together can make a big difference in plastic use. Big companies may not want to stop using plastics because of profit margins, but if we all reduce our use of their products that use plastic, we can influence these corporations with our buying power.
This growing problem affects us all and is only getting worse! Please consider making as many changes as you can to move toward a low-waste or zero-waste mentality whenever possible.
Alternatives to Plastics are an Easy Ways to Make a Difference
The following is a list of alternatives to single-use plastic, starting with the worst offenders. These products are most often found in the ocean and are easy ones to replace:
1. Plastic Bottles
In the US alone, 1,500 plastic water bottles are discarded every single second. Let that sink in. Every single second! We send over 38 billion to landfills and into the ocean every single year. And these are completely unnecessary! In the developed world we have access to clean water, filters, and reusable bottles. Let’s start using them.
- A reusable water bottle in place of disposable ones
- Your own water, smoothies, fresh juice, or teas from home brought from home
- A water filter in your home instead of having to buy water (This investment will save money over time too.)
2. Personal Hygiene Products
Diapers, sanitary napkins, and other hygiene products are a big contributor of pollution. It can cost thousands of dollars to diaper one baby until potty training and contribute hundreds of thousands of disposable plastic diapers to the landfills and ocean. In addition, in a lifetime a woman may use up to 16,000 disposable tampons or pads, adding as much as $300 pounds of plastic waste to the planet.
- Cloth diapers which cost much less over the long term, are more natural for baby, and reduce plastic use.
- A menstrual cup in place of disposable pads or tampons for a zero-waste period. New period panties are also a good alternative.
3. Plastic Straws
Straws have been in the news lately and many people are already choosing to opt out. Just say “no thanks” to straws in general, or use eco-friendly alternatives instead.
4. Disposable Cups
Polystyrene (styrofoam) cups and disposable coffee cups (which are also lined with plastic) are very prevalent as well. Just like with bottles, these are an easy switch to make and often lead to healthier alternatives to beverages too.
- A glass and silicone hot or cold beverage cup (this one is completely plastic-free and is my favorite)
- An insulated beverage cup that can keep drinks hot or cold for up to 24 hours
- Any cup or mug you already have if you make these beverages at home instead (and you’ll save money too!)
5. Plastic Grocery Bags
We use the average bag for mere minutes before discarding it. In several places, officials have said plastic bags contributed to flooding by clogging drains and keeping the water from abating. And these types of plastic leach BPA and other compounds into our food and our skin.
- One set of super strong reusable grocery bags (they can replace literally thousands of disposable grocery bags)
- For Aldi/Costco shoppers, these Lotus Trolley bags fit perfectly into carts and make shopping really easy
- Or make your own bags using old t-shirts
6. Produce Bags
Produce bags are easily replaceable too. While the plastic ones in the store are so easy, some inexpensive reusable bags are actually much more convenient and save a lot of plastic exposure in the long run. As a bonus, they don’t rip and drop all of your produce if you pick them up the wrong way!
- Drawstring produce bags
- Washable produce totes (I love these, especially for heavy items like sweet potatoes that we buy in bulk)
7. Plastic Containers & Food Wrap
If we’d all just stop buying anything that comes in a plastic container, I think we’d all see our health and our planet change almost immediately! But since that is a really tall order, we can start with some baby steps like reducing packaging from overly processed foods, storing our leftovers in reusable glass or stainless containers, and using non-plastic wrap.
This post has a full list of how I did this in my kitchen, but there are a couple of my favorites listed here…
- Beeswax food wrap (yes they are washable and work great!)
- Glass and bamboo food containers
- Stainless steel air-tight food containers
8. Plastic Soap Containers
Many types of antibacterial soaps actually harm the skin microbiome, and they come in single-use plastic containers.
- Picking out bar soaps from a local soap maker
- Making your own reusable foaming hand soap instead of discarding the container
9. Bottles of Cleaning Products
In the same way, cleaning products are often just a small amount of the effective ingredient diluted in a lot of water and sold in a big plastic bottle! Many of these cleaners carry the same risks as antibacterial soaps and there are natural options that work much better.
I opt for non-toxic and safe natural cleaning concentrates and use these to make everything from foaming hand soap to all purpose cleaner and laundry soap. The concentrate comes in a single plastic bottle that is recyclable and I use this to fill reusable glass or stainless steel pump or spray bottles for use around the house. This reduces the need for dozens of other plastic containers!
- Branch Basics cleaning concentrate which is plant-based, biodegradable, non-toxic and non-GMO
- Reusable glass spray bottles
10. Food Packaging
Most processed foods come in plastic packaging, and most of them aren’t great food choices anyway. Skip the packaged food and make meals and snacks at home to reduce packaging (and your body will thank you too).
- Buying foods in bulk whenever possible
- Joining a natural foods co-op
- Supporting local farmer’s markets
- Using stainless steel containers for school lunches
Might not be the first thing you think about when you think of plastic, but most gum does contain plastics and a lot of it ends up in the environment each year.
Take the No-Plastic Challenge for a Month
If you’re as concerned as I am about how plastic is affecting our health and our planet and want to make a difference, please join me in avoiding single-use plastics for a month. The rules are simple and we’re on the honor system, but here’s how to do it:
- Make a plan for how you’ll avoid or replace these single-use plastic items. Carry a water bottle and reusable coffee mug. Stock your car with some reusable grocery bags, and meal plan to cook foods at home instead of ordering takeout. And swear off drinks in plastic bottles entirely!
- Get any necessary supplies to have on hand instead.
- Let us know in the comments when you’re starting and how it goes!
Will you join me in the No-Plastic Challenge? Do you have other ideas for reducing plastic use? Let’s get started changing the planet for the better!