Luckily, there are simple steps you can take that will dramatically decrease the amount of plastic waste you generate.
Just say no to straws
Do you really need to sip your drink through a plastic straw? (Photo: Horia Varlan/flickr)
One of the easiest ways to keep plastic out of the landfill is to refuse plastic straws. Simply inform your waiter or waitress that you don't need one, and make sure to specify this when ordering at a drive-thru. Can't fathom giving up the convenience of straws? Purchase a reusable stainless steel or glass drinking straw. Restaurants are less likely to bring you a plastic one if they see that you've brought your own.
Use reusable produce bags
Just say "no" to plastic produce bags. (Photo: Shayan Sanyal/flickr)
About 1 million plastic bags are used every minute, and a single plastic bag can take 1,000 years to degrade. If you're already bringing reusable bags to the grocery store, you're on the right track, but if you're still using plastic produce bags, it's time to make a change. Purchase some reusable produce bags and help keep even more plastic out of the landfill. However, avoid those bags made from nylon or polyester because they're also made from plastic. Opt for cotton ones instead.
Give up gum
When you chew gum, you're actually chewing on plastic. (Photo: Cindy Funk/flickr)
Gum was originally made from tree sap called chicle, a natural rubber, but when scientists created synthetic rubber, polyethylene and polyvinyl acetate began to replace the natural rubber in most gum. Not only are you chewing on plastic, but you may also be chewing on toxic plastic — polyvinyl acetate is manufactured using vinyl acetate, a chemical shown to cause tumors in lab rats. While it is possible to recycle your gum, it may be best to skip it — and its plastic packaging — altogether.
Buy boxes, not bottles
Buy laundry detergent and dish soap in boxes instead of plastic bottles. Cardboard can be more easily recycled and made into more products than plastic.
Buy from bulk bins
Many stores, such as Whole Foods, sell bulk food like rice, pasta, beans, nuts, cereal and granola, and opting to fill a reusable bag or container with these items will save both money and unnecessary packaging. Stores have various methods for deducting the container weight so simply check with customer service before filling your container. Also, many cotton bags have their weights printed on their tags so they can simply be deducted at the checkout.
Reuse glass containers
You can buy a variety of prepared foods in glass jars instead of plastic ones, including spaghetti sauce, peanut butter, salsa and applesauce, just to name a few. Instead of throwing these away or recycling them, reuse the jars to store food or take them with you when you’re buying bulk foods. If you have plastic containers leftover from yogurt, butter or other food, don’t throw them out. Simply wash them and use them to store food.
Use reusable bottles and cups
Instead of disposable water bottles, refill a reusable bottle. (Photo: Seven Depolo/flickr)
Bottled water produces 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year, and these bottles require 47 millions gallons of oil to produce, according to Food & Water Watch. By simply refilling a reusable bottle, you’ll prevent some of these plastic bottles from ending up in landfills and oceans — but don’t stop there. Bring a reusable cup to coffee shops and ask the barista to fill it up, and keep a mug at your desk instead of using plastic, paper or Styrofoam cups. The average American office worker uses about 500 disposable cups a year so you’ll be preventing a lot of unnecessary waste.
Bring your own container
Whether you're picking up takeout or bringing home your restaurant leftovers, be prepared with your own reusable containers. When you place your order, ask if you can get the food placed in your own container. Most restaurants will have no problem with it.
If you need to light a candle, build a campfire or start a fire for any other reason, opt for matches over disposable plastic lighters. These cheap plastic devices sit in landfills for years and have even been found in dead birds' stomachs. If you can't bear to part with your lighter, pick up a refillable metal one to help cut down on waste.
Skip the frozen foods section
Frozen foods offer both convenience and plenty of plastic packaging — even those eco-friendly packaged items made from cardboard are actually coated in a thin layer of plastic. While giving up frozen food can be difficult, there are benefits besides the obvious environmental ones: You'll be eating fewer processed foods and avoiding the chemicals in their plastic packaging.
Don't use plasticware
Say goodbye to disposable chopsticks, knives, spoons, forks and even sporks. If you often forget to pack silverware in your lunch, or if you know your favorite restaurant only has plasticware, start keeping a set of utensils. It's sure to reduce your carbon forkprint.
Return reusable containers
Berry and tomato containers are refillable. Take them back to the market with you. (Photo: ilovebutter/flickr)
If you buy berries or cherry tomatoes at the farmers market, simply bring the plastic containers to the market when you need a refill. You can even ask your local grocer to take the containers back and reuse them.
Use cloth diapers
According to the EPA, 7.6 billion pounds of disposable diapers are discarded in the U.S. each year. Plus, it takes about 80,000 pounds of plastic and more than 200,000 trees a year to manufacture disposable diapers for American babies alone. By simply switching to cloth diapers, you'll not only reduce your baby's carbon footprint, you'll also save money.
Don't buy juice
Instead of buying juice in plastic bottles, make your own fresh-squeezed juice or simply eat fresh fruit. Not only does this cut down on plastic waste, but it's also better for you because you'll be getting more vitamins and antioxidants and less high fructose corn syrup.
With a few simple changes, you don't have to contribute to this sea of plastic trash. (Photo: Horia Varlan/flickr)
There's no need for multiple plastic bottles of tile cleaner, toilet cleaner and window cleaner if you have a few basics on hand like baking soda and vinegar. So free up some space, save some cash, and avoid those toxic chemicals by making your own cleaning products.
Pack a lunch the right way
If your lunchbox is full of disposable plastic containers and sandwich bags, it's time to make a change. Instead of packing snacks and sandwiches in bags, put them in reusable containers you have at home, or try lunch accessories like reusable snack bags. You can also opt for fresh fruit instead of single-serving fruit cups, and buy items like yogurt and pudding in bulk and simply put a portion in a reusable dish for lunch.
What is Plastic Pollution?
As the world’s population continues to grow, so does the amount of garbage that people produce. On-the-go lifestyles require easily disposable products, such as soda cans or bottles of water, but the accumulation of these products has led to increasing amounts of plastic pollution around the world. As plastic is composed of major toxic pollutants, it has the potential to cause great harm to the environment in the form of air, water and land pollution.
Put simply, plastic pollution is when plastic has gathered in an area and has begun to negatively impact the natural environment and create problems for plants, wildlife and even human population. Often this includes killing plant life and posing dangers to local animals. Plastic is an incredibly useful material, but it is also made from toxic compounds known to cause illness, and because it is meant for durability, it is not biodegradable.
Next time you go for a shopping, don’t forget to carry a paper or cloth bag. Also, try to avoid bringing plastic bags at home and purchasing items with too much of packaging. This way you can help in contributing towards the environment in the form of reducing plastic pollution whose ill effects are irreversible.
I am concerned about the air we breathe and the water we drink. If overfishing continues, if pollution continues, many of these species will disappear off the face of the earth.
– Bernard Marcus
Causes of Plastic Pollution
While solving the problem of plastic pollution may seem as easy as just implementing recycling or cleaning up empty bottles, the truth is that the plastic causing the pollution can range in size from big to microscopic. The major contributors to this problem today include:
- Plain Old Trash
Plastic is everywhere, even on those items you may not expect it to be. Milk cartons are lined with plastic, water bottles are handed out everywhere, and some products may even contain tiny plastic beads. Every time one of these items gets thrown away or washed down a sink, the toxic pollutants have more of a chance to enter the environment and do harm.
Trash dumps and landfills are unfortunate major problems, as they allow pollutants to enter the ground and affect wildlife and groundwater for years to come.
- It is Overused
As plastic is less expensive, it is one of the most widely available and overused item in the world today. When disposed, it does not decompose easily and pollutes the land or air nearby when burned in the open air.
- Fishing Nets
Commercial fishing is an economic necessity for many parts of the world, and tons of people eat fish for their daily survival. However, this industry has helped contribute to the problem of plastics pollution in the oceans in several ways. The nets used for certain large-scale trolling operations are usually made of plastic. First, these spend long times submerged in water, leaking toxins at will, but they also often get broken up or lost, left to remain wherever they fall. This not only kills and harms local wildlife, but also ensures that pollutants enter the water and fish of the area.
- Disposing of Plastic and Garbage
This may sound a bit confusing, but because plastic is meant to last, it is nearly impossible to break down. Burning plastic is incredibly toxic, and can lead to harmful atmospheric conditions and deadly illness. Therefore, if it is in a landfill, it will never stop releasing toxins in that area.
Even recycling doesn’t cut down on plastic, as it essentially uses the existing plastic, albeit in a new form. The process of recycling plastic can also lead to plastic irritants being released in a number of ways.
Effects of Plastic Pollution
It seems rather obvious that this amount of a material that isn’t meant to break down can wreak havoc on natural environments, leading to long-term issues for plants, animals, and people. Some of the major long-term effects of plastic pollution are:
- It Upsets the Food Chain
Because it comes in sizes large and small, polluting plastics even affect the world’s tiniest organisms such as plankton. When these organisms become poisoned due to plastic ingestion, this causes problems for the larger animals that depend on them for food. This can cause a whole slew of problems, each step further along the food chain. Plus, it means that plastic are present in the fish that many people eat everyday.
- Groundwater Pollution
Water conservation is already a concern in places ranging from California to parts of India, but the world’s water is in great danger because of leaking plastics and waste. If you’ve ever seen a garbage dump, imagine what happens every time it rains – then imagine that being in your drinking water. Groundwater and reservoirs are susceptible to leaking environmental toxins.
Most of the litter and pollution affecting the world’s oceans also derives from plastics. This has had terrible consequences on many marine species, which can lead to consequences for those that eat fish and marine life for nutrients – including people.
- Land Pollution
When plastic is dumped in landfills, it interacts with water and form hazardous chemicals. When these chemicals seep underground, they degrade the water quality. Wind carries and deposits plastic from one place to another, increasing the land litter. It can also get stuck on poles, traffic lights, trees, fences, tower etc. and animals that may come in the vicinity and might suffocate them to death.
- Air Pollution
Burning of plastic in the open air, leads to environmental pollution due to the release of poisonous chemicals. The polluted air when inhaled by humans and animals affect their health and can cause respiratory problems.
- It Kills Animals
Despite countless TV ads over the years showing ducks or dolphins trapped in six-ring plastic can holders, these items are still used and discarded en masse each day. Whether because the mass of plastic has displaced animals or the related toxins have poisoned them, plastic pollution does a lot of damage to the world’s ecosystems.
- It is Poisonous
Man artificially makes plastic by using a number of toxic chemicals. Therefore, use of and exposure to plastics has been linked to a number of health concerns affecting people around the world. The processes of making, storing, disposing of, and just being around plastics can be extremely harmful to living things.
- It is Expensive
It costs millions of dollars each year to clean affected areas after exposure, not to mention the loss of life to plants, animals, and people. As land becomes more valuable, just finding a place to put garbage is becoming a problem in many parts of the world.
Plus, excess pollution has lead to decreased tourism in affected areas, significantly impacting those economies.
Solutions to Plastic Pollution
The reality is that the only way this problem can be addressed is by individuals and companies around the world agreeing to implement practices that reduce waste on every level. The top tips for reducing plastic waste are:
- Shop Friendly
Plastic bags were once a modern convenience but can be efficiently replaced by reusable bags, many of which fold up compactly in order to be portable. Just think about how many bags you typically carry out of a grocery store, and multiply that by the number of times you grocery shop. That’s a lot of plastic! Carry a bag and always reuse plastic bags as much as possible if you have them.
- Get Rid of Bottled Water
People are meant to drink lots of water each day, and plastic water bottles have become a great way to stay hydrated throughout the day. However, most of these are only recommended for single use, and that means that every time someone finishes a bottle it goes into the trash. Many companies now sell reusable water bottles as a substitute, reducing plastic waste and exposure to leaking bottles.
- Forget to-go Containers
You would be surprised at how much plastic is involved in the making and packaging of food containers. Think the coffee shop’s drink cup is paper? It’s likely lined with plastic for insulation (pour a cup of coffee on some cardboard and see what happens).
Plastic food containers, lids, and utensils are all easily replaced by reusable containers, which will cut down significantly on even a single meal’s waste.
- Educate Businesses
Speak to local restaurants and businesses about options that they can switch to for packaging, storing, and bagging items. Many companies are starting to come up with excellent low-cost replacements, such as bamboo utensils in place of plastic ones.
- Get Involved
Speak to lawmakers and get involved with government on any level, and you’ll see how many special interest groups have made it so that we are dependent on plastic without needing to be. Encourage development of items, and propose alternatives when applicable.
- Recycle Everything
Try and select items that come in non-plastic recycled and recyclable packaging, to do your best to properly handle items that can’t be reused. Check everything before you put it in the trash, as more and more items are able to be recycled these days.
Remember that because plastic doesn’t break down easily (if ever), recycling plastic means that it is still plastic, just being used for a different purpose. Therefore, you’re not actually reducing plastic amounts or exposure, even in the recycling process.
Image credit: Geraint Rowland , Paul Williams
Rinkesh is passionate about clean and green energy. He is running this site since 2009 and writes on various environmental and renewable energy related topics. He lives a green lifestyle and is often looking for ways to improve the environment around him.
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