Plastic pollution has been in the news a lot lately. You’ve probably read about the “great garbage patch” in the Pacific Ocean, and how it’s getting bigger (it is now 617,763 square miles, or about three times the size of France). Or maybe you’ve seen photos of beaches strewn with garbage, children swimming through garbage, or animals with plastic caught around their necks. It can be heartbreaking to see what we’re doing to our planet, and not know what we can do about it. The good news is that as more media attention focuses on this issue, the more people are doing to try to solve the problem.
We know that plastics never decompose in the environment, and we have learned that they can break down into tiny pieces called microplastics, which have been found in remote areas of oceans, as well as in freshwater and even bottled water. They are ingested by fish and ocean mammals, and humans as well. Some of the microplastics polluting the ocean are a result of our washing synthetic clothing, like fleece. Plastic microbeads that are used in some facial scrubs, toothpaste, and other personal care products also wash into the ocean, and are ingested by wildlife.
Life is busy, and plastic products are convenient. They seem to be everywhere! But there are simple steps you can take to reduce plastic pollution, and steps businesses and governments can take as well.
What can you do?
1. Reduce your use of single-use and non-recyclable plastics (bags, cups, bottles, straws). Use reusable or compostable items instead
2. Buy items with less or no plastic packaging.
3. Buy plastic products made with recycled plastic and recycle as much plastic as you can.
4. Avoid microfiber pollution that results from washing synthetics such as fleece by not buying them or using a product that catches it, such as a washing machine filter or the “Guppy Friend” (search online for these).
5. Stop buying products with plastic microbeads. Use the guide at beatthemicrobead.org.
Advocate for bans on single-use plastics, and for businesses to make products and packaging that are recyclable, reusable, repairable, or biodegradable.
Support groups working to combat plastic pollution, such as:
Plastic Pollution Coalition
Plastic Oceans Foundation
Plastic Ocean Project
The Lonely Whale
As You Sow
What can businesses do?
Many companies are starting to make their products more sustainable. Dunkin’ Donuts recently agreed to phase out Styrofoam cups and make their cups recyclable by 2020. Starbucks has committed $10 million to designing and producing recyclable and compostable cups. McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and others have also committed to using more sustainable packaging. Some companies have begun using plastic ocean trash to make products through the “Nextwave” initiative (nextwaveplastics.org). These companies include Dell, Method, Adidas, GM, Proctor and Gamble, and Trek Bicycles.
There are also promising new technologies to reduce plastic use and pollution, such as packaging and products made from plant materials or fungi, which decompose, as well as processes for converting plastics, including ocean waste, back into fuel products.
All possible solutions and a global effort will be needed to tackle a problem of this magnitude, but everything you can do to reduce your plastic use, recycle, and buy responsibly makes a difference!
Mimi Kaplan is the waste reduction enforcement coordinator for the Amherst Department of Public Works.