March 2020 | Plastic Pollution

In this post, we read, listen, act, and reflect on March's topic: plastic. This article has been adapted from our sustainability newsletter, so please sign up for it to stay in the loop.

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

What’s covered:

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Read: 8 plastic facts that aren't from Mean Girls

Today, I'm giving you 8 facts on plastic. They're all taken from two articles; both are fairly short reads from National Geographic, so check them out for yourselves!

Article 1 of 2: Plastic Pollution

  1. Plastics are used and abused. Single-use plastics account for 40% of plastic produced every year. Think about the next time you open a straw, get a plastic grocery bag, or use a Ziploc.

  2. Plastics have not been around for long. Half of all plastics EVER manufactured have been made in the last 15 years.

  3. Plastic production is increasing exponentially - it was 2.3 million tons in 1950. In 2015, it hit 448 million tons, and production is expected to double by 2050.

  4. Plastic is immortal (almost). Some plastic additives cause their lives to extend tremendously - some take over 400 years to break down.

  5. Microplastics have macro effects. Once microplastics (think teeny tiny broken down plastics) enter into the ocean, they get into aquatic species' systems and are essentially impossible to recover. You know those sad videos of sea turtles choking on straws? Microplastics are like that, but way harder to see, and impossible to get out. We don't know their full effects yet, and next week's podcast will cover this more thoroughly in 25~ minutes.

Article 2 of 2: Recycling & Ocean Trash

  1. Recycle, but 91% of plastic isn't recycled. This doesn't mean we should stop recycling, but it DOES mean we should stop pushing demand of plastic.

  2. Litter bug or litter seahorse? 79% of plastic is accumulating in landfills or hanging out on the streets like a litter thug. Guess where it goes eventually? Hint: it rhymes with potion.

  3. Plastic state of mind: By 2050, it's estimated that there will be 12 BILLION tons of plastic in landfill. That's 35,000x as heavy as the Empire State. Maybe it'll be the tourist attraction of the future.

Listen: Why why why why?

Our episode's lovely host, Wendy Zukerman, asks four questions that originated with all the buzz around straws:

  1. How big of a problem, really, are plastic straws in the ocean?

  2. How much other plastic is actually out there?

  3. What happens to plastic objects once they're in the ocean?

  4. Are these plastics (specifically the teeny tiny ocean microplastics) going to make marine life - and us - sick?

You can explore the link below for everything from the episode itself to show notes to additional resources (including the infamous turtle video). Wendy chimes in with the answers at around 23:10 in case you just want to know what's going in with those four questions, but I highly recommend giving the full episode a listen (27 min).

Listen and Save a Turtle

I'll spoil you nicely

Okay, so I won't answer the questions, but I will provide five takeaways:

  1. Straws are a necessary poster child. Sure, there's more plastic in the ocean than just straws, but this one really hit a nerve. We can see the damage our garbage is doing to innocent wildlife, and it's so undeniably traceable to us. It's so easy to imagine... what if that was my straw choking a turtle? Hopefully the straw revolution will evolve to all plastic.
  2. The real case against flushing tampons (and other junk). I always thought the reason you shouldn't flush tampons, excessive paper, your little brother's toys, etc. was that the toilet would clog. Of course, that's part of it, but I learned that a significant cause of ocean plastic is sewers that get overwhelmed from products like the ones mentioned above! Okay, maybe not the toys, but let's not rule anything out.

  3. Go global or go home. The US (and North America in general) is not actually the biggest offender. Two thirds of plastic comes from rivers in Asia because of poor or irregular trash collection. We can't solve this problem by pointing fingers - I hope we take our role as a global leader to boost other countries' processes for things like trash pickup. Plastic does not discriminate based on location - in fact, most of it ends up right by my house (fine, a little farther - see next bullet).

  4. Everything's bigger in Texas... other than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It's 2x the size of Texas and only getting bigger. Uh oh.

  5. MICROPLASTICS, MACRO PROBLEMS! As the name suggests, microplastics are tiny fractions of plastic and they inevitably end up in our oceans, even in places with no long-standing civilization like Antarctica. We can't escape it anywhere on Earth. We thought we could buy ourselves some time to figure this out, but it turns out that microplastics take as little as eight weeks to form.

Check out the podcast link to listen to the full thing - you can also read the microplastics study mentioned above.

Act: 8 Ways to Reduce, Replace, Reuse, Recycle, Remove

Here are some tips to ultimately remove plastic from your daily life. One thing I've heard from many of you is you struggle with single-use plastics in food (frozen food, cheese, etc.). I don't have an immediate suggestion for brands that use plastic-free packaging, but I found many 2019 articles that show people are thinking about it! I'll share as soon as I find something concrete. In the meantime, here are 8 things I've come up with:

  1. Wrap your food with the good stuff. I'm selfishly starting with food-wrapping-related plastic because I've realized I use an outrageous amount of Ziplocs and Saran wrap.

    Three suggestions: put your food in reusable containers even if it's an awkward half-lemon, buy beeswax foodwrap like Beeswrap, or use reusable silicone wraps like the ones Stasher sells.

  2. Stop getting produce bags at the grocery store. I stopped using these before I knew about the horror of single-use plastic because honestly, they're so annoying to tear off. This is the low-hanging fruit of eliminating plastic from your life - you really don't need produce bags unless you're buying in bulk. And if that's the case, Ecobags to the rescue!

  3. Try the two-bag rule. I used to forget my grocery bags ALL the time when I moved to San Francisco. In the suburbs, it was easy: ALWAYS have grocery bags in your car. If you don't have a car or you live in a city, try the two-bag rule (yup, I made it up). I only take two reusable bags to the grocery store and I keep them an arm's reach from my front door. This means I never have to spend mental energy calculating bags, I reduce food waste and only buy what I need, AND I rarely forget my bags because they're so close to the door. And if you do forget your bags, use paper during checkout!

    P.S. Ecobags, in the link above, also has some really cute tote bags.

  4. Bulk up. Especially if you cook a lot, buy in bulk! You might be thinking of Costco, but you can also check out your local co-op or organic store. The one near my house sells flour, sugar, rainbow popcorn kernels, spices, and more in bulk - no packaging there.

  5. Ebay vs. Amazon... Amazon is notorious for its single-use plastic packaging. Consider buying on Ebay (especially since you can get great deals on pre-loved stuff), Etsy, or these sustainable alternatives to Amazon. (Or, you could just go to the store post-COVID.)

  1. Get a cute water/coffee bottle. There's tons of brands you can choose from - my water bottle is from Klean Kanteen and I'm looking into getting a Keep cup for my coffee - 40% of proceeds from this one are donated to conservation efforts! Benefits: you save money, time, the earth, AND you look way trendier.

  2. Buy a safety razor. I found these razors that range different body types and budgets - they're metal and it looks like they're a lot more financially sustainable than disposable razors too. You can get one anywhere from $20 to $100 - it might also make a nice gift (or a really offensive hint) for someone you love.

  3. Swap out your toiletries. In 2013 before it was cool, my boss went almost zero plastic except for one thing: shampoo. Now, in 2020, the rest of the world has caught up! Lush has shampoo bars and other toiletries that are also made with natural ingredients, but a general Google search will give you lots of options for plastic-free self-care that works for you.

Reflect: Corporations' big secret

Increasing our sustainability choices makes a huge difference. However, the blame is not largely on us - we're battling against corporations with power, resources, and influence that often exceeds us. This article talks about how deeply ingrained plastic is in our lives, how we got here, and how this environmental calamity has been kept a secret by large corporations for decades.

Here's some key points: