According to a 2017 poll, Americans’ concern about global warming is at a three-decade high with 45 percent of survey respondents reporting that they worry “a great deal” about this issue. Similarly, a new high of 62 percent agree that the effects of global warming are currently apparent, and 68 percent agree that this phenomenon is caused or exacerbated by human activity. 42 percent worry that they will be seriously threatened as a result of global warming in their lifetime.
While 75 percent of U.S. adults reported that they personally find it important to protect the environment, only around twenty percent said that they make an effort to do so in their daily lives. 63 percent said that they do “some of the time,” but are they doing as much as they think?
Americans find recycling to be extremely important, and 61 percent of the aforementioned 75 percent of us who consider ourselves environmentally aware report being bothered “a lot” when others don’t recycle. While we are generally good at recycling paper products, we shirk on our duties when it comes to what is arguably more important: only 9 percent of all the plastic created since 1950 has been recycled. As comforting as it would be to assume that our advanced understanding of climate change has helped in this effort, currently only 7 percent of plastic in America is actually recycled – including just 13.5 percent of the ubiquitous plastic bags and 6.2 percent of small appliances. The bulk of our plastic problem is rooted in our obsession with and reliance on the inefficient material, especially products designed for a single use: plastic bags, for example, of which 500 billion are used each year worldwide, and plastic bottles, of which Americans alone use 2.5 million every hour.
Globally, humans produce 300 million tons of plastic waste each year, 8 million of which end up in our oceans. The UN predicts that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. Worse still, half of all our plastics are single-use, “disposable” products.
It doesn’t add up at first glance – if so many of us recycle most of the time, how can our plastic problem be so bad? The problem is that plastic is completely synthetic, produced from refining oil, and doesn’t decompose. Worse still, it’s actually difficult to recycle it, so even when we do properly dispose of plastics, it doesn’t have the environmental impact that we might expect. Instead, they’re choking our landfills and flowing into our oceans, collecting in enormous gyres such as the dramatically-named “North Pacific Garbage Patch.”
This is certainly cause for alarm, but the disheartening truth is that simply recycling all of our plastic bottles and avoiding throwing trash into the ocean won’t help as much as we would like to think. While most of us probably picture a floating landfill of solid bottles and other waste when we think of plastics in the ocean, the reality is that the majority of the problem are actually what are called microplastics, usually “about the size of your pinkie fingernail.” Examples include the microbeads found in face scrubs, fleece jackets, and even some toothpastes, and debris under 5 mm in size created from larger plastic pieces – like all those bottles – that have broken down.
Credit: National Ocean Service
The best way to combat our plastic problem is to end our dependence on plastics. The first step is to focus on reducing plastic use rather than simply on recycling. While it’s important to recycle what plastics you do have to use, make a bigger impact by opting not to use them whenever possible. For example, carry a reusable water bottle and choose reusable bags over plastic ones at the grocery store.
Perhaps more importantly, we should show our government and the large corporations that dominate so many markets that sustainability matters. Support businesses and companies that use sustainable packaging or are working towards doing so in the future:
Dell introduced bamboo packaging for small devices in 2008 and in 2010 announced shipping other products in fungus-derived packaging. Both types are renewable, sustainable resources and cut the company’s energy use. In 2013, Dell announced plans to source 100% of their packaging from such materials by 2020.
Amazon, in an effort to reduce both the annoyance and environmental impact of excessive packaging, announced the Frustration-Free Packaging initiative in 2013.
Coca-Cola began producing partially-sustainable bottles in 2009 called PlantBottle. It remains to be seen whether they will commercialize the 100% bio-biased bottle they announced having produced in 2015.
Colgate-Palmolive announced new packaging commitments agreeing to make the packaging for 3 of their 4 product categories completely recyclable by 2020, including designing a recyclable toothpaste tube.
Keurig Green Mountain Coffee agreed to make its currently entirely non-recyclable K-cup coffee pods fully recyclable by 2020.
Nine companies – Priority Metrics, Aveda/Estee Lauder, Cargill Dow/NatureWorks, the Dow Chemical Company, EvCo Research, MedWestvaco (MWV), Nike, Starbucks, and Unilever – came together to found the Sustainable Packing Coalition in 2004. Now at nearly 200 certified members, the group “brings together businesses, educational institutions, and government agencies to collectively broaden the understanding of packaging sustainability and develop meaningful improvements for packaging solutions.”
Emily Rose is 17 years old and from Athens, Georgia. Beginning in fall 2017, she will attend Mercer University. She plans to double major in Journalism and Political Science and to minor in Global Development Studies. She is a writer, musician, activist, and feminist who hopes to use her platforms to inspire positive change by providing different perspectives on the world’s political and social issues.