What Do We Do About Plastic?

We have a plastic problem. Every day, nearly a million tons of plastic waste are produced. It has been found at the bottom of ocean trenches. The beaches of island nations are covered with bottles washing up from the tides. Animals in the wild have pieces of plastic in their intestinal tract.

The Scope of the Problem

The problem is that plastic is cheap to produce, and it can be molded in numerous helpful shapes. It seems like just about everything contains some plastic. We use plastic wrap to indicate something is new and pristine. We use bottles for water and other beverages. Sometimes it’s even woven into our clothes!

The cost, however, only includes the cost of production and not of disposal. The company that bottles water doesn’t have to worry about what happens after the water is consumed. That cost, whether the bottle is thrown on the ground, placed in a trash receptacle, or enters the recycling stream, is born by the community.

Unfortunately, in each of those cases the eventual outcome is not good.

In nature, a plastic bottle won’t decay for hundreds of years. If plants don’t try to grow around it, it might end up washed into the ocean, carried by currents, and end up on a beach somewhere, poisoning fish or wildlife, or simply on the ocean floor.

Likewise, a plastic bottle thrown in a trash can most likely ends up in a landfill. There it will sit for hundreds of years.

But what about recycling? Only 9% of plastic is recycled, but at least that doesn’t end up in the waste stream and can be repurposed or reused. Most recycled plastic, however, is sent to poor countries by boat. These countries don’t have the ability or resources to recycle the huge amount of waste that is being produced, and so often it merely ends up in a landfill in another country after being shipped around the world. Recycling may make us feel good, but it does little to actually address the problem.

What can be done?

Any potential solution needs to address two different areas.

The first is to reduce the amount of new plastic that is being produced. For example, legislators in Canada are proposing banning single-use plastic products. It is not clear how quickly proposals like this can be implemented, or how widely they will be accepted. Consumers don’t seem to be aware of, or don’t care about, this issue in great numbers. Without public sentiment driving corporate behavior, it is not clear if it will happen at all.

Second, we also need to do something with all the plastic products that already exist. Some companies, like 4Ocean, are making an effort to remove plastic waste from our waterways. They fund their operation by selling bracelets made from recovered items. Fundamentally, however, companies like this merely move plastic from one place to another.

Some plastic-eating bacteria have already been found in nature, but decomposition is still a slow process. Evolution will eventually work to fill this ecological niche, but it will take a long time for this to happen.

How do you use plastic in your daily life? How difficult would it be to remove plastic items from your household? Can you imagine this happening? Lastly, how could we get to that point?

What do we do about plastic?

Related questions: What role does technology play in your life? What is the greatest problem facing humanity? How are you making the world a better place? What do you do that you shouldn’t?


2 thoughts on “What Do We Do About Plastic?”

  1. On the front end, plastic has to be made as expensive as it really is. The cost of producing a plastic bottle is not enough. The “externality” of disposing of that bottle needs to become part of the front-end cost, and the responsibility should preferably be placed directly on the producers. That way consumers would be forced to compare a the cost of disposable product to a durable one. The durable products would have the chance to compete.

    For more systemic suggestions I looked to the Earth Institute at Columbia University (https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2018/04/23/what-do-we-do-about-plastics/). They suggest:

    1. Reducing plastic dependency
    2. Increasing producer responsibility
    3. Increasing fees and taxes on polluting plastics
    4. Increased waste management where the problem is greatest
    5. Implementation of the zero vision for ocean plastic
    6. Increased mapping, surveillance and research
    7. Stopping the flow of plastic waste into the sea
    8. Increasing funds for clean-up

    Now, making this personal, I must admit that while I have reduced my use of single-use plastics, I could do significantly better. Sure, I don’t use straws at restaurants. But it’s actually an embarrassment that the biggest thing our household does is bring our own bags when we go grocery shopping. We could buy more in bulk at our neighborhood co-op, for example.

    That said, there is one significant thing I started years ago that reduced my plastics impact. I changed my eating habits. I now eat very little pre-packaged, processed foods. I mainly eat or cook with raw foods. I also have a large vegetable garden, requiring less use of plastics, especially for vegetables that come at the end of the growing season. Kudos there, I guess.

    Fundamentally, our relationship with waste in general needs to change. Waste should be seen as a failure.

    Yes, in order, reduce, reuse, and recycle. But I think something even deeper is required. If we can’t see waste as something that is naturally recycled (as food waste can be composted to help build more, and more-nutrient, soil) we will still be an unhealthy society.

  2. I think we need to focus more on reduce, reuse, recycle; but the way it was intended.
    Reduce should be the first and foremost goal. Reusable shopping and produce bags at the store, glass or paper straws when eating out, reusable beverage containers etc. We should always ask ourselves if we can use something other than single use plastic.
    If it is not possible to avoid single use plastic, then we need to focus on reuse. Plastic produce, yogurt and milk containers can be reused in numerous ways. Plastic bags and drink cups can be washed, dried and used multiple times.
    Recycling is usually the first thing we consider, but it should be the last recourse once all other options are exhausted.
    This, of course, requires changing our mentality about single use plastic. We need to view it as something that should be avoided if at all possible, and, if unavoidable, then used to its fullest extent.

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