Turning the Tide on Plastics

Kait Leonard

We cannot let the magnitude of the problem cause us to hide our heads in the littered beach sand. Our planet demands our action.

Pictures of dead seals caught in plastic netting and sea turtles with drinking straws lodged in their nostrils flood my social media pages. Walking on the beach, it’s impossible to miss the banks of plastic waste left behind by the tide. 

The cumulative effect of images like these finally forced me into action. On June 1, I made the decision to go plastic free for a year. It is now September, and I have not made it through a single zero-plastic week. The lessons I am learning, however, stoke my resolve to keep going. Progress, not perfection, as they say.

Before diving into some of the lessons I’ve learned, it’s important to understand why recycling isn’t enough. Only about eight percent of plastics are ever recycled. Unlike the glass and metal industries, the plastic industry rarely repurposes its material. In addition, the items that get transformed into something new generally see only one additional life. Then they get dumped into landfills, a huge problem since plastic takes around 400 years to degrade.

It’s important to continue filling the recycling bin, but reducing our reliance on plastic is even more crucial.

Litter is only one part of the problem. Plastic smog, created by tiny plastic fibers flooding into rivers and oceans, threatens aquatic life as well as the ocean’s ability to cool the Earth. In a study conducted by the Shaw Institute, fibers and microbeads, mostly invisible to the human eye, were found in every liter of ocean water collected off the coast of Maine. Not surprisingly, these fibers are also being found in the tissue of sea animals, and in the feces of the humans who consume them.

Approximately 51 trillion microplastic particles currently pollute the oceans, according to UN News.

Where are the microplastics coming from? From us. Any garment made from polyester or other synthetic material breaks down in each wash cycle, sending fibers into our water system. We all have these clothes. Think of common items like those cute yoga pants and that warm fleece jacket. Many facewashes, soaps, and toothpastes contain synthetic microbeads. They make complexions glow and teeth sparkle, but they don’t dissolve. Discarded plastic containers get crushed, becoming shards that wear down but do not go away. Water bottles aren’t the only villains. Don’t forget flip flops, Styrofoam cups, sunglasses, fishing nets and lines, and so on.     

Though awareness is growing, plastic consumption continues to escalate. Despite  campaigns to motivate change, resistance remains powerful. For example, the United States was accused of derailing international efforts to protect the oceans from plastic by members of the United Nations Environmental Assembly. Only Saudi Arabia and Cuba supported the U.S. position, yet concessions were won. Given this level of opposition to change and the basic difficulty of the task, the goal of significantly reducing the use of plastic can seem almost too daunting.

Nevertheless, every action we take moves us one step closer to saving our oceans and slowing global warming. While ditching straws and filling our recycling bins helps, we need to do more.

PLASTIC PITFALLS      

When I started my plastic-free journey, I took all the newbie steps. I bought reusable water bottles, metal straws, and shopping bags made from organic cotton, yet plastic continues to flow into my life. Here are just a few of the challenges I have encountered:

  • Food delivery services: Like just about everyone, I’m over-scheduled. To free up time, I rarely cook, relying instead on meal delivery services. Every delicious entrée, side dish, and dessert comes in its own plastic container.
  • To-go food: When I’m not consuming a delivered meal, I stop for something to go. Many of these items come packaged in Styrofoam or with single-use utensils, often also wrapped in plastic.
  • Grocery delivery: When I do shop for myself, I bring cute reusable bags. Unfortunately, I rarely have time for the farmer’s market, so I rely on grocery delivery. Of course, I specify paper bags (which is often ignored), but what about the small bag for the three apples or head of lettuce? A plastic box holds my berries and oranges come in plastic netting.
  • Frozen food: Though many frozen items have an outer layer of cardboard packaging, plastic lurks inside (think of the film over the TV dinner.) Love frozen berries in your morning smoothie? They probably come in plastic bags.
  • Inner packaging from internet shopping: I shop online for more than groceries. Between Amazon, subscription clothing boxes, and store websites, it is not uncommon for a box to be waiting on my doorstep. Bubble wrap, plastic bags, and Styrofoam peanuts protect contents from the hazards of transport.
  • Medications: Both over-the-counter and prescription drugs come in plastic bottles, and you can’t refill them due to health restrictions.
  • Personal hygiene products: Just look around your bathroom. You’ll probably see shampoo bottles, toothpaste tubes, deodorant containers, and the list goes on.
  • Freebies and samples: I love free stuff. Unfortunately, these samples almost always come in plastic containers. They even get included in orders unexpectedly, presenting no opportunity to decline.

I could go on listing plastic pitfalls, but the point here is Lifestyle dictates plastic use, and each of us will find different areas of challenge. The goal should be to search for the plastic traps in our own lives and take steps to overcome them.

When I analyzed my own problem areas, I noticed how many of them stem from my extreme focus on my career. To move forward, I have set the new goal of reclaiming my personal time. The too-lofty first step of no plastic has morphed into the commitment to shift my lifestyle in ways that allow me to continually decrease my dependency on plastic.

We cannot let the magnitude of the problem cause us to hide our heads in the littered beach sand. Our planet demands our action.

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Kait Leonard
Kait Leonard

Kait Leonard, Ph.D., holds graduate degrees in literature and psychology. She shares her home with five parrots and her American bulldog, Seeger. Her writing interests include psychology, holistic wellness for both people and animals, and whatever human interest topics cross her path.

1 Comment
  1. This is a topic that doesn’t get as much coverage as it deserves. Part of what I liked about her article is that she is talking about it from a personal level, one that any of us can relate to.

    I loved this concluding paragraph: “We cannot let the magnitude of the problem cause us to hide our heads in the littered beach sand. Our planet demands our action.” Kait’s final thought reminds me that if we each take even small steps, we may be able to change the world. And, for damn sure, if we do nothing, things will only get worse.

    I like the content and the tone of this piece, and I look forward to where her mind will take us next.

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