Plastic is everywhere, there is no escaping it. Our electronics, toys, furniture, clothing, medical equipment, almost everything in our lives has a plastic component. Until 1907, with the invention of Bakelite, which was used primarily as an electrical insulator, fully synthetic plastic was not a part of our lives. Now it is difficult NOT to find plastic in your home, office, or sadly, in nature.
Without plastic we would not have a modern world full of televisions, cell phones, computers, etc…, the biggest issue comes with how we deal with plastic after we are finished with it. Let’s face it, we live in a disposable world. Most plastic items are meant to be disposed of, yet with the large amount of synthetic plastics being created each year, and a smaller amount of facilities recycling or repurposing plastic, the majority of plastic we use ends up in our landfills and oceans. Over 11 million metric tons of plastic is entering our oceans each year, and it will not just disappear! Plastic grocery bags take 10-20 years to decompose, while plastic bottles (PET) can take up to 450 years to decompose! This doesn’t even take into account microplastics that are in our water streams (which we will get into later). Plastic not only pollutes the earth, and harms Ocean life, synthetic plastic also leaches harmful chemicals that are known to cause cancer and disrupt hormones. We CANNOT go on consuming and disposing of plastic the way we are.
There are several ways to keep plastics out of our waste stream- reduce, reuse recycle are already a part of our vernacular. Policy and corporate responsibility are even more imapctful, yet less talked about solutions. On the consumer end of plastic waste, focusing on single use items such as water bottles is very important. Studies show that people around the world buy a total of one million plastic bottles per minute. That's almost 1.5 billion plastic bottles per day! If just one-eighth of the world committed to only using reusable bottles, millions of bottles would be kept out of the landfills and oceans.
Today we are going to be focusing on some of the more insidious plastics that are a part of our daily lives. The ones that are not so obvious and, in our face, yet still have a significant impact on the plastic waste stream.
The little white receipt that comes out of your local grocery store’s cash register is most likely made out of “thermal paper”. Thermal paper is covered in BPA (Bisphenol A, a plastic known to be a hormone disrupter), to allow the ink to adhere more easily. So, if you have been throwing your receipts in the paper recycling, stop! They are not recyclable.
What to do?
Just say no! Ask your store if it is an option not print a receipt at all, even if you don’t take the receipt, often times they print one and throw it away. The other option is to ask your favorite stores to start using BPA free receipt paper. Even better get a few friends to ask the same store, there’s power in numbers, and in a customer driven world, that’s how things get done!
You are not seeing things, you saw it correctly, chewing gum! As an avid gum chewer when I found this out, well, I spit out my gum!
Chewing gum has been human past time for millennium, Ancient Mayans chewed gum made from the Sapodilla tree over 2,000 years ago. Other cultures have taken on the gum chewing habit using the sap of their local trees, so when I thought of gum, I thought of tree sap, but if you look closely at the ingredients of gum, you will merely see the term “gum base”. Today, most commercial gum base is made from polyethylene. Yup, “poly” as in plastic. So, not only are you chewing on plastic, you are throwing plastic away when you are finished.
Fear not! There are gum manufacturers making gum made from tree resin. Do your research, and make sure the tree resin is sustainably sourced.
Ever wonder how modern day tea bags don’t disintegrate when you put them in hot water? If you guessed plastic then you guessed correctly. I prefer coffee, but I do enjoy a nice cup of tea occasionally. I probably drink a few cups a week, maybe more when the weather gets chilly. Three cups a week times fifty-two weeks is 156 tea bags a year! Before I realized most tea bags contained plastic, I would just toss the tea bag in my compost. Whoops!
What to do?
The most obvious solution is to purchase a tea ball and use loose leaf tea. But if tea bags are your “bag”, then look for bags made of silk or natural fibers. If you are using a tea bag and are unsure if it contains plastic, rip it open and only put the tea leaves in the compost while throwing the bag in the trash.
This isn’t really surprising since most of us know that nylon, polyester, rayon, and many more fibers are made from polymers. In fact, 60% of all of our clothing contains plastic fibers. Living in the Pacific Northwest I rely on my raincoat and waterproof boots to get by, I am not about to give them up. So why mention it?
Washing our clothes means they are shedding plastic microfibers and polluting our water ways. Microfibers are so small that water treatment plants cannot capture them, so each time you wash your leggings after a workout, they end up in our drinking water, and eventually in our oceans. According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, one polyester jacket sheds 1 million microfibers per wash! And because it is very difficult to capture microfibers once they are in the waterways, we have to deal with it on the front end.
What to do?
Look at the tag and purchase natural fiber clothing such as cotton wool, silk, or hemp as often as possible.
When you do wash your synthetic fibers consider using a “Cora Ball” or similar item to help capture microfibers before they go down the drain. According to several studies, these types of microfiber capturing devices can capture anywhere from 25%-85% of microfibers. Make sure you read the studies and reviews before you purchase one yourself.
Wash your synthetic clothing less often. Can it go another day, or few, before it needs to be washed?
We can’t avoid plastic, but we do have the power to make our planet healthier, whether it’s through purchasing power, a suggestion to a local retailer, or a letter to your local congress person. It all starts with knowledge about our consumption. Look at labels, do the research make a choice, and pass your knowledge on so that others can do it too.