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When I first heard whisperings of a floating island of plastic in the ocean, I thought for sure it must be hyperbolic. Sadly, if you ever hear of this floating island of plastic mentioned, it is probably about an area known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This accumulation of plastic is one of the most tangible examples of the plastic problem.
While there is some disagreement about the garbage patch’s size and density, it unquestionably exists and floats in the ocean somewhere between California and Hawaii. While some groups have estimated the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is twice the size of Texas, most of the accumulation is invisible from the surface, so you might not notice if you were passing through the area.
Regardless of how island-like the accumulation of plastics is, this is just one example of the challenges facing current and future generations. In this specific example, as the plastic breakdown turns to microplastics, they are easily consumed by marine wildlife. This can result in choking or starvation, as well as other injuries. Not to mention the regrettable notion of human-made items floating in what should be a natural environment.
What Is The Problem With Too Much Plastic?
The biggest problem with plastic is that most aren’t biodegradable. Some pieces exposed to the elements may eventually break down into microplastics over time, but those plastics less exposed (such as plastics buried in a landfill), may never degrade. While plastics permanently buried in landfills is a disturbing thought, the microplastic issue is one that may have a more direct impact on your life than you realize.
In an article published by Scientific American, Richard Thompson is quoted as saying, “Plastics are very long-lived products that could potentially have service over decades, and yet our main use of these lightweight, inexpensive materials are as single-use items that will go to the garbage dump within a year, where they’ll persist for centuries.” Richard Thompson is the Director of the Marine Institute at the University of Plymouth.
The volume of plastic produced and consumed each year is particularly astounding. Based on oft-cited research, some researchers and scholars believe that by 2050 the amount of plastic floating in the ocean will outweigh fish in the ocean. Hopefully, long before 2050, there will be efforts to fix past wrongs, such as efforts underway by The Ocean Cleanup; and perhaps better packaging and biodegradable plastics will become mainstream.
Why Is Too Much Plastic Harmful?
Microplastics are frequently ingested by animals and marine life. These microplastics are particularly frightening because scientists aren’t yet sure of their full impact. As the microplastics leave the digestive tract and enter the rest of the body, they may cause inflammation as these tiny particles rub and jab vital organs. As humans consume fish and other animal products, some of these microplastics make their way to the human body.
More pointedly, as the microplastics continue to break apart into smaller pieces, toxic chemicals may be released into the body. These chemicals may alter hormones and have other detrimental impacts. You have probably seen BPA-free products advertised, which came about because of concern regarding how harmful BPA is as it leaches from plastic. Chemicals are more likely to leach when exposed to high heat, but many choose to avoid BPA products altogether. While individuals might decide to avoid using certain plastics, they may unknowingly ingest some of these plastics anyway due to microplastics in our food supplies.
While microplastics represent a sometimes unseen threat, you shouldn’t overlook the visible concerns. It’s not uncommon to find animals whose guts are full of more significant plastic pieces. Its these broken-down plastic pieces which result in animals choking and starving.
There is also the impact of landfills in our communities. Plastic buried in landfills can perceivably last for decades, or even centuries, contributing to landfill build-up. While plastics sit undecayed, overall landfill problem persists in which greenhouse gases are released. Naturally, landfills also impact groundwater pollution and soil fertility in the surrounding area, even years after the landfill is closed and covered.
What Can We Do To Help With The Plastic Problem?
Plastic is nothing if not convenient, and I want to be honest. I am not always the ultimate role model when it comes to reducing my plastic footprint. That said, I am trying to make better decisions every day, and I am finding there are simple decisions that add up to big differences.
We have started buying toiletries and household items that are either refillable or don’t require any plastic. Quite frankly, it is inspiring how many products are on the market now specifically to reduce plastic usage. Many of them are just as affordable and convenient as the traditional alternatives. They are also unique and are often made from higher quality materials.
In fact, many of the products are naturally made, which fits with the plastic-free and eco-friendly ethos. All-in-all, as we all make decisions each day, there are more opportunities to reconsider how our standard routines impact the environment. Based on those reconsiderations, there are simple decisions we can all make to change our footprints positively.
Reduce: When Possible, Avoid Plastics When You Make Purchases
While plastic straws seem to get a lot of focus, we use plastics every day in almost everything we do. I think most of us know this, but it can also be a surprising exercise to think through how often you use plastic. From toothpaste to deodorant, and from throw-away surface cleaners to single-use hand soap bottles, plastics are a significant part of our daily routines.
Many of these products come in plastic-free alternatives, or at least in refillable plastic alternatives. The big takeaway is that it is best to avoid plastics when possible. The reality is that most people don’t recycle, so limiting the amount of plastic produced is a big win. But where do you even get started? Look around your bathroom and kitchen to identify throw-away plastics, and then research if there is a reasonable alternative. Here is a list of our favorite products that will help you reduce your plastic footprint to get you started.
- Best Refillable Surface Cleaner - Force of Nature
- Best Refillable Foaming Hand Soap - Blueland
- Best Zero Waste Detergents - Truman’s
- Best Refillable Deodorant - By Humankind
- Best Toothpaste Tablet - Unpaste
You can also support companies doing their best to reduce the plastic footprint they do have. Most companies have good intentions, so we can work alongside these companies and continue encouraging them as they move toward earth-friendly alternatives.
Reuse: Find New Purposes For The Plastics You Purchase
When you can, find new uses for the plastic containers you purchase. Plastic containers, for instance, can often be reused for storage. A handyman might cut a two-liter bottle in half, and keep it in his workshop with various nuts and bolts. Other plastic containers might be reused to hold a child’s crayons or organize a junk drawer.
If you have kids around the house, the possibilities are endless. If you punch a few holes in a 2-liter and connect it to a hose, all of a sudden, you have a fun sprinkler for the kids to play in. If you turn two 2-liter bottles upside down and glue them together, your kids can help you decorate them while turning them into a jetpack for your little rocketeers.
All this might be a little much, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. If you want to dip your toes in the water here are three favorite starter ideas:
- Repurpose plastic containers to hold tools/supplies in your work shed or crafting room.
- Use empty 2-liter bottles cut in half to start an indoor herb garden.
- Turn empty medicine bottles into containers for q-tips, bobby pins, or hair ties.
Recycle: When You Buy Plastics, Do Your Best To Recycle
We like to think most plastics are recycled, and when recycling isn’t convenient for us, it’s easy to assume everyone else is recycling, and everything will work out. The reality is that most people don’t recycle, and most plastics aren’t recycled. One study showed that since 1950, only 9% of discarded plastics were recycled.
While we have highlighted plastics in the ocean, much of that plastic is from old fishing nets and other fishing supplies. The vast majority of plastics we use today end up in landfills tomorrow. Some of us might have the fortitude to create a completely plastic-free lifestyle, but I am willing to admit I am not one of them. When we can’t reduce or reuse our plastic, the next best solution is to recycle them, and this is something we can all play a part in doing.
BONUS: Detailed Product Reviews
We spent countless hours researching eco-friendly products that will help slow the plastic problem, so we want to share some of those resources with you. Below is a list of our favorite product reviews with eco-friendly alternatives:
- Top 5 Minimalist Shoes: Allbirds, Casca, Oliver Cabell, Suavs, and Greats
- Best Refillable Cleaning Products: Blueland, Cleancult, Force of Nature, JAWS, and Truman’s
- Best Refillable Deodorants: By Humankind vs. Helm vs. Myro vs. Noniko vs. Wild
- Best Toothpaste Tablets: Bite, Chomp, Crush & Brush, Hello, and Unpaste
If you made it to the end of this article, you are invested and on the right path. Reduce your plastic footprint when you can, primarily by considering alternative products like those we recommended. Reuse plastic containers in creative and fun ways. Involve your kids, and they will love their new toys more than those bought off the shelf. And lastly, when all else fails, give your best effort toward recycling. If you do these three things, you will be well on your way to an eco-friendly approach. You might even enjoy the new challenge, as you help to make the world a better place.
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