Plastic pollution is one of the most critical environmental problems that we face today and we have all contributed to this problem – mostly unknowingly – and we must work to reduce and ultimately to End Plastic Pollution. With Earth Day approaching, it’s impossible to ignore some of the staggering statistics about plastic pollution:

  • 9.1 billion U.S. tons of virgin (non-recycled) plastic has been produced to date
  • This has generated 6.9 billion U.S. tons of plastic waste
  • Only 9% has been recycled
  • Littered plastic not only kills wildlife but affects the lives of more than 2 billion people living without waste collection

The world is already incapable of properly managing this enormous amount of waste, and the production of plastic is predicted to increase three times in the next 25 years. We know that micro-plastics are polluting our drinking water and the fish we eat and also cause health problems.

“Plastic pollution is now an ever-present challenge. We can see plastics floating in our rivers, ocean, and lagoons, littering our landscapes and affecting our health and, the future of billions of children and youth. We have all contributed to this problem – mostly unknowingly – and we must work to reduce and ultimately to End Plastic Pollution,” says Valeria Merino, Vice-President of Global Earth Day at Earth Day Network.

UK plastic pollution

How plastic pollution affects us

We use plastics in every part of our lives, from single use plastics, such as bags, bottles, and straws, to our babies’ toys to our nylon clothes to our paint.

  • Plastic particles and plastic microbeads are used in our shampoo, toothpaste, soap, and millions of other products, all of which contain different kinds of tiny particles of plastic, all of which come off in our bodies, our mouths, our scalp and our skin as we use them.
  • Plastics are present in furniture, construction materials, cars, appliances, electronics and countless other things. Plastics are everywhere, even in our homes. Just look closely in your refrigerator!
  • Multiple studies have found that 94 percent of our drinking water and 93 percent of sampled bottled water worldwide are full of plastic particles and chemicals, including BPA, heavy metals, phthalates, pesticides, PCBs and other chemicals, many of which are linked in animal studies as well as some human studies to cancer, premature puberty, reduced immunity, birth defects, endocrine disruption, insulin resistance, and other major diseases.
Microbeads - Image by 5Gyres, courtesy of Oregon State University Flcikr ocean

Microplastics- Image by 5Gyres, courtesy of Oregon State University Flcikr

Plastics Pollution Calculator

Want to know your plastic footprint? Earth Day Network’s online Plastics Pollution Calculator will help you calculate the amount of disposable plastic you use in a year and so you make plans to reduce the waste accordingly.

How to reduce Plastic pollution

Now that you’ve taken the first step, here are the 5 actionable Rs: “Reduce, Refuse, Reuse, Recycle and Remove”.

There are a number of things that will lessen your plastics impact:

  • Ask yourself every time that you are considering buying a disposable plastic item: Do I absolutely need this? Can I use something else that I already have? Could I buy something that I can use long-term instead?
  • Prevent the creation of micro-plastics by properly disposing of plastic products and being careful not to toss plastic products near waterways, beaches or in open spaces.
  • Pick up plastic trash whenever you see it, especially in ponds, streams, rivers, and beaches.
  • Look up products on the internet and choose not to buy products containing microbeads. Choose products that have natural exfoliators instead.
  • Consider changing the way you wash your clothing to reduce the number of microfibers that are released, wash synthetic clothes less frequently, purchasing items made of natural fibers when possible.
  • Do not wash off lint from your dryer down the drain. Dispose of it on the trash.
Ooho edible water

Photo: Lise Honesinger via Skipping Rocks Lab

Reduce, Refuse, Reuse, Recycle and Remove

Follow the 5Rs to make a difference:

Reduce: Recycling plastic waste is important, but you may be lulled into thinking it is ok to consume plastic products because you plan to recycle them. Unfortunately, many plastics can’t be efficiently recycled and will end up in the landfill. Some localities lack the infrastructure to sort and recycle plastics. So focus on reducing your own level of plastic consumption.

Refuse: Do you ever wonder why water at a restaurant always comes with a straw? Do you  marvel at how many plastic shopping bags grocery stores will wrap around your purchases? It is important, whenever possible, to refuse plastic. Much of the most frequently discarded plastic items, with the shortest lifecycles, are those given to us for free. Plastic straws, grocery bags, plastic utensils, plates, and cups are all frequently given away with other purchases. All you have to do is to simply refuse to accept these items. There is almost always a non-plastic alternative. Modern technology has created a host of new products that make most common plastic products obsolete. With a little preparation and planning, you can easily, refuse plastics.

Reuse: One key driver of the massive plastic pollution problem is the incredibly brief life cycle many of these products have. A majority of the items we use one single time before disposal are plastic. Selecting products that are designed for multiple uses and making sure nothing gets thrown away before its usefulness is spent is an effective way to drastically reduce one’s plastic pollution footprint. You can get creative and reuse items for secondary purposes. You can also purchase specialty items that replace single use plastics and can safely be used again and again.

water bottle

Forget single use items, replace with a better alternative. Photo: Domenico Loia via unsplash

Recycle: You should recyle following the rules of the community, town or city in which you live. For the most part, only recycle if you are positive that the item is truly recyclable. If you are unsure about an item, don’t try to recycle it as it will only slow the sorting process. If you know for sure that the waste management company or entity serving your community uses a technology or system to sort out non-recyclable plastics, you can afford to make a few mistakes. Educating yourself on proper recycling is crucial to its effectiveness. You can even make a sign explaining the rules and hang it near your recycling and trash cans.

Remove: At this point, we as humans have to accept the fact that we need to do more than stop producing plastic pollution; we need to reverse the impact we have already made. We need to work to clean up the world’s oceans and to find a way to deal with all the plastic we collect. Plastic/litter clean-ups are great community events that let you meet the people who live around you while cleaning up your local community at the same time. New technologies are being invented to collect the plastics in the world’s oceans. New products are being created to take advantage plastics collected from the environment and recycled.

Support some of the organizations working right now on that very issue. Some of these groups are researching and discovering new ways to remove plastic from our oceans. The other side of the equation is the demand for recycled plastic products. If consumers demand the products they buy come from 100% recycled materials, and they support innovative businesses that turn plastic recovered from the environment into new materials like clothing and building materials, there will be increased incentive for these groups to remove the plastic from the environment.

Get the full Earth Day toolkit here.

Here’s hoping every day is Earth Day!

Also Read:

Are you guzzling Microplastics in your Bottled Water?

Ditch these plastic items NOW for a greener kitchen

Do you microwave food in plastic containers? Read this first

What is a Microbead and Why You should Worry about it?