The Single-Use Plastic Planet

The first generation to grow up using mass-produced plastic learns the high cost of convenience.

Photo by Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash

The Ubiquitous Plastic

It’s an age old problem, faced by generations of humans before us, since the beginning of humankind.

No, wait. It isn’t.

Mass-produced plastics, single-use plastics, disposable plastics. Eternal plastic. They are our problem now. This generation will be the first one to face it, but it will not be the last.

That last plastic water bottle you drank from, the one you didn’t even finish? It will be here long after you are gone. Perhaps forever.

Go for a walk and pick up trash: Plastic. Drive along a major motorway: Plastic. In the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that is twice the size of Texas: Plastic. In the stomachs of dead whales washed ashore, tangled in fishing nets, strangling wildlife everywhere: Plastic.

Micro-plastics were found at the bottom of the lowest point in the world’s Oceans, the Mariana Trench; micro-plastics were found blanketing the top of the most remote Great Pyrenees mountains.

Some of last week’s most depressing news went unnoticed and unremarked upon by the American left, perhaps lost in the shuffle amid Trump’s latest controversial outburst on Facebook. That it has escaped the notice of even people who claim to care about saving the environment is especially telling.

All that plastic you are congratulating yourself on recycling?

Stop it. Might as well throw it in the overflowing waste basket with all the other garbage we throw away by the ton every single day.

The not-good news is that current recycling techniques for recycling glass and plastic require more resources that it takes to produce new ones. Recycling plastic and glass actually has a bigger environmental footprint that not recycling it.

Because the really bad news is that China isn’t taking our recyclables any more; they’ve been reducing plastic imports from other countries since 2017. Other countries, like Malaysia, have seen their imported recycling from the U.S. increase by hundreds of percent. But they don’t want it either; Malaysia has already started sending it back.

The even worse news, is that China not taking our recyclables, with other nations soon to follow, is actually the good news. Because China doesn’t have as many regulations on corporations as the U.S., American plastic was ending up more often than not in Chinese waterways once expensive equipment broke down or wore out.

And, of course, plastics didn't stay there.

According to the experts, the best place for all that stuff…is landfills in the United States.

U.S. landfills are operated under strict guidelines to prevent the contamination of ground water. Modern landfills have the capacity to harness the methane gas escaping from decomposing garbage and turn it into energy.

There is also plenty of space in existing landfills, with no new ones predicted to be needed before 2050.

The answer to the problem of our mountains of plastic trash, scientists insist, is something much more difficult than tossing plastic and glass bottles into a separate trash can and putting them into a separate dumpster on trash day.

Go figure.

In the U.S., and in other affluent countries around the world, we need to greatly reduce the amount of extra packaging we buy. We need to switch to bar soap, reusable shopping bags, and find ways to reduce the plastic we buy.

One alternative is switching to more environmentally friendly, biodegradable or recyclable packaging, like seed paper, cardboard or aluminum. Cardboard and aluminum in particular are fairly easy and even profitable to recycle considering how difficult and expensive it is to produce those materials from scratch.

The environmentally conscious should also consider seriously reducing the amount of meat and dairy they consume on average. Vast, concentrated industrial animal agriculture is wreaking severe environmental havoc, and changing what we eat everyday would have a huge global impact over the long term.

Most of us are counting on science to save us, and so it might. Plastic is already being reimagined and scientists have found a potential breakthrough discovery that recycles plastic from the inside out.

But we can’t afford to wait.

Everyone agrees humans could be and must be better stewards of the Earth. Well, almost everyone. At the very least, most of us agree we need to address the mountainous ranges of plastic trash China is no longer helpfully taking off our collective hands.

One of the things Americans take for granted is the instant ability to discard trash in a receptacle; in most countries you have to carry your trash around with you until you can dispose of it properly. That there isn’t always someone else ultimately willing to dispose of it for you, that is remove it from whatever temporary receptacle you were good enough to put it in, is a concept that is foreign to most Americans.

People in affluent countries also need to voluntarily decrease their level of consumption, embrace reclaimed and second-hand items. Some companies, like fashion-rental services including Rent the Runway, are already catching on with environmentally conscious consumers who don’t want to contribute to the disposable fashion, cheap labor, and environmentally unsound practices of the clothing industry.

Yes, environmental activists have their work cut out for them.

But considering our nearest relative in the animal kingdom, the chimpanzee, has confined its entire species to equatorial Africa, environmentalists might have a point about the unique nature of human influence on the delicate ecological and meteorological systems of Earth.

Maybe the rest of us should listen. Even if it’s inconvenient.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)

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