Written by Michele Wheat
Since its invention in 1907, fully synthetic plastic has become an important part of everyday life. It can be found in almost every aspect of modern living, from clothing to cars. This dependence on plastic, however, can come at a high cost and be harmful to the planet. Fortunately, by making sustainable changes, everyone can help reduce plastic pollution and protect the environment for future generations.
Discarded plastics, particularly one-time-use items such as soda bottles, forks, and food containers, commonly litter streets, beaches, and even bodies of water. While some plastics are recycled, most of them end up in landfills. Unlike other forms of trash, some plastics can take hundreds of years to break down, and others may never fully do so. Because of this, mounds of plastic continue to grow. In the ocean, this has contributed to the formation of massive floating bodies of garbage. By 2050, according to scientists, the tremendous amount of plastic polluting the ocean will even be greater than the mass of fish that live in it.
Besides the overcrowding that plastic trash causes, it also releases harmful chemicals into the ocean. On land, these chemicals travel down through the soil and into groundwater that's eventually used for irrigation and for drinking. It is harmful to the digestive systems of birds and other animals that may eat it. It can also ensnare, choke, or suffocate certain types of wildlife that come into contact with it.
The manufacturing of plastics also creates greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming and uses large amounts of fossil fuel. Another problem is human exposure to phthalates, a type of chemical that makes certain plastics more flexible and durable. These chemicals can have a negative effect on health and may cause reproductive problems and other issues. Because of routine exposure, it can be found in measurable amounts in the bodies of humans, both adults and babies. Bisphenol A (BPA), another chemical that is associated with plastic, is also detectable in the urine of more than 90% of people.
Despite its problems, plastic is not entirely without its positive uses. It plays an important role in helping to keep people safe and in good health. When used to cover and seal food, plastic keeps it fresher longer during transportation and helps protect it from germs. Plastic is in safety gear for sports and other dangerous activities, and it makes vehicles lighter and more fuel-efficient. And electronics such as smartphones and computers are more affordable because they use plastic components.
There are many positive uses of plastic in the medical industry, where it's used to make syringes, IV bags, and a wide range of other medical devices and tools. Devices made of plastic are less likely to shatter than those made of glass, and they are more resistant to corrosion from chemicals than metal. In terms of safety, disposable plastic also reduces the risk of cross-contamination in a medical environment.
Although the benefits of plastic vary, it's important to reduce its negative impact on the environment. A good way to start is by evaluating the plastic in one's home to determine if it is necessary and whether it can be recycled, reused, or repurposed. To reduce one-time-use plastic, switch to items that are reusable, like metal straws and reusable bags for groceries and other purchased goods. Another step is to switch to similar items that don't use plastic packaging. An example is buying bars of bath soap instead of body wash in a bottle. Instead of throwing away empty or used items, consider new ways to use or upcycle them, such as turning a milk jug into a planter.
- What Is Sustainability? By understanding what sustainability means, people can take action toward living a more eco-friendly life.
- How Big Is the Plastic Problem, and How Can We Solve It? Most people know that plastics are a problem for the environment, but they may not understand exactly why or how.
- Plastic: The Popular Pollutant: To help its readers better understand why plastic is such a popular material, this Engineering for Good article reviews plastic's history, uses, and benefits.
- How to Really Bid Good Riddance to Plastic: This Sierra Club article discusses various ways, other than recycling, that people can combat the plastic problem.
- Environmental Toll of Plastics: Click this link to read about the toll that plastic has on the environment and human health.
- Colorado School of Mines: What Is Sustainability? People who visit this page can find diagrams of the three traditional pillars and the expanded pillars of sustainability as well as a brief description of each area.
- Applications and Societal Benefits of Plastic: Plastic has a long history and a multitude of uses that can be both harmful and beneficial.
- Chemistry of Plastics: Learn more about what plastics are made of by clicking on this American Chemistry Council link.
- Ocean Plastics Pollution: A Global Tragedy for Our Oceans and Sea Life: Oceans, beaches, and the wildlife that inhabit them and other waterways are greatly impacted by plastic waste. People who visit this page will learn about its toll on wildlife and other problems, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
- What You Can Do to Fight Plastic Pollution: Plastic pollution is a problem that anyone can fight. On this page, readers will learn ways to combat it individually and how to encourage others to do the same.
- It's Time to Change How We Produce, Consume, and Dispose of the Plastic We Use: Scroll down this page to read about types of single-use plastics, facts about plastic, and various plastic-related problems. This page also reviews what governments and citizens can do to implement change.
- Single-Use Plastics 101: Single-use plastic is everywhere, from soda bottles to lightweight bags.
- What if We Could Put Our Plastic Trash to Good Use? In this article, PBS explores salvaging used plastic waste to address other environmental problems.
- The Many Uses of Plastic: Learn about the many beneficial uses of plastic, including those in the home and in transportation.
- Innovative Solutions to Tackling Plastic Pollution in the Ocean: The question of what to do with plastic pollution is a complicated one to answer. In this NOAA article, readers are given some creative examples of what can be done, including turning fishing nets made of plastic into energy.
- U.S. Actions to Address Plastic Pollution: Click on this link to learn what programs the United States has to address plastic pollution on a national and international level.
- Can Chemical Recycling Reduce Plastic Pollution? Recycling is a well-known method of reducing plastic waste. The U.S. Government Accountability Office discusses where plastic goes, how it is currently recycled, and what chemical recycling is.
- When Plastics Revolutionized Health Care: Open this link to read how the use of plastic has helped advance the medical industry.
- Science Matters: The Case of Plastics: The dangers of plastic are well-known, but it isn't all bad. In this article, readers will learn about its history and how its invention has been used in ways that are good for society.
- The Plastic Problem Isn't Your Fault, But You Can Be Part of the Solution: Listen to this podcast from NPR and read the corresponding article for information on how to help solve the problem of plastic pollution.
- What Is BPA, and What Are the Concerns About BPA? Learn about what BPA is and how to reduce exposure to it
- Four Ways to Reduce Plastic Pollution: This link outlines policies necessary to reduce plastic pollution.