The Problem With Plastic: Guide to Sustainability

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.