Plastic is all around us. A quick look at your surroundings will most likely reveal at least ten items that contain plastic within arm's reach. It is inescapable, in other words. Unfortunately, this means that plastic pollution is equally inescapable.
How Much Plastic Is There?
If you are reading this online, it is likely that plastic is at your fingertips - on your keyboard. Your monitor will also be framed by plastic, and your mouse will likely contain plastic as well. And that is literally only what is at your fingertips.
The question then becomes what happens to the plastic that we throw away. The trays in which your meat comes, the plastic bottles of pop you have emptied, the packaging materials for any item you use. Where do these all go? There is no straightforward answer to this. Some are sent for recycling overseas, which leads to some questioning how effective recycling is, as the very process of shipping it requires plastic and costs a tremendous amount of resources. A great deal of the plastic we discard ends up on landfill sites. Unfortunately, lots of it becomes plastic pollution. Over time, this ends up in our waterways, where it affects all of nature.
Even if you are someone who believes in recycling and will do everything you can to properly dispose of the plastic you use, it is still not possible to escape the pollution. Did you know, for instance, that your toothpaste and facial scrubs contain thousands of tiny plastic beads, and that these all end up in our waterways? Look no further than the Great Lakes in our own country, the biggest group of freshwater bodies on the planet, where various pieces of plastic are now found. And perhaps even more worrying is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, at a spot where there is almost no wind, lies a new continent. Estimated to be twice the size of our country, this continent is a huge swirling mass of plastic waste. Nothing lives there anymore, except plankton. But for every pound of plankton, there is at least six pounds of non-biodegradable plastic. This patch is perhaps the best representation of what we, as humans, are doing to our planet.
Plastic pollution is frightening. Some people aren't frightened by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, because they can't see it. But what you can't see will still affect you. The chemicals found in plastic, and particularly phthalates and BPA, have been found everywhere. It is in our breast milk, our semen, our saliva and our urine. These chemicals mess up many parts of our bodies and scientists have only just started to study just how damaging it is to our health. Judging from animal studies, these chemicals have the potential to be lethal.
Can You Do Anything?
The million dollar question is what can be done. Unfortunately, you cannot escape plastic, because it really is all around us. You can, however, boycott plastic that contains phthalates and BPA (it will be labeled with the number 3 or the number 7). You should also stop heating plastic in microwaves, as this releases a number of toxic gases. Of course, recycling is hugely important. Some truly hardcore people have taken to trying to ban plastic altogether, even making their own toothpaste, but that is a life that is not for most of us. But by recycling properly, you are making a huge difference already.
There are many initiatives around the world that are looking at strategies to reduce plastic consumption. Public education and information, and making recycling more accessible and transparent, are two very important things. Banning plastic bags, particularly single-use ones, is something many countries have now committed to. Others also charge for thicker plastic bags. Regulations do work. In countries like Germany, for instance, 60% of all plastic is now recycled as a direct result of public education campaigns to which retailers have also signed up. Everybody has to accept their personal responsibility when it comes to reducing levels of plastic. You simply cannot wait for someone else to start, as the change must start with you, and it has to start now.