Our Plastics Problem

We have a plastics problem. Post WWII, modern plastics were a game changer. They represented a cheaper, lighter, resilient and more efficient containment solution. Even though plastics have their place in specific industries – auto and medical to name a few – no long term studies were conducted on how they might affect our bodies when foods and liquids stored in them were ingested. Not much thought was given to their disposal and what kind of havoc they might wreak on the environment.

Environmental organizations boil the problem down to a simple fact: Plastics are made to last forever but designed to throw away.

As for our health, “BPA-free” isn’t quite the safeguard label we have given it credit for being. BPS (Bisphenol-S) is the common replacement for BPA since it’s banishment by the FDA in 2012. Bisphenols are chemical compounds that soften, or make plastics more pliable. According to a recent University of Calgary study, BPS turns out to be equally as harmful as BPA. Unfortunately, once a certain chemical is banned there is always another one waiting in the wings. And since the FDA takes the ‘safe until proven otherwise’ stance, we become human guinea pigs until the next thing has been proven harmful.

Sea Bird in plasticIn terms of the environment, it is estimated that only 5% to 7% of the plastics we use are recycled. Nearly half of all discarded plastic is buried in landfills and the remaining percentage washes or is dumped directly into the sea. Our oceans are full of plastic – which means that fish are full of plastics. Sea life that isn’t obliterated outright, remains contaminated and in the food chain.Plastic with turtle



In the recent past, I would alert students to the Great Pacific and Atlantic garbage patches, two gyres (made up almost entirely of plastics) measured originally at twice the size of Texas and morphing eventually to at least two times the size of the US! Today, with the existence of five gyres spanning our major oceans worldwide, plastic ocean debris has become immeasurable. Our oceans and seas are rapidly becoming a plastic soup. The ocean has turned out to be the world’s largest landfill.

Screen shot 2014-04-29 at 8.19.08 PMWe know so much more today about plastic refuse and it’s effects on our environment, and yet we are glacially slow to make meaningful changes in regards to how we use and discard plastics. For example, Americans use an estimated 100 billion disposable plastic bags yearly. Remember, plastic is a petroleum or natural gas product – which took millions of years to form – and yet plastic bags are used for mere minutes before being incinerated, buried or relegated to the ocean. That 100 billion bag figure represents 12 million barrels of petroleum oil or fuel equivalents such as natural gas.

Plastic in FieldBy aggressively blocking fee ordinances for one-time-use bags, and instead, pushing for recycling mandates (which have less than a 4% compliance rate), the plastic bag manufacturers and lobbyists inadvertently helped to smooth the way for outright bag bans in many cases. Plastic bag bans have gained a foothold in some major municipalities although bills in some of our largest cities – New York, Chicago and Philadelphia – still face stubborn opposition. In October 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed a California bill into law to ban single-use plastic bags statewide – which is scheduled to go into effect in July 2015. Though the law is being challenged by said bag manufacturers, San Francisco has had a bag ban since 2007 – and 88 other California cities have fees and bans rolled into local ordinances. Seattle, Austin (plus eight other Texas towns and cities), Washington D.C. and Portland, Oregon are all bag-banning success stories.

Santa Monica, CA Bag Ban rally

Santa Monica, CA Bag Ban rally

It seems however that just as we get a handle on some of the most obvious plastic culprits – single-use plastic bags and disposable water/soda bottles – inexplicably more plastics creep into products and packaging daily. Illinois is the first State to ban plastic microbeads in skincare products. After washing down the drain and into the waterways, microbeads resemble fish eggs and are mistaken for fish food. And most recently, micro fibers from all types of synthetic fabrics are showing up in fish and seafood. Because washing machines usually don’t have filter traps, these fibers go from the wash cycle directly to waterways – bypassing water treatment because they are so small.

Not too very long ago, a carton of milk or juice opened in the logical way cartons open. Now, I challenge you to find a carton that doesn’t have the plastic doohickey, easy open/easy pour spout. It’s completely unnecessary. How about zip lock bags!? Any pouch or plastic bag is unrecyclable once they have a zip lock closure by the way. More and more foods these days are packaged in a zip lock pouches. A ‘stay fresh’ measure I suppose. But how did we manage to keep our foods fresh before the zip lock miracle?
Go-Go SqueezIn the name of convenience we support (with our dollars) organic yogurt or applesauce in a squeezable, plastic pouch, for our on-the-go kids and our busy lifestyles. When did we get so busy that we can’t sit down with a bowl and spoon to eat our applesauce? I find it ironic that the very people with the means and the environmental awareness are the ones that don’t give a second thought to this kind of consumption. A person feeding themselves and a family on a limited budget cannot entertain the expense of single serving, packaged foods. It’s cheaper to buy in bulk. It just happens to be easier on the environment in terms of waste as well.

As consumers, it is important to be ever aware of the packaging recycling solutions available to us. Since rigid plastics recycling is available in my city, I opt for food in a rigid plastic container over a soft pouch since I know that I have a solution for it. But at the same time, glass or paper packaging trumps plastics when there is a choice. Glass is always safer in terms of storage and is a great candidate for re-use. As a commodity, glass is considered a closed-loop, 100% recyclable package. Unlike paper or plastic, glass can be recycled indefinitely without loosing quality or purity.

glass jars There are so many worthy Environmental New Year’s Resolutions to be made for 2015 – but limiting one-time-use plastics is one that should be at the top of the list!

Be the change!

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About the Author

Here at Jenny Green Jeans, by sharing success stories and easy-to- implement tips, I hope to inspire and empower you to continue to make sustainable choices in your life and watch how far the impact goes. Please contact me with any questions or suggestions you may have. Also visit the Green Design Goods store for my favorite environmentally sustainable products.

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  1. satyacaroti@gmail.com' Emily Fano says:

    Great arcticle Jen. Andrew Revkin at the NY Times recently wrote that the “Anthropocene” age – this geological age of our own making – began with (atomic) fallout and plastics http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/15/researchers-propose-earths-anthropocene-age-of-humans-began-with-fallout-and-plastics/?_r=0

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