These are just some of the plastic products that Americans throw away every single day. Unfortunately, throwing it away doesn't make it disappear, and plastic has become a problem that is far too big to ignore anymore.
It may seem like a such a big problem that there's nothing we can do, or that it's so far removed from where we live that it's not worth worrying about. Both of these are completely incorrect. We can all help make a difference if we know what we're fighting for.
Here are five reasons to care about solving plastic pollution:
1. Every piece of plastic that has ever been made still exists on Earth today.
Durability and longevity are two qualities about plastic that we like for products, but it is disastrous when we're done with it. Plastic is not biodegradable, meaning that every piece of plastic that has ever been made still exists on the planet.
Yes, we are able to recycle many types of plastic, but unfortunately, we just don't. More than 300 million tons of plastic are produced in the United States each year, yet only about 10 percent of that is recycled. The rest of it is either left to clog up overburdened landfills or gets blown into the ocean.
There has been a push toward compostable plastics in recent years, but facilities capable of handling that kind of plastic are few and far between. As we continue to develop more eco-friendly products, we also need to develop ways of getting rid of them properly as well.
2. Plastics can leach toxins into the environment.
While plastic doesn't biodegrade, it can break down into smaller pieces and leach harmful chemicals into the environment. This can contaminate groundwater, which travels to streams and lakes, even into our drinking supply.
Most people are familiar with bisphenol A (BPA), a plastic ingredient now notorious for having a similar effect on the human body as the sex hormone estrogen. While there has been a shift away from BPA for water bottles and food containers, BPA-free products can still leach chemicals that mimic estrogen. This is important to consider, as heating plastic through washing, microwaving, or holding hot food can promote leaching from the plastic.
These hormone-disrupting chemicals can lead to certain cancers, though scientists are still learning more about how plastic plays into our risk of disease.
3. Plastic harms wildlife in more ways than one.
When it comes to being harmed by plastic, nobody compares to marine wildlife. Marine animals can get tangled in discarded fishing lines, nets, and six-pack rings. On top of that, they are also exposed to all of the chemicals that have leached out of the plastic, which is having very real consequences on their ability to reproduce. This makes conservation much more difficult.
As plastic breaks into smaller pieces from exposure to sunlight, it can really confuse marine animals. A colorful bit of floating plastic can be mistaken as food and is eaten by mistake. Because the animal can't digest the plastic, it just sits in their stomach, taking up room that should be used on real food. Depending on how much plastic they eat, they could end up starving to death.
4. The smaller the piece of plastic, the more dangerous it becomes.
Just because a piece of plastic is too small to see doesn't mean it's safe. As previously mentioned, animals may eat small bits of plastic thinking that it is food. That animal may get eaten by a larger animal, where the plastic is still not digested. Not only does plastic accumulate up the food chain, so do the toxins leached out from it. This is troubling, particularly when it happens to food eaten by humans.
Microbeads (tiny pieces of plastic commonly used in toothpaste or soaps to help give a scouring action) have caused a tremendous burden. Each day, enough microbeads enter the environment to cover a tennis court 300 times. While these microbeads have been banned and are currently being phased out, existing plastic can break down into pieces just as small and dangerous.
5. There isn't an easy fix.
There is no shortage of ideas meant to fix the plastic problem, but anything that sounds like it's too easy to be true most likely is. The idea of sifting out plastic using some kind of a net seems like it would be the best way, but it's hard to skim out plastic without skimming out wildlife at the same time.
This is especially true when dealing with something capable of grabbing the smallest pieces of plastic, as tiny organisms such as krill and plankton feed many species in the ocean. For many proposals, experts have agreed that the strain on the ecosystem to try to remove the plastic might be worse than letting it stay there.
Even if the plastic was removed from the water, there's no good solution of how to take care of it back on land. Any technique worth trying will need to look at the entire picture.
The solution may not be easy, but there are ways we can all help.
First and foremost, we all need to be more aware of how we use plastic in our lives. We can reduce consumption by avoiding buying water bottles or individually packaged snacks, but there is also a need to make sure more of what we do use ends up in the recycling bin.
Many people often underestimate the power they have with their wallet. Buying eco-friendly products will encourage corporations to continue looking for ways to reduce their environmental impact.
One of the best ways to ensure that change will happen is to contact politicians and demand they take action to address this plastic problem, such as supporting plastic shopping bag bans. The ban on microbeads was an incredible victory, but there is still a lot of work to do. It's going to take a while, but it will be worth it.
Check back at aplus.com every Wednesday for a new edition of 5 Reasons To Care!
Cover image: Shutterstock