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The Plastic Problem

Have you considered other simple swaps in the name of sustainability?

Plastic pollution is a huge problem – it is estimated 6.4 million tons of debris enter the ocean annually. This debris has impacted hundreds of marine species through entanglement or ingestion incidents, resulting in injury, illness, and death. The problem isn’t just straws. Unfortunately, it’s a much wider-reaching issue than that. Think about all the aisles of packaged food at the grocery store – some of that comes in recyclable cardboard or aluminum, but a significant amount is packaged in plastic.

Different Types of Plastics

There are different types of plastics, and you can assess what kind they are by looking at the number in the recycling symbol on them. 

  • Type 1 is typically associated with plastic bottles.
  • Type 2 is often thicker bottles like milk jugs or cleaning bottles.
  •  Type 3 is thinner plastic like plastic wrap and food trays.
  •  Type 4 includes the plastic bags from grocery stores as well as packaging.
  • Type 5 is more of a catch-all that includes straws, diapers, chip bags, furniture filling, and more.
  • Type 6 is Styrofoam.
  •  Type 7 is designated “Other.” 

Only Types 1 and 2 are often recycled. Types 3, 4, and 5 depend on your municipality, which may prohibit them from curbside recycling, although these are often allowed to be turned into plastic bag drops that may be available at grocery stores. Types 6 and 7 are not valuable enough to be recycled, and are almost always redirected to landfills. 

Certain plastics are recyclable and others are not, but all plastics have one thing in common: the more you recycle it, the more brittle it will become. Eventually this feature will render the plastic too fragile to recycle again and it becomes trash. Despite certain plastic products being hailed as recyclable, it is inevitable that their utility will decrease and eventually stop over time. 

My problem isn’t with plastic itself. 

Plastic is an ingenious material that allows for sterility during medical procedures, protection against contamination in lab settings, and countless other functions that make it incredibly valuable.

 So again, my problem isn’t with plastic - my problem is with how we use plastic. 

We as humans use and abuse single-use plastic. Between to-go containers, plastic cutlery, and the packaging or wrapping you get when you buy something new, people have become so numb to plastic waste that we barely even notice it. We use a piece of plastic sometimes for a matter of seconds, yet that piece of plastic will last for hundreds of years. 

What is the solution?

You’ve already chosen cloth diapers, and that is a huge step. There are tons of other hassle-free swaps you can make to reduce the amount of waste you create, especially when it comes to plastic. Some of the easiest:

  • Bring your own reusable cup for to-go drinks.
  • Take it a step further and bring your own cutlery.
  • Never forget to bring your reusable bag when you go shopping – and not just in grocery stores!
  • Shop in the bulk section to avoid extra packaging and use your own produce bags.
  • Try to buy things unpackaged, like shampoo bars instead of bottled shampoo.
  • If you’re going out to eat, bring your own container for leftovers.
  • Go for secondhand – the most sustainable item is the one that you’re not buying new! 

Making a few simple changes can mean you virtually eliminate single-use plastics from your life. There is no competition to see who can use the least plastic or produce the least amount of waste, so you don’t have to be perfect. Reducing your waste by a little is better than reducing it by none!

If you’re interested in low-waste or plastic-free living, follow me at @greenmarinescientist on instagram for tons of tips on how to live a more sustainable lifestyle. 

Alanna Mnich                                            
Guest Contributor

Alanna Mnich is a marine science PhD student at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology. She uses biogeochemical methods to study fish populations. Alanna is interested in all realms of sustainability but focuses on reducing her plastic and carbon footprints

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