What can we do about the plastic problem?

ZOË REINHARDT / AGGIE

Despite litter statistics, our everyday choices still matter

A flyer posted in the Davis bathrooms last year asked students to reconsider using red solo cups. It argued that plastic produces negative environmental impacts and suggested that students ban single-use cups.

For the umpteenth time, I asked myself: “If we all know plastic is bad, why are we still making it, buying it and dumping it in the trash?” But do we really have a choice?

Plastic is in water bottles, disposable razors, toys, food packaging, movie cases, video game consoles, kitchen utensils, beauty supplies and more. As consumers, our nonplastic product choices seem few. Without embracing an “alternative lifestyle,” how can the average person make a difference in a world inundated with plastic?

I first learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an island of plastic in the Pacific Ocean, six years ago. At the time, I couldn’t believe that we had let plastic build up into floating trash vortexes that trapped and killed marine life. Charles Moore, the captain who discovered the patch in 1997, couldn’t believe it either.

“I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic,” Moore said. “It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.”

We’ve produced plastic at an unimaginable rate, and most of it has ended up in the ocean. Humans have produced 9 billion tons of plastic, and of the 7 billion tons that people have trashed, 79 percent went to landfills or littered the environment.

“We all knew there was a rapid and extreme increase in plastic production from 1950 until now, but actually quantifying the cumulative number for all plastic ever made was quite shocking,” said Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer at the University of Georgia.

Most people have heard the statistics: Scientists predict there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. Half of all sea turtles and most marine birds have plastic in their stomachs. But the statistics only attempt to quantify the plastic problem that overwhelms the planet.

After decades of disintegration, plastics have turned into “microplastics” in our oceans. Scientists have even discovered plastic-fused rocks washed up on Hawaiian beaches. The plastic problem appears to be irreversibly embedded in our world.

But as Susan Freinkel, a scientific journalist, pointed out in 2011, plastic has its benefits, too. People just need to be smarter about using it, she argued.

“We have the technology to make better, safer plastics — forged from renewable sources rather than finite fossil fuels, using chemicals that inflict minimal or no harm on the planet and our health,” Freinkel said. “We have the public policy tools to build better recycling systems and to hold businesses accountable for the products they put into the market. And we can also take a cue from the plastic purgers about how to cut wasteful plastic out of our daily lives.”

While there’s truth to Freinkel’s argument, she glossed over the role of personal accountability. Individual choices are still at the root of the plastic problem. Do we have a choice? We do: recycle or don’t recycle.

Of all the plastic we use, 91 percent isn’t recycled. If we choose to put our plastics in the garbage and sort them in the right bins, we might make a difference. If we increase plastic recycling, maybe we can start thinking of ways to reduce the plastic in our oceans.

Because regular people require things like alarm clocks and toothbrushes, the plastic problem can seem distant and the resolution unrealistic. But it’s much easier to manage one piece of trash at a time. Thankfully, UC Davis makes it easy for students to recycle on campus. It’s what we do at home that really matters.

Start saying “no” to plastic waste — and watch out for flyers in the bathroom.

 

Written by: Jessica Driver — jmdriver@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

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