Here at Kindred Black we try to make every day an Earth Day, but since the calendar marks today as one to be recognized we thought we’d pull out our soap box and take a sobering look at plastics.
Plastic pollution has reached epidemic proportions in the world since the introduction of the world’s first wholly synthetic plastic, Bakelite, in 1907. From there, plastics became cheaper and easier to produce and global plastic production skyrocketed from 1.5 million metric tons in 1950 to more than 300 million metric tons produced annually today. Plastics are so ubiquitous in our lives at this point that we barely think about them anymore and the consequence of that is that we’re now producing millions of tons of plastic waste and pollution each year – one study estimates that between 4.8 and 12.7 metric tons of plastic is being dumped into our oceans annually.
Americans alone discard more than 30 million tons of plastic a year with only about 8% of that getting recycled. Most of it is simply tossed away to become landfill and pollution. Natural substances like wood, grass and food undergo biodegradation, meaning they are transformed by bacteria into useful compounds. But those microorganisms don’t recognize the man made plastics as food and can’t do them the same favor. Their only decomposition happens through photodegradation – sunlight striking the plastic will eventually, over time break it down into lots of little pieces, smaller and smaller until they become almost invisible but they never disappear. Plastics in landfills rarely get much light because modern landfills are lined at the bottom with clay and plastic and covered on top daily with layers of soil to reduce the smell. The garbage contained is essentially entombed and is more likely to mummify than degrade.
The plastic refuse that gets into the water course and ends up in the ocean gets as much light as the water and over a very long time, estimates range from 450 to 1000 years for a single water bottle to fully degrade, these plastics are broken down into smaller and smaller particles of toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) and PS oligomer, making the water a veritable stew of chemical particles to be ingested by animals and washed up onto our shores. Already these chemicals are now in the blood and tissues of almost all of us and have been linked to cancers, infertility, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruptions and other ailments. 93% of Americans age 6 or older test positive for the plastic chemical BPA and more research is suggesting that many babies are born pre-polluted because of the harmful effects of exposure to toxic environmental chemicals during pregnancy.
Plastic marine pollution, mermaids' tears. Photo via Greenpeace.
Even those plastics that are recycled can be hazardous for the environment. Much of the plastic collected for recycling is exported to other countries with more lax environmental regulations. China receives about half of waste plastic imports worldwide and there is evidence that a lot of the processing is done by unregulated facilities with little environmental protection controls on proper disposal of contaminants or waste water or air pollution control systems for plants incinerating the plastics.
All of this is so depressing and alarming that most of us feel overwhelmed and there’s a tendency to throw up our hands in defeat, believing that the problem is too big for us to make any significant impact. Luckily this is far from the truth – with some relatively small lifestyle changes each and every person is capable of making a substantive difference. Using a reusable coffee cup every day, refusing straws and plastic take out containers at restaurants, carrying reusable bags in your car or handbag to use at the grocery store and when shopping, buying glass instead of plastic for drinks and other bottled items – these are just some of the very achievable personal goals that will make a huge difference as more and more people subscribe. So this Earth Day we ask you to consider making just one change to reduce plastic consumption and pollution. One small change from each of us can make one very huge difference to the planet.
For more information and ways to get involved, visit The Plastic Pollution Coalition here.