It seems like such a harmless choice, one that’s far too easy to make. You’re driving along in your car and you get thirsty, but you’ve forgotten your trusty stainless steel water bottle. So you swing by a convenience store and buy a bottle of water. While you’re at it you get a snack. No big deal, right? After all, printed on the bottle is the little chasing arrows recycling symbol, and there’s another one on the plastic bag in which the clerk placed your bottle and chips. What that symbol doesn’t tell you is that the bag and bottle are each one of billions produced every year, and try as we might to reduce, reuse and recycle plastic containers, every scrap of plastic we humans have ever produced is still hanging around in the environment.
The average American consumes 167 bottles of water in a year, and we each use between 350 and 500 plastic bags. It would be great if we could then take each used bottle or bag and turn it into another bottle or bag. But unfortunately, that’s not quite how recycling plastic works. First off, we only recover about 30 percent of bottles before they hit landfills, and we recycle fewer than 12 percent of plastic bags. And even then, a more accurate term would be “downcycling,” as most recycled plastic ends its life in some unrecyclable form, like plastic lumber, thus breaking that chasing arrow symbol. When the lumber wears out, it will end up as garbage, probably in a landfill somewhere.
The EPA reported that in 2010, nearly three and a half million tons of plastic bags end up in landfills every year—that works out to tens of billions of bags that end up in trash piles. According to the Pacific Institute, an environmental research group, 38 billion plastic water bottles crowd landfills each year, and that doesn’t count the millions more plastic soda containers that get thrown away. In landfills, it might take 1000 years for a bottle to decompose. Wispy plastic bags do little better, hanging around for decades up to 100 years.
But even the idea of plastics decomposing is misleading, and here is where it gets really scary for otters and other sea life. By many accounts, 80 percent of the trash found at sea comes from the land, whether a plastic bag inadvertently blows off the back of a garbage truck and into the water, or someone carelessly tosses a bottle into a storm drain in the Midwest, where it catches a ride in the nearest river to the sea, a staggering amount of plastic junk ends up in the world’s oceans.
Once in the ocean, plastic can cause a host of problems – debris ingestion, wildlife entanglement and habitat destruction just to name a few. Piles of evidence (literally) show that fish, otters and birds mistake bottle caps, toys and other bits of plastic for food. The plastic can fill up animals’ stomachs, but of course it provides no nutrition and isn’t digested, so they starve from the inside out. Lost or abandoned fishing gear can last for decades in the ocean and can entangle wildlife causing serious injury or death. When abandoned, these “ghost nets” continue their deadly mission, plucking anything from the water column that gets in their path.
Much of the plastic that ends up in the ocean becomes part of the swirling mess of plastic garbage that gets caught up in one of the ocean’s gyres—huge areas of the ocean with circular, rotating currents that allow marine debris to concentrate and accumulate. By some accounts, the North Pacific Gyre is larger than the state of Texas. One study found that in this area, the concentration of plastic outweighs the concentration of zooplankton (tiny animals that form the base of the ocean’s food web) by six times!
Plastic does degrade in the ocean, but instead of biodegrading like an apple core does in your compost pile, where microorganisms digest the solid material into sugars and nutrients that plants can use again, a plastic bag will photodegrade. This process of degradation alone releases a myriad of chemicals that can interfere with hormone function, cause obesity and cancer, and diminish fertility in animals and people. As the sun beats down on plastic scraps, the bonds between the building blocks of plastic—known as polymers—begin to crack. But unlike the digested pieces of apple, nothing in nature has evolved a way to make use of these increasingly small bits of plastic. So no matter how small the pieces get, they’re still essentially plastic and never fully go away.
In fact, these pieces can get so small that zooplankton, like the fish and birds that sit higher on the food chain, also fill up on plastic. Aside from providing no nutritional value, these plastic fragments also attract toxins found in the water column. Human-made chemicals like the insecticide DDT and PCBs used to make plastics stubbornly hang around in the environment, decades after their use was banned. Because of the way plastics are formed—long chains of carbon and hydrogen usually from petroleum—they attract these persistent chemicals, so when an animal ingests a piece of plastic, it’s getting a wafer of indigestible material laced with chemicals that can throw a wrench in the way its body works. These chemicals work their way up the food chain through a process known as bioaccumulation, stored in the fat of ocean dwellers and becoming more and more concentrated at each step. At the top, predators like killer whales are saddled with such high levels of chemicals that their bodies could be classified as toxic waste.
That brings us to how plastics are made. Most of the plastic bags made in the United States come from petroleum products other than oil, typically byproducts of natural gas refining. But the same cannot be said for bags made elsewhere, which may be made from the earth’s dwindling supply of crude oil. However it’s made, plastic manufacturing requires a lot of energy. Researchers at the Pacific Institute estimated that it takes the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil to make the nearly 50 billion plastic water bottles used every year in the United States. While that may not seem like a lot when we consume almost 20 million barrels a day in this country, 17 million barrels of oil is enough to keep about 436,000 cars on the road for a year.
With the wide range of dangerous effects that plastics can have on the health of our environment (not to mention our own well being), that seemingly harmless choice to buy a bottle of water or accept another plastic bag is really anything but. It pays to keep in mind that while recycling and finding reuses for plastic is beneficial, the only solution that’s truly sustainable in the long term is reducing our plastic consumption and production.
What can you do to help? Here are a few simple tips to get you started:
- Say no to single-use plastics and encourage others to do the same!
- Reduce the amount of waste you produce.
- Reuse items whenever possible. Choose reusable items over disposable ones.
- Recycle as much as possible and buy recycled products whenever you can.
- Be responsible for all of your trash on land and on the water. Dispose of items properly.
- Get involved in local beach and stream cleanups or organize one of your own.
- Remember that the land and sea, no matter where you are, are connected.
- Bring reusable bags when you go shopping. A paper bag is not a good alternative to plastic, as it requires a lot of trees, energy and chemicals to produce.
- Use a reusable stainless steel water bottle and refill it with filtered water instead of buying bottled water. In addition to reducing our demand for plastic, carrying your own water drains our collective supply less, as it takes about 3 liters of water to make 1 liter of bottled water.
- Find every use possible for plastic containers, but be wary of keeping food and drink, especially hot ones, in them, as harmful chemicals can leach from the plastic over time.
- Insist on using your own cup at coffee shops. Not only will you cut down on the number of plastic lids and paper or Styrofoam (a type of plastic that will hang around for thousands of years), but some places will even give you a discount on your joe.
- If you don’t need a bag, then don’t use one! Same goes for plastic utensils and other stuff when you go shopping or get takeout. Use our own insulated thermos for coffee. Reduce your individual waste stream!
By the Numbers:
- 350–500: the number of plastic shopping bags the average American household uses per year
- 80: percentage of plastic in the ocean that comes from the land
- 60: percentage of plastic that still ends up in landfills, even though we pay a deposit that could be returned to us if we recycled it
- 167: average number of disposable plastic water bottles one person uses in a year
- 50 billion: number of plastic water bottles used in the U.S. annually
- 20–100 years: amount of time it takes a plastic bag to breakdown
- 700–1000 years: amount of time it will take for a plastic bottle to break down
- 3.5 million: tons of plastic bags that end up in landfills every year
- 1 ton of recycled plastic saves 3.8 barrels of oil
- 1 million recycled plastic bottles eliminate 180 metric tons of CO2
- 10% of all US oil, 2 million barrels, is used to make plastics
- Americans throw 2 million plastic bottles in the trash every 10 minutes