The word plastic comes from the Greek word plastikos, meaning "capable of being shaped or molded." Such an innocent origin for a substance that, as we currently know and use it, causes so much trouble! Yet it is plastic's ability to be shaped, molded, and engineered to become pretty much anything that has allowed it to be used so ubiquitously. Plastic can be found in any industry and anywhere in the world in some form, and I won't deny that in many of those cases it is acting beneficially.
I'm not writing this post in order to vilify plastic as a blanket statement. Sure, I have a lot of problems with the substance, but we have to recognize the good along with the bad. Plastic is an incredible material because it’s so strong and takes a very long time to degrade. Plastic plays a huge role in the medical industry where it makes up durable machines, flexible hoses, and sterile wrappings which humans rely on for any number of health reasons. Plastic makes automobiles, certain types of plumbing, and space travel possible. Despite the myriad ways that plastic causes problems, it is also a necessity for the modern world.
So what is the problem with plastic? It’s not so much the plastic items that are meant to last forever but the ones which are intended to be used for a short amount of time that are causing an environmental disaster. I’ll never understand how plastic, a material which is celebrated for its ability to last forever, became the go-to for making single-use items that are meant to be used for 10 minutes before being disposed of. These single-use items never biodegrade and because they’re used so frivolously, they are piling up in our landfills and overflowing into natural habitats. Think about it, every drinking straw, every flimsy plastic fork, every lighter, every plastic bag that you have ever used is still here on this Earth with us.
Even when we recycle (or, perhaps more accurately, try to recycle) we can’t quite address the problem with plastic on our planet. There are a number of different types of plastic, some of which are recyclable in most US cities and others which are pretty much impossible to recycle. Not to mention that recycling in the US still needs a lot of work, as EcoCult discovered last America Recycles Day. Items like to-go coffee cups and their lids, bottle caps, and the little tamper-proof bits of shrink wrap that come wrapped around jars of coconut oil, peanut butter, and beauty products all end up in the landfill instead of in the recycling. Even plastics that are generally recyclable, like PET water bottles, are only able to be downcycled instead of recycled. So instead of that bottle becoming another bottle, it may be recycled into a pair of yoga pants or a park bench instead. While downcycling does add another lifecycle or two to these types of recyclable plastics, the material degrades each time it is re-processed and therefore cannot be recycled indefinitely the way that metal or aluminum can.
With recycling systems operating the way they currently do, there are still a lot of recyclable plastics that never even find their way to a new life but instead end up in a landfill or, oftentimes, in the ocean. Plastics in the ocean aren’t just floating around cluttering up our beaches and making the world an uglier place, they’re interacting with marine life, too. Animals like turtles, fish, and birds have all been found dead from ingesting items like bottle caps, toothbrushes, straws, lighters and more. These adorable little animals eat colorful bits of plastic that looks like food, ending up with so much of the stuff in their stomachs that they dye slowly from starvation. Turtles and larger marine mammals have also been found strangled by plastic bags, and some even grow up deformed or are physically harmed by the presence of plastic in their habitats. Google the images, they’re not pretty.
Even smaller bits of plastic are causing problems in our oceans, whether they’re exfoliating microbeads used in some brands of face wash, microfibers that shed off of synthetic clothing when it’s washed, or smaller bits of plastic that have broken off of larger items. Because of its molecular makeup, plastic is prone to attracting and attaching to other molecules, including toxins. Toxins attach themselves to microplastics in the ocean which are often ingested by zooplankton, tiny little organisms which sit near the bottom of the food chain. As fish and other animals eat those plankton, they too are ingesting plastics. I’m sure you can guess what happens when we humans in turn end up with those same fish on our plates.
So what are we to do as humans who care about the ocean, the animals, and the environment in general?
First off, I encourage you to vote. Vote for politicians who support bans on plastic bags, styrofoam and straws. Vote for politicians who do not support fracking, offshore drilling, or pipelines - remember that plastic as we know it (the kind that doesn’t biodegrade) is made from petroleum. On that note, vote for politicians who support a carbon tax and champion renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Oh, and make sure that whoever you’re voting for is not receiving campaign donations from oil lobbyists!
In our daily lives, we can commit to getting rid of single-use plastics that we simply do not need to be using. Investing in a reusable bag, a portable water bottle, bamboo utensils, a metal straw, and a to-go thermos may seem like a lot, but if you acquire them slowly (don’t break the bank all at once) and integrate them into your daily routine one by one, it’s not quite as daunting as you might think. Bonus points if you replace saran wrap in your kitchen with a reusable, compostable alternative or swap out your ziploc drawer for the reusable kind instead! Even if you sometimes forget your water bottle or straw (guilty!) the fact that you are reducing your reliance on single-use plastic items most days is a lot better than not trying in the first place.
We can also use our purchasing power to support brands and businesses who are tackling the plastic problem through their own zero-waste, recycling, or reusable initiatives. There are a number of great products out there that are conscious of their footprint on this earth and are working to provide products that are a part of the solution rather than the problem. Below are a few of my favorites!
Fair Harbor grew from a deep love for the ocean and therefore is fighting ocean plastic pollution by collecting water bottles from the sea and turning them into board shorts - with women’s swimsuits coming soon!
Mara Hoffman uses various sustainable materials like ECONYL® (nylon made from pre and post-consumer waste nylon fibers) and REPREVE® (made from recycled plastic bottles) to create sexy, earth-saving swimsuits that are perfect for hanging at the beach or cleaning it up.
Meow Meow Tweet offers palm-oil free beauty and skincare products in cute, quirky packaging that is always compostable or recyclable.
Reprise Activewear can’t stand the thought of shedding microfibers into the ocean so they opted to use Tencel - an eco-friendly, plant-based, high-performing material - to create their stylish active gear.
Patagonia has been recycling plastic bottles and turning it into clothing since 1993, and nowadays they also turn pre-consumer textile waste as well as used Patagonia clothing into new stuff. Patagonia is also working exclusively with GUPPYFRIEND™ washing bag on a mission to prevent microfibers shedding into our oceans via the laundry.
Shea Brand boycotts plastic by using only reusable, compostable, or recyclable packaging to house their super soft, cruelty free, and incredibly functional skincare products.
THINX provides an alternative to disposable period products like plastic tampon applicators and pads which come swathed in layers of plastic. Try their period-proof panties or opt for a menstrual cup to cut plastic out of your cycle.
What are some ways that you reduce your use of plastic in your daily life? What brands do you love for their zero-waste initiatives?