“Single-use plastic has become so commonplace in our world that most of us don’t blink an eye at tossing a plastic fork or bottle into the trash. But all that plastic garbage has to go somewhere. Eye Ubiquitous/UIG/Getty Images
It’s easy to walk out of the house and forget your canvas grocery bags when you head to the grocery store, and when you’re thirsty, that plastic bottled water sure does look inviting. Furthermore, we all understand what it’s like to order food in a rush and scarf it down with a plastic fork that came in a small plastic bag with a plastic knife you’ll never use. Also, there’s something so satisfying about drinking out of a straw, is there not?
All this may be true, but in February 2018, a young male sperm whale washed up dead off the coast of Spain. The necropsy report released in April revealed the cause of death was a belly full of plastic — dozens of plastic bags, netting, rope and even a large plastic water container. The animal was young but still woefully underweight. Investigators say the probable cause of death was a clogged digestive system, exacerbated by a severe infection brought on by over 60 pounds (29 kilograms) of plastic in his digestive system.
This isn’t the first time this has happened, and it certainly won’t be the last. Research suggests 8.3 million metric tons (9.15 million tons) of virgin plastic has been manufactured to date, and 79 percent of that is now sitting in landfills or loose in the natural environment — much of it in the world’s oceans. Much of that has been broken down to around the size of a grain of rice, which is a size that reads "snack" to a lot of marine life.
Right now it’s looking like plastic might be humankind’s most lasting legacy on this planet. So, what do we do about it? For starters, we can all stop using so much plastic — especially the stuff you only use once. Here are 10 ways to do that:
1. Cut Out Plastic Straws
There are only a few reasons one might need to use a plastic straw. Did you recently have jaw surgery but ordered a mimosa at brunch anyway? OK, you get a pass. Otherwise, keep in mind that over 500,000,000 plastic straws are used and discarded every day in the United States alone. You can help your neighborhood or town kick its plastic straw habit by asking your local restaurants to carry paper straws instead.
2. Just Say NO to Plastic Shopping Bags
A single plastic bag can take 1,000 years to break down in the environment. In 2016, California issued a statewide ban on stores handing out single-use plastic bags to their customers. A year later, 13 million plastic bags were kept out of landfills and the environment, and everybody survived. In 2002, Ireland passed a 22 euro cents (equivalent to about 37 U.S. cents) tax on plastic bags, to be paid at the register with each purchase. Within a few weeks, the entire country’s plastic bag use was reduced by around 94 percent. Nobody in Ireland was injured or even irrevocably inconvenienced because of the ban — in fact, everybody just got used to it and eventually started remembering to bring reusable grocery bags with them to the store, which they continue to do today.
We can all stop using plastic bags by carrying reusable bags around with us. We can also encourage our governments to pass plastic bag bans.
3. Stop Chewing Gum
That’s right, your favorite chewing gum is most likely made from synthetic rubber, otherwise known as plastic.
4. Carry a Reusable Cup or Water Bottle
Worldwide, about a million plastic bottles are bought every minute, and we manufacture around 20,000 plastic bottles every second. That’s a lot of plastic, especially considering 91 percent of it will never be recycled.
Are you thirsty and far from home without a reusable water bottle? Find a drinking fountain or a restaurant that will give you a glass of water, for heaven’s sake.
5. Buy From the Bulk Bins
These days many grocery stores have a bulk section — a place where you can buy unpackaged rice, beans, pasta, nuts, and even personal care and household items like shampoo, laundry detergent and bar soap. If you can remember to bring your shopping bags to the supermarket, go ahead and throw a few reusable bags and jars in there as well.
6. You’re Still Using Microbeads?
If you live in the U.S., the U.K., Canada or New Zealand, the manufacture and sale of these tiny plastic pellets has already been banned where you live, but microbeads, which are still used in cosmetic cleansers and toothpastes all over the rest of the world, slip down the drain and through wastewater treatment plants to the oceans, where they present themselves as potentially toxic snacks to marine life.
Not sure if your cleanser contains microbeads? Avoid any product with "polyethylene" in the ingredient list.
7. Repair Things When They Break
Is your dishwasher leaking? That stinks. But it’s a lot cheaper and easier to call in a repair person than it is to hoof it to the nearest big box store for a new one. Did the zipper on your favorite nylon backpack break? There are other zippers out there, and if you can’t repair it yourself, there’s probably a crafty person at an alterations shop near you who would be willing to fix it for cheaper than the cost of a new backpack.
8. Buy Secondhand
We get it, it’s tough to find a blender that doesn’t have plastic parts, but the secondhand store in your town probably has six perfectly good blenders sitting on its shelves. You want to buy a cat carrier? Instead of purchasing one brand-new, how about buying one off Craigslist? Keep an eye out for garage sales and swap meets — there’s all kinds of lightly used plastic gold just waiting to be carted back to your home.
9. Buy Clothing Made From Natural Fibers
The synthetic fibers in your athleisurewear seem to be "weaving themselves into the gastrointestinal tract" of fish in the U.S. Great Lakes, State University of New York Fredonia professor Sherri Mason told The Guardian in 2016. One study found a high-quality synthetic fleece jacket sheds 1.17 grams of microfibers with each washing. The buildup of microfibers in the environment can result in starvation and reproductive consequences for aquatic organisms.
10. Learn to Make Things From Scratch
Rather than buying chemical household cleaners, make your own with effective and easily procured stuff like baking soda, vinegar, borax and lemon juice. Rather than buying yogurt in a plastic cup, Google a recipe and get to work — it’s way cheaper and takes approximately 10 minutes of your time, all told.
On your mark, get set, let’s get out there and stop using plastic already! This is going to be fun for you and for whales.
Now That’s Interesting
The import, production and sale of plastic bags is illegal in Rwanda. Those caught trafficking plastic can serve up to four years in prison or face stiff fines.