Hey, everybody! Congrats on completing Day 1 of the 30-Day Plastic Free Challenge! If you’re like me, you had some successes and some challenges—and also spent the day thinking about plastic a lot more than you normally do. I forgot my reusable cup at Starbucks. Bummer. But I did remember my bags at the grocery store and bravely put my apples directly into the basket with no produce bag to corral them. Check one success box.
As I went through my day, I tried to notice where I could avoid single-use plastic by saying no or making different choices. I also noticed single-use plastic trash piled up everywhere I went, which motivated me to make the right choice even when it was harder (hello, hot coffee in paper cup instead of iced coffee in plastic—no lid, please!).
As I went through the day, I also kept thinking, “What did we do before plastic was invented?” Which led me to do a little plastics research.
According to the American Chemistry Council, plastic was first discovered in the 1800s but came into daily household use in the 1950s. Plastic garbage bags were invented in 1950 and were hailed as a lifesaver for modern people everywhere. Ziplock bags came along in 1954, making packed lunches a breeze.
It’s interesting to think that these everyday items didn’t exist when our parents or grandparents were kids. And it’s even more amazing to think that every single one of these wonderful plastic convenience items still exists today. I mean the actual lunch bag grandma sent mom to school with in 1954. It’s still out there. Because plastic never goes away.
In fact, every bit of the more than 8 billion tons of plastic waste that has been generated worldwide since 1950 is still with us.
Annually, that breaks down into a lot of trash, and it gets worse every year. In 2017 it was estimated that 8 million tons of plastic trash flowed into our oceans. When you look at single-use plastic consumption, you can see why. According to EarthDay.org, about 1 trillion single-use plastic bags are used annually across the globe. That’s nearly 2 million every minute. In the U.S. alone, we use 100 billion single-use plastic bags per year. Just 1% of those bags are recycled, and the average amount of time they are used is 12 seconds.
We Americans also throw away 500 million plastic straws per day, and we buy 50 billion single-use water bottles per year. The straws are not recyclable at all, and only 23% of the bottles end up recycled. Making just the single-use water bottles requires more than 17 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year. And that’s not even including the oil used for transportation. So not only are we clogging our environment with plastic, but we’re also accelerating climate change by using fossil fuel to create it.
So what happens to all this plastic once it ends up downstream? The plastic that ends up in the environment can take hundreds of years to break down into smaller particles, until it becomes what’s known as “microplastic.” According to UN News, as many as 51 trillion microplastic particles—500 times more than stars in our galaxy—litter our seas, seriously threatening marine wildlife.
Of course fish and marine wildlife eat these microplastics; in fact, 90% of seabirds have been found to have plastic in their bellies. The plastics that haven’t broken down yet can also end up wrapped around their necks, as we’ve all seen in those horribly sad National Geographic photos.
And the problem is only getting worse: The estimated 19 billion pounds of plastic that ends up in the ocean every year is expected to double by 2025. By 2050 scientists estimate that we will have more plastic in the ocean than fish.
These plastics will not only kill more animals; they’ll decimate coral reefs and continue to damage human health as microplastics enter the food chain. They’ll create more and bigger dead zones where nothing can live, harm biodiversity, and change ecosystems. There will likely be additional, unknown impacts, since researchers have only been studying ocean plastics for less than two decades.
With all these difficult facts staring us in the face, I’m glad we’re taking the 30-Day Plastic Free Challenge together. It may not be easy: we may have to wash our veggies with soap and water when we get home or forgo iced coffee if we forgot our cup, but we’ll get through it together. And really, these are first world problems, right? By the end of the 30 days, we’ll all have new habits, and the changes we’ve made will be automatic.
Stay tuned for more posts that will share tips and tricks for staying Plastic Free when raising kids, shopping, cleaning, eating out, and more. Please share your tips and ideas on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter and use the hashtag #PlasticFreeDMV so we can all see your posts.
It’s great to know that with every straw we say no to and every single-use bag we don’t use, we’re not only making less plastic pollution, but maybe we’re also inspiring the next person in line to think about their plastic use too. This issue has a lot of momentum, so let’s keep it up and make #PlasticFreeDMV a reality!