Did you ever try to live without plastic? They don’t make it easy. A trip down the aisle of any grocery store is often a visit to a sea of plastic. There is no such thing as a box of laundry detergent but large plastic jugs that will be preserved in a landfill for 1,000 years or so once we’ve completed the 50 washes we are promised. Even “healthy” organic products are frequently packaged in plastic. Plastic products are even packaged in plastic.
Almost everything in drugstores that are supposed to make us healthier is made or packaged in plastic. Even our life- saving prescription drugs come in plastic bottles. Often the drugs are used to treat some of the maladies caused or at least exacerbated by our use of plastic: cancers, autoimmune disorders and sexual dysfunctions.
This month I am attempting to live without plastic as part of a global program called Plastic Free July. I’ve located bar shampoo and conditioner, laundry and dishwashing detergent, personal care products and cosmetics that have no plastic packaging. The paper and cardboard packaging can be recycled or simply tossed into my compost pile.
Honoring my pledge is difficult, but with lots of fresh produce available, our Farmers Market, my own garden, food vendors that allow me to bring my own bags, it is possible to eat well while avoiding plastic. We skip takeout knowing that foodware comprises 44% of the plastic waste in our oceans.
The motivation for us plastic-averse folks becomes more intensified each year. And our numbers are growing – 326 million people participated in Plastic Free July last year. We don’t just avoid plastic for a month – avoidance becomes a habit. That motivation doesn’t just stem from those horrific images of swirling plastics in our oceans and dead birds and sea animals filled with plastic, but the facts that clearly reveal that we are in a plastic crisis that requires action on the part of all of us.
In the 1950’s we produced 1.8 tons of plastic worldwide. In 2018 that amount increased to 465 million tons and is expected to triple by 2050. The estimate of 9 millions tons entering our oceans each year has recently been revised upwards to 11 million tons. We Americans produce, by far, the greatest amount of plastic waste. We are 4% of the world’s population, but produce 17% of the world’s plastic waste.
It is estimated that 67% of the plastic that enters our environment in the U.S. comes from shoreline communities like Bainbridge Island. Plastic recycling that never exceeded 10% is now diminishing due to a lack of markets. Plastic production and disposal constitutes as much as 8% of emissions associated with climate change.
There are some hopeful developments: compostable food containers made from the waste of sugarcane and wheat straw and other crop residue, for example. Unfortunately PLA, the most-common type of plant-based plastic, is nearly as bad for the environment as petroleum and natural gas based plastic, but advances in plant-based plastics in the next few years may solve many of the existing problems.
There is emerging a recognition that our plastic crisis cannot be solved by voluntary measures, and we need legislative fixes. States are passing laws outlawing certain plastic uses like the recent legislation in our state. On Bainbridge Island our City Council is developing its own waste and plastic use reduction plan. It needs our support.
My plastic free month won’t prevent climate change. But as one who worries about what plastic is doing to our environment and our health, it allows me to feel I can combat plastics in my own life. And I will continue to speak up to decision makers, to store owners and food purveyors who don’t understand how their decisions adversely affect us.
As importantly, I will thank those who are making positive changes in their businesses and people like some of our council members who exhibit the strength to do what needs to be done.
A 25-year climate activist, Erika Shriner is co-coordinator for Act4Climate and formerly was with Climate Action Bainbridge.