According to the Earth Day Network, this year’s theme for Earth Day is ending plastic pollution. Why the focus on plastic? Plastic production, use and disposal can have adverse impacts on human and ecological health, from pollution of our oceans to wildlife endangerment from ingestion and entanglement. Plastic pollution in our oceans has been particularly widespread and damaging to wildlife.
It is important to note that plastic plays a valuable role in the reduction of environmental impact. For example, from a life cycle assessment (LCA) perspective, the light-weighting that a plastic part in a vehicle provides can reduce fuel consumption, therefore reducing tailpipe emissions over the use phase of the vehicle. Plus, many plastics are recyclable and reusable at their end of life. Still, production of most plastic relies on crude oil and results in materials that take hundreds to thousands of years to decompose.
Such a long-term problem needs a long-term solution that can be enacted in phases. This is still no small task. Plastics are ubiquitous. Most consumer goods from toilet paper to over-the-counter medicines are packaged in plastic. Plastics contain and preserve our food. It is the reason a shampoo bottle bounces instead of shattering if it drops on the floor. Plastics often encase our electronic devices and comprise essential parts of our vehicles, buildings and other infrastructure. Plastics are everywhere!
As with other challenges, small steps can be taken every day, and especially on Earth Day, to help combat plastic pollution. Here are just a few.
- Reduce: You can reduce the use of single-use/disposable plastic items like drinking straws, water bottles, hot beverage cups with plastic lids, plastic bags and utensils by using reusable items like metal/glass straws and water bottles, a travel mug for a hot beverage, cloth grocery bags and a travel set of reusable utensils. Reduce plastic packaging by buying items like dried rice and beans, nuts, dried fruits and cereals in bulk with reusable containers. Shop at a farmer’s market where produce is often not packaged and bring reusable small bags or reusable food containers for small or delicate items like berries, peas/beans and tomatoes.
- Recycle: If your area offers plastic recycling, ensure that your plastic waste is properly contained so that it stays in the recycling stream and does not blow away or get carried away by animals. Putting the cap or lid back on a container before recycling it can help prevent these small pieces from flying away. Most recycling programs do not accept plastic bags or “thin films”, but many grocery stores do accept these bags. Simply fill up a larger bag with your thin film plastics and take it with you when you go to shop – with your reusable bags, of course.
- Refuse: Consider saying no. The next time you are offered something in plastic, ask yourself if you really need it? If not, just say no.
These may seem like small actions, but they add up, helping reduce the impact of plastics on the environment.
 Reuse was not included because it is generally not recommended to reuse single-use plastic items due to health concerns.