The Plastic Problem: Challenges We Face
Are We Making Progress Reducing Plastic Waste?
Plastics were officially invented in 1907 but the popularity of them wouldn’t catch on for another fifty years. In fact, it wasn’t even until the 1980s that plastics became a worldwide commodity and seen as ‘normal’ to use by everyone. By 1985, almost 75% of grocery stores were offering plastic bags to their customers. Between 1930 and 1996, most of the plastics that are used today and are disposable were invented and put into use – everything from Saran® wrap to Tupperware® to TV dinners and salads in a bag.
Plastic takes more than 400 years to degrade, so most of it still exists in some form. Only 12 percent has been incinerated. – National Geographic
But it seems that the material that was thought to be our savior just a few decades ago has become the scourge of the environment and can even create potential health problems if you used them. Disposable plastics have, unfortunately, really become a problem in the environment. Their exponential growth in use the last few years has created unique challenges to the Earth and especially the use of smaller disposable plastics such as cutlery and straws and condiment packages. While there are many experts that are working to solve this problem, at the moment only about 2-10% of all plastic used is recycled and subsequently reused for other products.
So what happens to all of the other plastic?
The excess plastic in our current world has even created new words. Plastic pollution, as it has been coined, is the term that refers to the accumulation of excess plastic in the environment that negatively affects wildlife, their habitats and/or humans. Because plastic is so much cheaper to manufacture than other materials, it has become a favorite of corporations that wish to maximize their profits. Unfortunately, that has also made it almost omnipresent and very little of the disposable plastic used is recycled.
Disposable plastics can be recycled, but there are many challenges to the recycling process.
- Not all disposable plastic is properly disposed of in the recycling bins by the people that use them. There is a lot of plastic that could be recycled that isn’t because people simply do not put the items into the proper containers and instead dump them in the trash where they end up in landfills. In the United States, only nine percent of plastic is even recycled.
- One more reason for that low percentage is that recycling bins and options are not always available, even in the United States. In fact, the U.S. might be lagging far behind other countries in their recycling efforts. While some states, like Oregon, are known for their recycling efforts, most don’t have any sort of system in place and recycling costs extra or takes extra effort from consumers.
- Even if these first two conditions were met, not all plastic can be recycled. You know those little numbers on the bottom of disposable plastic items? Those numbers, from one to seven, are a resin identification code and it helps to sort plastics when they’re being recycled. Categories one and two are commonly recycled but three to seven are almost questionable – some municipalities and cities will recycle them while others will not.
- Even if it is put into its proper bin, recyclable plastic has to be clean to be processed. This means that food containers, drink bottles and condiment packages are not able to be recycled and end up in a landfill – even if they are made of plastic that could have been recycled. Factories and processing plants won’t take the time to clean the plastic themselves so they just dump those pieces back into the landfill.
Plastic Side Effects
On top of all of the environmental concerns, plastic also poses serious health risks to humans. Because of the materials that they are made of, plastic containers, bags, cutlery and storage plastics can be leaking harmful chemicals into your food and products. Since the 1960’s, manufacturers have used bisophenol A (BPA) an industrial chemical, to manufacture all kinds of plastic products. And although BPA came to the forefront of consumer’s worries more than a few years ago, thus forcing many manufacturers to discontinue its use, BPA has simply been replaced in many instances with BPS, a close cousin of BPA that is just as harmful to humans.
How? Well, BPA, and even other compounds present in plastics, were found to mimic the presence of estrogen, a human hormone mostly commonly found in females, although males have small percentages of it as well in their bodies. An increase in estrogen, whether real or perceived by the body, can have many harmful effects such as mood swings, depression, weight gain, low sexual desire, fatigue, sleeping problems, menstruation problems, non-cancerous lumps in the breasts and even dry skin. Interestingly, these side effects aren’t confined to women as men are just as exposed to plastic and its chemicals.
Plastic can also cause harm to human health because of the way that it attracts toxins to itself. When introduced into a water supply, due to dumping or littering, plastic will attract other toxins to it and thus create an even more polluted water supply which can lead to all sorts of problems, of course. Toxins such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are just two of the more common ones that are attracted to improperly disposed plastics, both of which cause serious health problems including cancer, reproductive systems issues and blood and liver abnormalities. The effect is increased exponentially if that plastic is heated or cooled over and over, such as what happens in the ocean where floating plastic is exposed to the heat of the sun and then travels to cooler temperatures through water currents. The fish or wildlife that ingests those plastics, and the toxins with it, then become our food supply and pass on those toxins to us.
Getting rid of plastic is just not as practical as one thinks in our modern world but there are other options that can be just as easy to implement as disposable plastic ones and steps that all of us can take to eliminate the need for so much plastic in the world. Straws have been at the forefront of this fight for a year or two now but it’s not just straws that need a makeover. Plastic grocery bags, cutlery, and single-use disposable food containers and many other products can be easily replaced (or rethought) to keep our lives just as convenient but cleaner and less toxic.
At Ecovita, we’re trying to accomplish just that and we’ve started with the ever-present, and always needed, single-use disposable cutlery. Plastic forks, spoons and knives can’t be done away with in modern society but they don’t have to litter our oceans and walkways either. Before plastic, tableware was almost always metal but that’s just not practical for today’s on-the-go activities and large gatherings anymore.
Enter the Compostable “plastic” alternatives.
Ecovita’s 100% compostable utensils, made of crystalized polylactic acid or CPLA, are derived from all natural Non-GMO corn byproducts, are not only durable and beautiful but also disposable – in a good way! Because our products are 100% compostable, they won’t leave behind any traces of their one-time use and they’re also non-toxic because they’re made of all natural, organic materials. To top it off, the creation of CPLA compostable plastics uses 65% less energy and produces 68% less greenhouse gases than conventional petroleum-based plastic products. If they were to find themselves in the landfill, they would break down faster and better than conventional plastics that last 400 hundred years.
While many say that finding alternatives to plastic is just not practical or economical for the consumer, we just don’t think that’s true. We believe that consumers want to make a significant positive impact in their environment by looking for non-plastic options. Given the information and accessibility to plastic alternatives, they will choose eco-friendly over plastic every time making their world cleaner and less toxic for their children and grandchildren.
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