Want a Cleaner World? Let’s Do Something About the Environmental Effects of Plastic Pollution

Person in a hammock holding a book titled

Plastic pollution is a serious issue that's affecting the health of all of us. It's time to talk about the environmental effects of plastic pollution. 

Estimated Read Time: 7 minutes

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch covers 1.6 million square kilometers, or 2X the size of Texas

Approximately 80,000 tons of plastic float in the Pacific Garbage Patch

20,000 plastic bottles are used every second

By 2050 it’s estimated that plastic will outweigh fish

Plastic is everywhere. 

Reusable, disposable, single use, we touch dozens to hundreds of plastic items a day. It’s one of the first things you touch in the morning and one of the last things you touch before going to bed. 

Plastic pollution has become an extraordinary problem and the environmental effects of plastic pollution are becoming more and more visible in everyday life. 

cars leaving a camp site by the beach with piles of plastic and trash accumulated around no trash cans

Photo by Ariungoo Batzorig on Unsplash

This month is Plastic Free July! A campaign founded by the Plastic Free Foundation that provides resources to people all over the world to reduce plastic usage and waste. Make sure you’re signed up for our emails and follow us on Instagram to participate in our Plastic-Free July Challenge! 

Plastic first took off in the early 1900’s. When it exploded by 300% during WWII, it’s safe to say that while this amazing new product was saving lives, no one was thinking about the environmental effects of plastic pollution 80 years later.

Plastic Pollution: Why We Can’t Do Away With All of It

 doctor wearing plastic gloves holding a plastic syringe

Photo by Sam Moghadam Khamseh on Unsplash

The environmental effects of plastic pollution are undeniable but the reality remains that we need some plastic to maintain our way of life.

Plastic is an essential component in our everyday essentials. 

  • Phone
  • Computers
  • Car Parts
  • Furniture
  • Medical Equipment

You’ve probably noticed an abundance of plastic at the doctor’s office or in hospitals. It’s widely used in medical equipment such as gloves, IV tubes, insulin pens, and more because of its lightweight, durability, and low cost. Plastic packaging helps to keep the equipment sterile, keeping us safe from diseases and infections.

As plastic helped to revolutionize the medical industry, apprehension started rising in the 1960’s-1980’s about the long lasting effects of plastic pollution. As a result, plastic companies themselves came up with the idea of recycling as a solution. 

When Recycling Doesn’t Work 

 a person in a safety vest looking at a wall of baled plastic

Photo by Vivianne Lemay on Unsplash

While recycling was a good effort, and it paved the way for companies like Patagonia and Adidas to create products from recycled plastic, it’s precisely because it doesn’t work well that these companies use plastics to make the products to begin with.  

Since 1994, the United States has been sending its plastic to other countries to deal with. In 2017 when China said “no more”, the U.S. had sent 931 million kilograms (20 billion lbs) of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong.

With this no longer an option, the U.S. is now burning more than 6X the amount of plastic as it is recycling, and shipping the rest off to other countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, & Taiwan. Countries that don’t have the infrastructure to properly dispose of plastic and also end up incinerating it. 

Plastic pollution crisis. Huge landfill garbage dump in Malaysia

Landfill in Malaysia

Environmental effects of plastic pollution from incineration offer a whole host of other problems including increased greenhouse gasses; releasing toxic chemicals into the air contaminating water, food, and soil; as well as a host of medical problems for those living around these facilities.

It doesn’t make it any less confusing that recycling is a for-profit business with regulations and procedures varying even from county to county. 

So if recycling doesn’t work, where does the plastic end up? And what should we do?

If not getting recycled, your plastic is likely going to a landfill, the ocean, or other waterways.

Environmental Effects of Plastic Pollution

Plastic in the Landfill

In 2017, U.S. landfills received 27 million tons of plastic. As that plastic sits in a landfill, the UV light from the sun will help it decompose in 400+ years. As it gets buried deeper it begins to leach chemicals into the groundwater that we use for drinking and farming. 

Furthermore, because of its composition, plastic never fully decomposes. Rather, it continues to break down into millions of pieces, or as you might know them, microplastics. Eventually these microplastics will not be visible to the human eye but will continue to infiltrate our soil, water, and air. 

Plastic that doesn’t make it to a landfill gets washed out to sea. 

Plastic in the Ocean

Scientists estimate that 8 million metric tons of plastic entered the ocean in 2010, 150 million metric tons had accumulated by 2015, and those numbers are expected to triple by 2040. 

As we’ve seen on land, the plastic doesn’t just float or just break into microscopic pieces, it severely affects the health of marine life. 

  • Marine animals get trapped in floating pieces of plastic or old fishing nets and can't surface for air.
  • Others are strangled.
  • Straws get trapped in sea turtles' noses.
  • Plastic can get wrapped tightly around a marine animal's body and pierce through their skin, causing injuries, infections, and attacks.
  • Others mistake it for food where it sits in their bodies offering no nutrients, leaking toxins, and working its way up the food chain.

Do you want to eat fish that fed on plastic?

The reality is, you probably already have and in the latest news, microplastics have been found in human blood. 

What Can You Do About Plastic Pollution

close up of plastic trash in a green trash can

It might seem like it’s hopeless and there’s nothing we can do about it, but that’s far from the truth. The power lies with the people. 

You can start by making small changes in your life: 

  • Cut out the plastic, and say no when it tries to creep back in.
  • Learn the recycling rules for you municipality.
  • Take action in your community and at a larger level to let your representatives know this is an issue that needs to be addressed now.

There are think tanks and organizations working to stop the spread of plastic; a few being Plastic Free Foundation, SYSTEMIQ, Ltd., and Pew Charitable Trust, that have put together plans to shift the recycling industry to a circular economy that reuses AND reduces. 

We have some recommendations to help you get started on your plastic free journey! 

  • Put your money where your beliefs are. Support companies that support the planet. Like us! ZeroWasteStore will always be a plastic-free organization and we work hard to bring you content and ideas to help you reduce plastic from your life. 
  • Cut out plastic bags & always carry a reusable one.
  • Cut out plastic water bottles.
  • Carry a reusable straw in your bag or car to avoid the need for a plastic (or paper) one.
  • Stop using products that contain plastic microbeads (soaps, scrubs, cleansers) and take it a step further by contacting those companies to tell them to stop.
  • Take an evaluation of how much plastic you use on a daily basis and see where you can cut back or cut it out and replace it with more sustainable options.

Most importantly, you don’t need to do it all at once

Instead, we’ve found the best success by replacing a product as it naturally runs out with a sustainable one. Then keep doing that and before you know it you’ll have a much more sustainable household! 

Take Action Against the Environmental Effects of Plastic Pollution

Climate protest focusing on a sign that reads eco (drawn images of humans with nature) not ego (drawn images of humans above nature)

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

A WWF poll of individuals across 28 countries found that 90% support a global treaty to fight plastic pollution and 85% of people want manufacturers and retailers to be held accountable for reducing their plastic waste.

A lot of people are in agreement this needs to happen. So, the second biggest thing you can do is pay attention. 

Pay attention to who you’re voting for and where they’re getting their money from. There are still organizations like A Bag’s Life, an organization that supports recycling in schools, that is actually a lobbying group fighting plastic restrictions (Funded by the American Progressive Bag Alliance). 

Other ways you can get involved include: 

  • Sign a petition hosted by a changemaking organization like WWF
  • Campaign for companies to stop producing so much plastic through a local or national group or contact the company yourself. You’d be surprised what this can accomplish!
  • Call your representatives to push for plastic bag bans, single use plastic bans, and environmentally positive legislation.
  • Tour your local recycling center.
  • Join a local group dedicated to beach cleanups, trash cleanups, and greener policies for your city.

This is our world and we’re all in the fight to make it a healthy, clean planet. Make sure to sign up for our emails, and follow us on Instagram to stay updated as we post sustainable tips and advice. 

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