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Huber: Using single-use plastics is trashy — literally

climate change

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

No type of trash is ever really good for the environment. While we can compost or break down more organic types of waste, much of what ends up in landfills will exist in the environment for tens or even hundreds of years. Plastics, unlike other forms of trash, can take up to 1,000 years to decompose.

Plastics became a vital part of our society over the last century, but their longevity poses a major threat to our future thanks to their detrimental environmental impact. With climate change on the rise, it’s key to recognize how we can reduce our personal effects on the planet, and a good place to start is with single-use plastics.

The history of plastic

According to the BBC, humans have used plastic for much longer than one might realize. Plastic is made up of units called polymers, which are repetitive molecules made of carbon. Not all plastics are man-made; plastic can be found in anything from the horn of a rhino to the wood of a rubber tree.

But the plastics we know today — the ones that are brightly colored and easily molded into our daily lives — have their root in the early 20th century, when Leo Baekeland derived the first synthetic plastic from fossil fuels.

Synthetic plastics were cheaper to produce and much more versatile than many of the common materials in use at the time — glass, for example, is breakable, and many common metals can be dented in daily use.

But what really generated widespread popularity for the material was World War II, where synthetic plastics were used in military vehicles, wheels and paracord, just to name a few things. But then, of course, the war ended, and plastic made its way into new markets and became a vital building block of our society.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2017 America generated just over 35,000,000 tons of plastic and landfilled almost 27,000,000 tons. The United Nations Environment Programme states that half of all plastic produced is only used once and then thrown away.

Trash talk — how plastic impacts the environment

Plastics are problematic, largely due to their persistence in the environment — most synthetic plastics have a lifespan of at least a hundred years. Their presence poses major risks to many different aspects of the environment, both in the oceans and on land.

Recently, much of the publicity surrounding plastic pollution spotlights its effect on the ocean. Plastic can build up in the marine environment, creating issues like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and killing wildlife through contamination or habitat destruction.

The EPA also states that plastic can cause chemical threats through acting as a magnet for toxic compounds, like persistent bioaccumulation and toxic chemicals, which can travel up through the food chain. These chemicals are not only toxic to fish, but also to humans.

The UN also published an article claiming that while plastic pollution is dangerous for the marine environment, it is potentially more dangerous to the ecosystem on land. Rates of microplastic pollution range from four to 23 times higher on land than in the ocean, causing soil contamination. Toxic particles in soil both change animal behavior patterns and seep into groundwater, which can result in corrupt fresh water.

How to help

Plastic is really bad for the environment, but it’s hard to avoid using it altogether. However, it’s important to be conscious about when plastics are used unnecessarily, especially for a single use. Half of all plastic produced is used only once and then thrown away — at this rate, the UN states, “Oceans could contain more plastic than fish by 2050.” There are a few easy ways to cut back on single-use plastics in your daily life.

Reusable straws have been all the rage lately — for good reason. Plastic straws, if ingested by marine animals, can kill them. You can support local businesses and help the environment by getting a metal straw at Mugs Coffee Lounge.

Plastic bags are another major polluter of the environment and can take up to 1,000 years to decompose. Reusable bags are an awesome substitute — you can even get a 5 cent discount at Target for every reusable bag you use.

Another way to get a discount while avoiding single-use plastic is to bring a cup from home to Starbucks. The coffee chain offers a 10 cent discount on your drink.

This list isn’t exhaustive — there are lots of other ways to reduce your plastic consumption. Use a reusable water bottle; carry a set of silverware with you; be conscious of product packaging when grocery shopping — the list goes on.

Overall, it’s key to be conscientious with consumption — if you can avoid single-use plastics, do it! If not, recycle. The environment will thank you for it.


This article was originally published by Allie Huber,

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