Have you seen pictures of turtles and other marine life ensnared in plastic waste? Have you read about plastic breaking down into microbeads that are then ingested not only by marine life, but also inhaled and even imbibed by humans? Many have, yet we’ve collectively shut our eyes and keep buying and using plastic. What will it take to motivate us to change? Understanding a bit more about the problem, perhaps?
First, we should know some of the many factors creating the crisis. Most importantly, plastic is virtually indestructible. It lasts for 100-500 years in the environment, but never completely degrades. Some of it decomposes to microplastics, which can have serious health consequences. About 91% of plastics are toxic, and create specific risks. Polyvinyl chloride (No. 3 plastic) can cause hormone disruption, cancer, reproductive disorders and developmental disorders. Polystyrene (No. 6) is associated with nerve conditions and genetic damage, reproductive failure and lymphoma; and bioplastics (No. 7), because they mimic the hormone estrogen, can create many varied health problems.
Less than 9% of plastics can be recycled, and of those that can be recycled only 5% actually are recycled. According to The Last Beach Cleanup and Beyond Plastics, 85% wind up in the landfill, and 10% are incinerated. And while plastic recycling has decreased, the generation of plastic waste per person in the U.S. has increased by 263% since 1980, from 60 pounds a person to 218 pounds a person.
Other factors creating problems include the shift from separated recycling to single-stream recycling; the lack of markets for plastics No. 3, 4, 6 and 7, and limited markets for recycled resin in general; shrinking landfill capacity; and recycling centers shuttering due to reduced scrap market rates. Furthermore, producers often deceptively put the recycling symbol on plastics that aren’t necessarily recyclable in practice.
Plastic production also contributes to global heating/climate chaos. Plastics are made from fossil fuels, which we need to keep in the ground to prevent further heating, and greenhouse gases are released when they’re incinerated. Even in 2019, the production and incineration of plastic produced a volume of greenhouse gases equal to the emissions from 189 five-hundred-megawatt coal power plants.
So, plastics are endangering our health and that of marine and other wildlife, they contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and therefore climate chaos, and they aren’t going away. But there are things we can do as individuals to make a difference, and the more people who change their habits, the larger the collective difference we can make.
Here are a few suggestions: Always carry a personal refillable water bottle, and even a coffee/tea cup and utensils. Shop at bulk stores and farmers’ markets. Bring reusable produce and grocery bags. Keep your own containers for leftovers and take-out in your car ready for use. Eliminate suppliers that use too much plastic.
Buy products in containers that can be recycled (usually No. 1 and No. 2). Buy used items whenever possible. Buy products made from natural materials, hair and body bars instead of liquid, and cleaning powders in cardboard boxes instead of liquid. Wash and reuse any plastics that you already have as many times as possible.
Another helpful action would be participating in the city of Santa Clarita’s Neighborhood Clean-Up on April 29 – especially focusing on trash in the Santa Clara riverbed, to keep the plastic waste from getting washed out to the ocean when rains come.
To take part, pre-registration is required at the Green Santa Clarita web site (greensantaclarita.com), and on April 29, between 8 and 11 a.m., you’ll be able to pick up bags and gloves from one of three drive-thru locations: The Newhall Community Center, Canyon Country Park and Bridgeport Elementary School.
To learn more about how plastics affect our oceans and why reducing plastic trash is important, you’re invited to a free screening of the prize-winning documentary, “A Plastic Ocean,” to be shown at the Stevenson Ranch Library, 25950 The Old Road, on Earth Day, April 22, starting at 2:30 pm.
The film documents the effects of plastic pollution and highlights technologies and innovative solutions everyone can implement to create a cleaner, greener ocean. Sir David Attenborough calls it “one of the most important films of our time.” The screening is sponsored by Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment and Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Santa Clarita chapter.
Cher Gilmore lives in Newhall and is a member of the Santa Clarita chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.