Before the creation of plastics, the world was totally dependent on nature for the materials needed to produce everyday objects. Because these other materials; as metals, stones, bones, horns, fangs and tusks were not easily obtained or processed, scientists and chemists sought alternatives. The search for a material that was not entirely dependent on natural resources and that was strong, durable, lightweight and could be mass-produced. In the mid-1800s and early 1900s, various types of synthetic polymers, later known as plastics, were developed. This was the beginning of the plastic revolution in the industrial world. As an older person, I have seen this plastic revolution increase dramatically in my own lifetime. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, two million tonnes of plastic were created in 1950 and by 2015 that amount had increased 200 times.
No one can deny the fact that plastic has proven useful in modern life. In healthcare, for example, medical instruments have been improved and various medical conditions can be helped with plastic. But two other facts that no sane person can deny are that the most heinous plastic products that overwhelm the world today are “Disposable” plastics and that too many of these single-use plastic products have been produced too quickly! Single-use plastics are products made primarily from petrochemicals which are chemicals made from fossil fuels. These goods are intended to be disposed of immediately after use, sometimes within minutes. These petroleum-based single-use plastics are most often used for packaging and serving items. These items are things like plastic bags, straws, coffee stirrers, soda and water bottles, and most food wrappers. And the United States is one of the main contributors of this type of plastic waste in the world.
The disposable nature of petroleum-based plastic makes it difficult to recycle. Petroleum-based plastic usually goes to a landfill where it is buried or incinerated. It is not biodegradable and will not break down into natural substance like soil. Instead, petroleum-based plastic will degrade (break down) over the years into tiny particles and in the process release toxic chemicals that end up in our food and water supply. These toxic chemicals are now found in our bloodstream and the latest research has shown that they disrupt the endocrine system which can cause cancer, infertility, birth defects, impaired immunity and many more. ailments. It has been well established by numerous studies that the entire plastic lifecycle, from production to disposal, contributes to ocean and community pollution, health problems and climate change. Right now, plastic pollution is everywhere, from ocean floors to mountain tops and even, as noted above, inside our bodies. A “bioplastic” which is easier to degrade has been developed and is being promoted as a safer alternative. However, bioplastics are actually just as toxic as other plastics. According to an article published at the end of October 2020, in the journal Environment International, “Biobased and biodegradable plastics are not safer than other plastics”, said lead author Lisa Zimmermann of Goethe University Frankfurt.
Last year, 170 nations pledged to “considerably reduce” use of plastic by 2030. Many countries have already taken national action against plastic pollution, including Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Union, China, Kenya and Zimbabwe. And earlier this month, the United Nations Environment Assembly voted unanimously to develop a treaty to end plastic pollution. This treaty mirrors the Montreal Protocol, which phased out ozone-depleting substances from use, and is an important first step towards reducing plastic waste. The Center for International Environmental Law, based in Washington DC, is very involved in the development of this new global agreement on plastics. This organization is structured around 3 poles: Climate and Energy; environmental health; and people, land and resources. CIEL has funds to provide financial support to help frontline groups stop the construction of plastics and petrochemicals across the United States. MOVCA recently received a grant from CIEL and is excited to lead our local campaign.
In the United States, there is no federal legislation to limit single-use plastics. A bill titled Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act was introduced in 2020. As of March 2021, the bill was still before the Senate Finance Committee for consideration. It can take years for a bill like this to be passed at the federal level. Until then, the responsibility for restricting single-use plastics rests with states, cities, and counties. Eight states have completely banned some forms of single-use plastics, primarily plastic bags. These include California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont. There is also a long list of other states that have ongoing plastic bag bans. If the state chooses not to regulate single-use plastics, the decisions rest with cities and counties. This is where you will find most plastic straw bans; cities like New York and Miami Beach have enacted their own bans on plastic straws and stirrers. There are countless cities in Florida and California with straw bans, plus hundreds more scattered across the country, including DC
In our region, trying to live without single-use plastic products is a challenge. However, there are many resources available, including books, websites and videos, that provide tips for living with less plastic and help your household minimize single-use plastic in as many areas as possible. It is important for everyone to be a conscious consumer and do their part for the good of the planet. Although it takes a bit of foresight and planning, anyone can opt out of single-use plastic. It’s easy to turn down a straw for your drink, bring your own reusable cloth bags to stores for groceries, bring containers for leftovers to restaurants, and pack a small set of reusable cutlery to the instead of accepting plastic utensils in fast food establishments. The world can, and in fact must, eradicate single-use plastics and relearn how to live without them. Abandoning single-use plastics and the fossil fuels needed to produce them should certainly not be seen as irrational by anyone, conservative or liberal. Our transition to single-use plastics is an important solution, along with others, that will help provide a livable future on our planet for both marine life and our grandchildren.
Giulia Mannarino, of Belleville, is a member of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action.