Global, Kitchen/Food

Single Use Plastics

As I’ve previously mentioned, the sustainability movement has become very popular lately. It’s trendy to be sustainable, so it seems like everyone is trying to cash in on it. This leads to a lot of buzz words and greenwashing thrown around. One buzz word/phrase is “single use plastics”. It’s something I’m sure most people have heard of by now, but may not exactly be sure what it means. So what is it?

A single use plastic is any plastic item that, as the name suggests, one would only use once, and then discard. They’re made from petrochemicals, made from crude oil and natural gas. Some examples are things like plastic food containers, coffee cups, water bottles, straws, plastic bags, etc.

Ever since the 1970’s, plastic has gained immense popularity, and skyrocketed to the place we know it to be today. Within the last 50 years, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics have been produced, and half of that in the past 15 years alone. This can largely be attributed to increasing consumerism and overconsumption. We’ve embodied a throw-away culture, where things aren’t made to last, and replacing an item is the standard procedure, rather than trying to fix it. Single use plastic is the ultimate example of that. We now rely on these single use plastics rather heavily, creating one massive problem: waste. We produce 300 million tons of plastic each year worldwide, half of which is for single-use items.  The problem is that plastic doesn’t necessarily break down the way that other materials do. Plastic gets smaller instead of decomposing. Those pieces become microplastics. Microplastics have become a huge problem in recent years, due to the massive amount of plastic thrown away, they come from everywhere. Those microplastics then end up getting in the water, and affecting the health of wildlife and people alike. It’s a problem often overlooked, but one that deserves our attention. In my previous post, I mentioned some sustainable swaps, some of which were for single use plastic items, and trying to find alternatives is a good way to reduce your plastic use. But one other major component is recycling your plastics. Many plastics go in the garbage when they can go in the recycling. Polyethylene terephthalate, one of the most commonly recycled plastics and the material that makes up most water and soda bottles, can be turned into everything from polyester fabrics to automotive parts. So it’s important to always double check for the recycling symbol on your plastic. Or not use it at all when possible.


Sustainable Swaps

As we’ve discussed, corporations, government, and individuals play a role in pollution (some roles are bigger than others however). Still, there are ways that one can be more sustainable on an individual level. There are small, inexpensive ways that one can add a little more sustainability to their lives.

  1. For those who use cotton pads/cotton balls/makeup removing wipes : They make reusable pads out of bamboo, which you can reuse multiple times by rinsing, and then throwing in the wash! I’ve personally made this swap, and I use mine almost every day. They work just as well as the cotton ones, and they’re as good as new after I wash them. I used to feel so bad when emptying my trash and seeing handfuls of little cotton rounds dump out, but I don’t have that problem any more!
  2. One swap that’s become quite popular nowadays is swapping paper or plastic bags for tote bags. This is a swap I’ve also made, and I really like it! I no longer have a collection of plastic bags inside another plastic bag, and instead opt for a reusable bag whenever I go shopping. One thing to note: If buying produce, it might be a good idea to clean the inside of the bag once in awhile, just to be safe. It might also be a good idea to go with a vinyl tote bag instead of cloth, if that’s what you’re looking for. I also think tote bags are a fun, easy way for people to express themselves. On top of that, it’s also an opportunity for you to support small artists, as many shops online sell them with original artwork.
  3. Swap your plastic toothbrush for a bamboo one. I made this switch somewhat recently, and honestly it feels just like a regular toothbrush! At first, I didn’t realize that the bamboo toothbrush was slightly wider than my regular toothbrush, which took some getting used to, but now I like it just as much. Fun fact: bamboo is antimicrobial (hence it’s popularity in kitchen utensils and cutting boards) which means that it is able to kill bacteria that still lingers on the toothbrush, unlike plastic.
  4. Swapping other hygiene items for bar and capsule versions of it. You can now buy your shampoo and conditioner in a bar form instead of a bottle, which means that there’s no empty plastic bottle when it’s done. The same goes for mouth wash, which you can get in a capsule form to cut back on plastic. I personally haven’t tried this yet, but I would like to. Unfortunately these swaps aren’t the most accessible, and are pretty much exclusively online at this point. Hopefully this changes in the future.

No matter your commitment to sustainability, remember to go easy on yourself. The society that we live in makes it near impossible to live a net zero emission life, so every bit helps. Maybe you’re a vegan who only eats organic food, but purchases their clothing from fast fashion producers. Maybe you exclusively thrift all your clothes but use single-use plastics. Any progress made toward being more sustainable is worth it, because it shows consciousness of your actions. The goal should just be to try to be as sustainable as we can be. Because ultimately, the most important sustainable swap is to swap inaction with action, by demanding more from the major businesses responsible for most pollution.


Pollution and the Government

As we’ve discussed, pollution can be affected by individual and corporate action. Corporations have a significant impact on the world, and simultaneously, on climate change. Their influence affects policies, consumer interests and surrounding communities, so the way that they approach pollution matters. One other entity with a similar level of influence is the government, both national and local. While there are some policies in place, it’s somewhat incohesive on a national level. Since 1990, the United States has followed The Federal Pollution Act. This established pollution prevention as the public policy of the United States. The Federal Act declares that pollution should be prevented or reduced at the source wherever feasible, while pollution that cannot be prevented should be recycled in an environmentally safe manner. As you can see, this is somewhat vague. There are other more specific standards with pollution however, like the standards put on heavy-duty trucks in 2016, which aimed to cut over a billion tons of climate pollution, while also benefiting public health by reducing emissions. All vehicles and engines operating in the United States must comply with emissions standards for pollutants including smog, soot and greenhouse gases. Because of these policies, newer vehicles now emit far fewer pollutants. We also follow certain standards regarding other forms of pollution as well, like the Clean Water Act, addressing water pollution. Its objective is to maintain and restore the integrity of all bodies of water in the United States.

Recently, there was a proposal for reform in our climate policies, called the Green New Deal. While it was most recently discussed and voted on in 2019, versions of this proposal have existed since the early 2000’s as a platform for candidates of the Green Party. The Green New Deal aimed to get the United States to move away from using fossil fuels, and to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with the ultimate goal being the elimination of the U.S carbon footprint by 2030. The Deal also focuses on shifting toward electricity from 100% renewable power, updating the power grid, and providing a new transportation system based around a high speed rail system. This version of the bill also would address economic inequality, with a surge of new jobs in renewable energy industries. Passing the bill would have meant a complete overhaul in every level of production, and our way of consumption. The Green New Deal, while ambitious, unfortunately did not pass the Senate floor in a 2019 vote.

The government has the power to help reduce pollution through a legal avenue, but it also has the power to hold those most responsible for this climate crisis accountable. Meaningful government action on pollution becomes more crucial with every day, as an obligation to the future of this planet.