And five simple tips for avoiding them.
There is a reason plastic pollution is now virtually ubiquitous. We've been duped by convenience. In plastic, we thought we'd found a shiny, lightweight, versatile, affordable, flexible, durable, miracle of a material for modern living. Around the 1960s, we started using it in everything. The problem: We now know the disadvantages of current plastic far outweigh the benefits. Plastic never goes away. It messes with our oceans, our planet, our health, our own oxygen supply. So why do we continue to use it? One of the first steps to fixing a problem is identifying the source.
Unfortunately, the source isn't always so obvious.
Below are five common yet hidden forms of plastic to help you with the first pillar of #ParleyAIR: AVOID.
1. Cigarette butts.
Cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world and one of the most prevalent forms of marine debris, accounting for one in every five items collected during beach cleanups. They're the last socially accepted form of litter. If this surprises you, take a stroll through a major city. Deliberately throwing trash on the ground is typically met with some kind of penalty (e.g. angry looks, shame, fines, etc.), but thoughtlessly flick a cigarette butt on the street and chances are nobody’s going to stop you. Sidewalks and sewer drains are treated like ashtrays. Here’s why this is scary: the oceans are always downhill. A single cigarette butt can release thousands of tiny, toxic pieces of microplastic into waterways, marine life, and possibly us.
Solution: It's pretty simple — if you smoke, please find a better destination for your butt than your own life support system.
2. Chewing gum.
Chewing gum was originally made from tree sap called chicle, a natural rubber, and occasionally from various forms of wax. After World War II, we got good at making synthetic rubber and eventually decided to stick that in our mouths and chew it. If you purchase a pack of gum, you might first notice an excess of plastic packaging. We'll call that strike one. Read the ingredients label on that packaging and you might find strike two: “gum base,” which means the product may contain petroleum, lanolin, glycerin, polyethylene, polyvinyl acetate, petroleum wax, stearic acid, or latex. And here’s strike three: many of these ingredients are bad for your health. Artificial polyvinyl acetate, for example, is manufactured using vinyl acetate, a chemical shown to cause tumors in lab rats.
Solution: Carry a (bamboo-based) toothbrush to counter a garlic-heavy lunch. If you must chew, choose wisely and always look for minimal packaging. There are several gum products made from all-natural, biodegradable materials.
3. Paper coffee cups.
But they’re recyclable, right? Not always. Most to-go coffee cups are lined with plastic. This means they’re almost never recyclable, and especially costly when they are. Rather than break down into simple, benign elements, coffee cups clog landfills, sit atop over-stuffed garbage cans, or make their way into waterways and the oceans, where they’re ingested by sea life. Also worth mentioning: 20 million trees are cut down each year in the process of manufacturing paper cups. Of those created, about 58 billion are thrown away (i.e. not recycled) in the U.S. annually.
Solution: Bring your own mug. If you tend to forget, stick a note by the door reminding yourself (and your family/coworkers) to pitstop at the kitchen cabinet before stepping out for coffee. You’ll set a good example, impress your barista, and usually earn yourself a discount.
4. ‘Flushable’ wet wipes.
Just because something is marketed as disposable doesn’t mean it’s going to magically disintegrate after use. Wet wipes were named the biggest villain of 2015 by the Guardian for a number of alarming reasons. These deceptively innocent-looking, disposable squares of mystery fabric are often made from synthetic microfibers (like those hidden in your clothing); plastic that never biodegrades in the environment. Single-use wet wipes clog pipes and sewer machinery, causing expensive headaches for most major cities. They've even been linked to the spreading of super bugs in hospitals. The take-away: don’t believe everything your packaging tells you. 'Flushable' is a subjective term.
Solution: Use soap, water, reusable cloths, toilet paper...depending on the need. For safety and hygiene, don’t use the same washcloth on multiple surfaces. Same goes for the TP. A place for each thing and each thing in its place. The place for your wet wipe is never the oceans.
5. Canned food.
For more than 40 years, Bisphenol A (BPA) was used in the lining of metal cans to prevent corrosion and seal against moisture, contamination, and rot. Then we learned it's terrible for our bodies. BPA has been banned from products in many countries, but that doesn't mean we've seen the last of it — or its impacts. Even when a can is labeled BPA-free, there’s no guarantee plastic chemicals used in the lining won’t mess with your hormones. A report released in March by NGOs in the U.S. and Canada, including the Breast Cancer Fund, found that about two out of three cans commonly found on grocery shelves test positive for BPA. No wonder 93% of Americans have BPA in their blood; a disturbing stat, considering the chemical is linked to a slew of human health issues like birth defects, infertility, obesity, and cancer.
Solution: A fresh-food diet can reduce your BPA exposure by at least 60%. Shop at the farmers’ market or consider a share in community supported agriculture (CSA). Local, fresh food tastes better, uses less packaging, and nourishes rather than harms your body. When you do buy nonperishables, look for glass jars or cartons.
This list is just a small sampling of the myriad places plastic lurks in your daily routine. Don’t let the scale of the problem overwhelm you. Taking simple steps — small and large — every day will add up to make the difference for the oceans, for our planet, and for your health.
Knowledge is power, provided it's shared and acted upon. What's one item you'll ban from your routine?