There are few things humans use more of than plastics. These days, it’s practically impossible to go a whole day without using something made of plastic. In fact, I’m writing this article about plastic on a laptop with a plastic keyboard cover at a coffee shop that I drove to in a car (partially) made of plastic in front of a Christmas tree that I bet is made of a combination of plastic and fake joy. Plastic is everywhere, and for good reason: it’s an incredible material. It’s cheaper to manufacture than wood or metal-based products, it’s extremely light, and can be manipulated into practically any shape. Much like T-Swift or a well caffeinated Nate, there are few things it can’t do.
The problem though isn’t what plastic can’t do; it’s what plastic won’t do. And in this article I’m going to discuss just how devastating plastic can be when it’s not managed properly. Though many plastics are recyclable, the national plastic recycling rate is 31%. I’ll come back to this figure, but that means we actually reuse only one out of every four plastic items that could be reused. The other 69% usually ends up in landfills and oceans, but more on that later. The large majority of discarded plastic items are “single-use plastics” (SUPs). These materials, though capable of being recycled, are created and sold with the assumption that they’ll be discarded after just one or two uses. Straws, grocery bags, and bottles are three of the most common SUPs, and it is practically impossible to go a single day without seeing someone use one of them. Now, I’m not necessarily advocating for multi-use straws. After all, what would you do if you had to use a straw that had been previously dipped in something disgusting, like Moxie? There’s no amount of Listerine and good environmental karma that could get rid of that taste. Good luck trying to put your life back together after that experience with rock bottom. It is worth noting, however, that recycling centers began accepting many commonly used plastic items for either recycling or downcycling in the late 1980s, and after more than 25 years the U.S. has a plastic recycling rate of 31%. Rarely is that score indicative of any type of success.
When you apply that recycling rate to the quantity of single-use plastics manufactured and sold throughout the country, you get some staggering figures. Americans use approximately 500 million straws per day. If every single person in the U.S. used one of these straws in a hypothetical “national straw day”, you would have more than 150 million straws left over. The United States uses almost 100 billion plastic shopping bags each year, I assume to carry all of the extra straws to the closest dumpster. You may think that we’d do a little better with plastic bottles, the poster-children of the recycling movement. Or maybe you’re an astute reader and would guess, based on the overall direction this article is taking, that the news isn’t quite that good. I can’t be sure. The fact is, the United States purchases 50 billion plastic bottles each year. I would say that’s about 155 bottles per person, but that statistic would be misleading because there is no way children under the age of four use plastic bottles at all. There’s a reason you don’t see Dasani water bottles making appearances on Yo Gabba Gabba, there’s no target audience for that type of marketing strategy.
This amount of consumption can easily become routine when the associated costs are hidden to the general public. The fact remains though that these SUPs aren’t free. A single straw costs anywhere between 0.3 to 1.5 cents; Plastic bottles, around 2.7 cents. At some point from production to consumption, Americans are paying $1.5 million and $1.3 billion each year to use straws and plastic bottles, respectively. That’s a lot of money for items that are discarded after one or two uses. Still, if SUPs were just another item that we wastefully spend money on, that would be one thing. The problem is they aren’t just an expensive habit; SUPs are a very real threat to our ocean’s health.
When you combine how much plastic this country uses each year with our average recycling rate, you could get a pretty good estimate of the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills. As I mentioned earlier though, landfills aren’t always the final stop for these plastics. A lot of these actually end up running off into our oceans, where they spend the next few decades or centuries wreaking havoc on our marine ecosystems and coastal economies.
That phrase is not hyperbole; ocean plastic is incredibly common and harmful for the marine community. Though it’s difficult to put an exact number on it, researchers estimate that there are approximately 5 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans. These fragments contain many additives that are toxic when ingested, including Bisphenol- A, (a monomer found in plastic bottles that can disrupt hormonal functioning in large doses), polychlorinated biphenyls (widely used in electrical manufacturing) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (found in fossil fuel byproducts). Now, this wouldn’t be much of an issue if plastic looked like a pile of unappetizing garbage to everything in the ocean. Unfortunately that’s not the case, as plastic resembles the primary prey item for many marine animals. Zooplankton mistake microplastics and nurdles, which are small, transparent plastics, for phytoplankton. Fish mistake plastic fragments for zooplankton. Sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish. In an environment where chemical and sound recognition are often more important than good eyesight, it’s no wonder so many marine organisms die with plastic in their stomachs.
But it’s not just animals with poor eyesight that suffer death by plastic. Many shorebirds mistake floating plastic for fish, and risk suffocation or poison as a consequence. It’s estimated that plastic pollution contributes to the death of one million sea birds and at least 100,000 marine mammals each year. That is a staggering number, one that is upsetting from both an ethical and an economic perspective. It shouldn’t matter whether you’re more concerned with the sanctity of each animal life or with the supply of our billion dollar fishing industry and our growing ecotourism industry; plastic pollution is a crippling problem that is only going to get worse unless we do something about it.
So where do we go from here? Well, the first step is to inspire people to take action, and people are only going to take action for a cause they care about. This is why you see so many nonprofits and environmental organizations distributing literature on the harmful impacts of plastic in our oceans and ways to reduce your individual impact. One way to rally support for a cause like this is to overwhelm people with hard, uncompromising statistics. You could say that it would take about $5 billion to address a problem that is costing us $13 billion each year in the United States alone. You could also show folks how plastic pollution is costing coastal communities millions of dollars each year in lost tourism revenue and clean up efforts. With this knowledge, combined with the figures I mentioned earlier on the cost of plastic consumption, addressing plastic pollution just seems like a good investment. Still, there are those who won’t change their behavior unless they are emotionally invested in a cause. Well, here’s a powerful video of some researchers removing a plastic straw from an injured sea turtle’s nostril. Here’s another video of the same team removing a plastic fork from another sea turtle. There are plenty of images showing plastic-filled stomachs of shore birds and articles detailing whales dying with plastic in their stomachs. You would think that with all of the biological and economic data we have on this problem, combined with the images and videos out there that tug at the heartstrings, we would start to see a dip in the number of plastics in our oceans. Unfortunately, we’re seeing the exact opposite. So why is this? Why, despite all of the information that is out there advocating for more responsible plastic usage, do people still consume and discard these items at such an extremely high rate in the U.S.? It all has to do with how we make impulse decisions and build habitats.
- The numbers above give you and idea of how much plastic we use, and how much we actually recycle. The rest goes into landfills, and a lot of those in landfills ends up in the ocean
- Plastic in the ocean is bad for a number of reasons
- First, breaks down very slowly. This means there’s a bunch of it in the ocean and it will only ever accumulate
- Second, physically bad since it can get lodged in throats, tangle mammals
- Third, chemically toxic if ingested (and looks like food)
- Fourth, traps more heat so contributes to warming
- Fifth, collects on beaches
- How can we address it
- Emotionally, I could show videos of sea turtles with plastic forks and straws, images of sea turtles eating plastic, images of seals trapped in debris, birds stomachs with plastic
- Logically, I could tell you that it would take $5 billion to clean up plastic in the ocean which conservatively costs about $13 million in damages, SUPs in general are a huge waste of money, significant way of cutting down on rising sea surface temperatures, ocean acidification, and way of incentivizing better recycling technology or methods for using old plastic
- Cutting down on plastic pollution long term is always going to come down to one key point: how do we get people to stop buying so much of it
- Recycling is a problem, but will be difficult to address right away
- It’s not economically feasible to recycle many plastic materials
- We could educate people better to recycle, what can be recycled and what can’t
- It’s more about reuse though than recycling
- Plastic bans don’t work, people will just consume something else at the same rate
- Taxes could work as negative reinforcement to not use so many plastic bags
- Individual behaviors could change
- lots of psychology on how to attack habits and get a change in behavior
- habits are born from and encouraged by the basal ganglia, the part of your brain responsible for processing emotions and memories and pattern recognition
- sends your prefrontal cortex (logical thinking) into autopilot
- what we know that can be applied to plastic consumption
- just understanding this process has been shown to help people break habits
- mostly individual with outside support, incentives and outside assistance can only help so much: it comes down to discipline
- good news is there are ways to trick yourselves into being more disciplined
- starting new routines on vacation or in new settings can help break habits
- it’s never too late to change behaviors
- specific if-then plans can help goal attainments
- As many policies as can be developed, it’s going to come down to individual consumer behavior
- As marine scientists, all we can do is work on ways to better encourage this behavior, clean up what is currently in our oceans, and do more research to better equip us with knowledge to combat it
- It’s as much a behavioral psychology issue as it is a political, economic, or scientific issue.
Plastic is a very common and very dangerous item for marine predators. Researchers estimate that there are approximately 5 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans, a number made possible by the fact that plastic doesn’t break down. The very reason plastic is such a great material economically is one of the reasons it’s so harmful to our natural ecosystems. It’s not the only reason though. Ocean plastics contain many additives that are toxic when ingested, including Bisphenol- A, (a monomer found in plastic bottles that can disrupt hormonal functioning in large doses), polychlorinated biphenyls (widely used in electrical manufacturing) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (found in fossil fuel byproducts). Now, this wouldn’t be much of an issue if plastic looked like a pile of unappetizing garbage to everything in the ocean. Unfortunately that’s not the case, as plastic resembles the primary prey item for many marine animals. Zooplankton mistake microplastics and nurdles, which are small, transparent plastics, for phytoplankton. Fish mistake plastic fragments for zooplankton. Sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish. In an environment chemical and sound recognition are often more important than good eyesight, it’s no wonder so many marine organisms die with plastic in their stomachs.
But the cost doesn’t stop at consumption. Just a couple years ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council put our a report claiming that in California alone, $428 million per year is being spent to prevent plastic litter from becoming pollution. Without efforts like California’s, plastic trash will ultimately empty out into our oceans. Once there, it creates a whole new suite of problems that are much trickier to address. A second report headed up by the Ocean Conservancy and put out just a few months ago determined that it would cost around $5 billion to clean up all of the plastic in the ocean.
So why would we even bother? Why spend billions of dollars to clean up something that you probably see only a couple times a year, if you’re lucky? After all, how bad can plastic be for the ocean?
Pretty damn bad.