Environment

Want to Leave the World Less Cluttered? Stop Relying on Recycling and Do This Instead

We can no longer rely on simple solutions like recycling to solve our plastic waste problem.

The severity of the problem of plastic pollution can be seen on almost any roadway or beach today.
Photo Credit: 5 Gyres

The following article, part of a content partnership between Stone Pier Press and Earth | Food | Life (EFL), a project of the Independent Media Institute, is the first installment of “Plastic Pollution — Plastic Solutions,” an exclusive EFL series. Check the EFL site for new installments.

Many Americans who diligently recycle know little about where their plastic ends up, but we could count on China to take it in and process it for us—until recently. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, we recycle roughly 66 million tons of material each year, and our waste systems aren’t equipped to handle such large quantities, which is why close to one-third of those materials got exported. That changed this year, however, when the Chinese government said it would “ban imports of various types of plastics and papers” and reject shipments that were more than 0.5 percent impure.

As China and other buyers continue to ratchet up their quality standards, the amount of plastic occupying landfills has grown to worrying heights. What doesn’t land there quickly finds its way into the world’s oceans. It’s estimated that more than 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are floating on the ocean’s surface and that virtually every seabird will be eating plastic by 2050. Seabirds are just some of the thousands of marine species affected; if fish are eating plastic, that plastic moves up the food chain.

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Graphical abstract from Science Direct.

Once in the water, plastic breaks down into microplastics, tiny particles less than five millimeters in size. “These microplastics can act like sponges, attracting persistent pollutants like chemical fertilizers and pesticides,” explains Rachel Sarnoff, executive director of 5 Gyres, one of several organizations working to combat the problem of plastic pollution, and highlighting what can be done about it. “Tiny organisms eat these toxic microplastics, then are eaten by small fish, and then by larger animals,” she says.

Even among those of us trying to pick food that’s healthy for our bodies and our planet, little thought is given to where or how we’ll dispose of packaging once we’ve finished with it. Few of us actually understand the damage a plastic bag can do. Made cheaply with petroleum and built to last, most plastics take hundreds of years to biodegrade. In fact, much of the plastic ever produced still exists in our environment today. And yet we continue to increase the production and use of these materials at alarming rates.

Since its invention in the early 1950s, global plastic production has grown exponentially. Between 1993 and 2015, it rose from 162 million tons to 448 million.

5 Gyres, based in southern California, also points out what we’re getting wrong. “Awareness around the issue of plastic pollution is growing,” says Carolynn Box, the group’s science programs director. “But the solutions are often complicated and confusing to the general public.”

Take recycling: We’d like to think of it as the solution to our heavy use of plastics, but it is not. Processing recycled materials requires an enormous amount of energy and resources, even more when odd items find their way into the mix.

However much you may hope they’re recyclable, those disposable coffee cups and greasy pizza boxes aren’t going to make the cut. Neither are plastic bags. Not only are they notorious for killing wildlife, but they also constantly gum up multimillion-dollar machinery at recycling plants. In fact, materials of this sort can contaminate a whole load, making it challenging, if not impossible, to find buyers interested in repurposing what’s been broken down.

“More than 300 million tons of new plastic is produced annually, and less than 10 percent is recycled,” Box says. “This is a fact, and recycling is misleading.”

Underwater during one of 5 Gyres’ expeditions to Bermuda, where the researchers collected data to better understand the distribution of plastic pollution in the North Atlantic Subpolar Gyre. (image: 5 Gyres)

If recycling isn’t the answer, what is?

We can no longer rely on simple solutions like recycling to solve our plastic waste problem, say experts like Box from 5 Gyres. We must look instead to be more thoughtful about how much of it we buy. If we all take steps to identify where we use plastic and actively look for alternatives, we’re guaranteed to see drastic reductions in the amount of plastic entering our oceans.

“People can feel overwhelmed as they learn more about the issue,” Box says. “That’s why it’s important to provide information and tools for people to take action.”

This summer, 5 Gyres will take its 19th expedition to Indonesia’s Coral Triangle to sample microplastics and explore direct solutions to the problem plaguing our oceans. “There are more and more organizations getting involved,” Box says, “and that gives us hope.”

Handfuls of microplastics litter found during a 5 Gyres cleanup. (image: 5 Gyres)

7 ways you can help leave the world less cluttered

1. Carry reusable bags wherever you go

Plastic bags are everyone’s worst nightmare. If you’re wondering what to do with the ones you’ve already stuffed under your sink, don’t go dumping them in the recycling. Check first to see if there’s a plastic bag drop-off near you, or use the bag over and over until you can’t use it anymore.

Here are some great reusable bags:

2. Buy non-perishables in bulk whenever possible

Consider spending a little extra cash on containers for storing leftovers, homemade goods, or bulk items like rice and quinoa.

Some excellent jars and containers:

Litterless has created a database of stores throughout the country that will allow you to buy unpackaged staples in your own containers. Some are devoted to making everything in their stores zero-waste, while others, backed by the nonprofit A Plastic Planet, have decided to open aisles containing nothing but plastic-free goods. Note: If you’re using a container to buy an item in bulk, make sure to weigh the container first so it doesn’t get factored into the price.

3. When shopping at farmers markets, try to take little to no packaging home with you

In general, if you politely ask to purchase products package-free, the farmers will accommodate you. Be sure to come with your own reusable bag and any containers you’d like to use. If they happen to hand you produce wrapped in a rubber band, simply return the rubber band so it can be reused.

4. When shopping at a grocery store, think first in terms of necessities

If you can make a product at home (e.g., granola bars, hummus, popcorn) and create less waste by doing so, don’t buy it. This recipe index offers some great ideas to get started. If you need items such as flour and sugar, and for some reason cannot buy them in bulk, look for versions with compostable packaging. If you have to purchase an item that comes in a container, spend a little extra on those that come in 100 percent recyclable glass.

5. Order less takeout, foodandbeverages on the go

We’ve all seen how much excess plastic restaurants use when packaging takeout. Coffee shops are not much better. The majority of single-use cups are lined with a fine film of polyethylene, which makes the cups difficult and expensive to process. Whether you recycle them or not, they’re likely to end up in a landfill. Carry a reusable coffee cup with you, pack your own lunches in steel containers and reusable bags, and avoid the use of plastic straws and utensils as often as possible.

Great products for eating on the go:

6. Love straws? Ditch your plastic ones for one of these.

7. Get involved in awareness raising campaigns

The Ambassador Program at 5 Gyres helps people get involved as educators in their own communities. Head to #BreakFreeFromPlastic to learn more about the other organizations looking for more support.

Need more inspiration? Check out this article written by one of Stone Pier Press’s fellows about her transition to a low-waste lifestyle.

Lydia Chodosh is Marketing & Editorial Associate at Stone Pier Press.