By Paula White
Last Saturday was the 37th year of International Coastal Cleanup Day. In California over 20,000 people came out to clean up at beaches, creeks, parks, and neighborhoods. This act of love for the planet is hopeful and celebratory, but it also reveals a troubling and persistent truth: the earth is suffering from a plastic pollution crisis. Discarded plastic bags, bottle caps, straws, and hundreds of unidentifiable microplastics wind up in the digestive tracts of hundreds of marine species. Plastic microfibers from clothing have been found in wastewater across the globe, in the Great Lakes and even ice core samples in the Arctic.
And that’s just the end of the plastic pipeline. Oil companies, led by Exxon Mobil are creating more and more plastic products because demand for gasoline is declining. Environmental damage occurs at every step in production, from oil drilling facilities, to plastic “cracker” factories and nurdle spills. Not coincidentally, these facilities are typically located in communities of color. People who live at the margins of society suffer the most from environmental contaminants, and are the leaders of environmental justice movements across the globe. For a great four minute overview of the life-cycle impacts of plastic, watch the Story of Plastic on Youtube (the full feature length film and animated short version are both excellent.)
What can we do?
We can support the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which would make producers of products responsible for paying for their end of life. This would be a huge step towards systemic change — no longer would cities and counties have to contract with private for-profit waste haulers to pick up trash and recyclables. Instead, producers of packaging waste would have to pay for waste management systems, as is the case in the European Union, Japan, and now the state of Maine.
What about chips? We love chips, but we need better food wrappers! Demand that producers of snack foods develop plastic free and non-toxic packaging. Write letters or send emails to corporations–they are required to respond. Or use social media to send photos of trash in the environment to corporations (for example, tag them and tell them how you feel about finding their products polluting your neighborhood). Meanwhile, buy larger sizes of your favorite snack and reseal open bags in ziploc bags or use a bag clip.
Finally, advocate for a waste-free economy, where all packaging can either be reused, recycled or composted. This is going to take awhile, so if you are able to, you can start by purchasing beverages packaged in recyclable containers such as aluminum, glass, or metal. While it’s true that clear plastic (PET1) and opaque plastic (HDPE 2) containers can be recycled, let’s not forget all of the harmful pollutants that were generated along the way. If you’re an online shopper, why not shop for personal care products such as lotion and shampoo from companies that provide mail back boxes for your empties, and will clean and reuse those containers.