“We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” – Anne Marie Bonneau, Zero Waste Chef
We create waste every single day. Too much of it is plastic. Too much will exist for hundreds of years. Too much of it is out of sight, but cannot be out of mind. People may think that the lifecycle of a product begins when we make a purchase and ends when we throw an item “away,” but in reality, what we see is only a small fraction of its journey and impact. Stuff never really goes away. It may decompose or be turned into something else, but the vast majority is destined to sit in landfills or waterways forever, polluting our atmosphere, resources and planet.
All people deserve the right to exist in a clean environment, but this standard goes unmet on a global scale. Pollution is a critical environmental justice issue, and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and low-income communities are the most likely to be affected by it, live near waste management facilities, and be exposed to harmful chemicals, as we learned in the Climate Justice challenge. Studies show that “rather than hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities [TSDFs] ‘attracting’ people of color, neighborhoods with already disproportionate and growing concentrations of people of color appear to ‘attract’ new facility siting.”
Let’s start at the beginning of the life of one of the most prominent types of waste: a plastic product. Plastic is made from fossil fuels, often extracted from Native American land or transported through it. From their extraction, fossil fuels go to refineries that are frequently located in low-income BIPOC communities, causing serious health complications. These populations are also more likely to consume plastic products or plastic-packaged ones, due to low sales prices and convenience. The products leach dangerous chemicals and pollute bodies and the environment throughout their life cycle. Finally, plastic waste is transported to landfills, far too many of which are poorly managed and leak chemicals into nearby communities disproportionately populated by BIPOC.
This may sound scary — because it is. But there have been some advances towards promoting less plastic use and fixing damage that has already been done. For instance, President Biden’s executive order on tackling the climate crisis specifically addressed environmental injustice. However, this is only a start, and there is much to be done to protect vulnerable communities, reduce waste and safeguard our Earth.
The pandemic has caused waste to surge in the past year and a half, given the massive global increase in disposable everything. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), single-use cups, cutlery, bags, etc. have been used en masse since the pandemic started, as people, governments, and businesses try to ensure health and safety. Concerns over cross-contamination have prompted grocery stores and coffee shops to not allow customers to bring their own reusable bags, jars, mugs or other items. Although scientists and doctors say that sanitized reusable cups are safe to use, many are hesitant to use them again, and most shops still do not allow it. Buying in bulk has become a challenge, as many stores replaced bulk bins with prepackaged, plastic-heavy options to mitigate exposure. The pandemic has changed everything, including consumption and waste of plastic, styrofoam, and other synthetic materials, largely in the form of products with harmful environmental consequences. Low-waste start-ups have seen a rise in sales since the pandemic started, likely due to concern from sustainability-minded people; sadly, this is far outweighed by the wave of single-use items being produced and consumed.
While it may be difficult to live a low waste lifestyle right now, there is some good news. As mentioned above, reusables are safe to use during the pandemic, per a statement backed by over 115 scientists around the world. Dr. Mark Miller, former director of research at the National Institute of Health’s Fogarty International Center, explains that public health must include thinking about the Earth. Promoting single-use items to “decrease exposure to COVID-19” works against the environment and negatively impacts water systems and food supplies. Reusable bags, containers, and utensils are safe to use if cleaned and handled properly.
Is plastic hazardous to human health? The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Plastics contain chemicals linked to cancer and other major health concerns, as a result of leaching from packaging into food. Studies also show that plastic can break down into tiny, nearly microscopic pieces called microplastics, often present in food or water and easily ingested into the body. A 2019 study found that humans ingest around 5 grams of plastic each week, the same amount of plastic as a credit card. While plastic may seem convenient and sanitary, it comes with serious long-term health risks.
After a single-use item is used and disposed of, where does it go? Items most likely end up in landfills, where 79% of all plastic ever produced permanently resides, taking up to 500 years or more to degrade. Or it may be swept into waterways, ultimately polluting the ocean and wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems. Almost 13 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year, adversely affecting the entire ecosystem.
Waste has become a negative byproduct of daily life, but it doesn’t have to be that way! According to our partner, 5 Gyres, the top six sources of plastic pollution (food wrappers, bottle and container caps, plastic bags, straws and stirrers, plastic cutlery and take-out containers) can be easily eliminated. Additionally, another top recent major polluter is disposable face masks, due to the pandemic. There are reusable alternatives for all of these items. Companies like today’s partner, Klean Kanteen, offer reusables for cups and food containers that make it simple to transition to a low waste lifestyle without any sacrifice.
However, we must be mindful of not making a blanket assumption about the accessibility of reusable objects. An issue that is not talked about enough is the necessity of some single-use plastics, specifically for the disabled community. Plastic straws are one such essential, providing people living with disabilities an opportunity to live independently, thanks to flexibility, sterility, and no choking hazard. Blanket single-use plastic bans are not the solution, as they don’t acknowledge lived realities of all. With that being said, if individuals do not need single-use plastics and are able to cut down on waste, we can be assured that there will be an impact on the plastic industry. Less demand for plastic products will affect the need for fossil fuel extraction, processing, plastic transportation, and landfills.
Consider this: in just one day, the average American produces 4.5 pounds of waste. In the Footprint theme, you learned how many Earths it would require to support our unsustainable current habits. So how can we start reducing our waste right now?
REFUSE. As Plastic Pollution Coalition reminds us, “plastic is a substance the Earth cannot digest. Refuse single-use plastic.” Refusing is the most important step you can take to reduce waste, as it significantly decreases intake. This applies to styrofoam, disposable masks, unnecessary purchases, or consumption of any kind.
REDUCE. Buying items in bulk, choosing those with less packaging, and cutting back on quantities you buy all help to reduce waste. Buying from plastic-free and low-waste companies like Package Free Shop, Blueland and By Humankind can help you reduce the amount of plastic waste your lifestyle produces.
REUSE. By reusing and repurposing items, you can greatly lessen waste and extend the life of what you already have! Reusable bottles, straws, and containers are great alternatives. Do you have old clothes you don’t know what to do with? Pass them onto a friend or family member, giving the piece a chance at another life!
RECYCLE. Recycle what you can’t refuse, reduce or reuse to ensure your waste doesn’t end up in landfills! Recycling labels can be difficult to understand, so be sure to check whether an item is actually recyclable here or here before tossing.
RETHINK. Focus on how you can change behavior to cut waste. Simple ideas include wearing a reusable mask, packing food from home in reusable containers, carrying your own water bottle, utensils, and straws for take-out, and much more. Prepare yourself with the tools you need, like those from Klean Kanteen, U-Konserve, and Zero Waste Kit, created by a PGC alum and environmental activist Marina.
And we always need to be mindful of oversimplifying the situation. While it is vital to reduce our use of plastic, packaging, and single-use items — as we see often with low-waste practices becoming trendy and hashtags like #savetheturtles sweeping the -internet — it is also incredibly important to be aware of, allied with, and fighting for the communities most affected by plastic production, use, pollution, and overall waste. By being conscious of the waste we produce and the importance of our behavior, we can decrease waste, lessen negative impacts, and even achieve positive ones collectively. We must also address environmental justice in all we do, as no human being is disposable, and nobody deserves to live in sacrifice zones.
Think about the full lifecycle of a single-use product. How was it created? How did it end up in your hands? How will you dispose of it? These answers have serious implications on people and the planet. Remember that every piece of plastic ever created still exists in some form.
Out of sight, out of mind is what can happen when we throw trash “away.” But what if you were forced to see every piece of waste you produced in a day? This activity gives you that chance, like this video that offers a visual picture of waste.
- For the entire day today, carry a bag everywhere you go (even if you are at home or in your dorm the whole time)
- Collect everything that you would otherwise throw away. Carry your bag of waste proudly and invite conversations with family, house or classmates, community members or fellow grocery store goers
- Think! What will you do to incorporate more reusable products into your daily routine?
“Making a personal decision to avoid plastic is a great place to start – but a terrible place to stop. To create a future without plastic pollution, we need to work together to make the right decisions and the easy decisions in an economy that works for everybody.” – Story of Plastic, a powerful film from our partner, Story of Stuff.
- Watch the film The Story of Plastic.
- Reflect, how does this video affect your viewpoint?
- Share with friends and family, start a conversation!