Some ways of decreasing our environmental impact require serious sacrifice and planning. (Exhibit A: Greta Thurnberg sailing across the ocean in a carbon-neutral vessel.) Other important environmental actions require government policy change, which can feel hard to directly influence in day-to-day life. (Exhibit B: The importance of having clean energy standards and a tax on carbon, both of which require government action.)
However, there are some things that we can do as individuals that are easy and do make a difference. So, why not do those things?
If you are thinking, “because my actions won’t matter anyway so why bother?” I have two answers for you. First, I believe individual actions do matter. By committing to small environmental actions, we are galvanizing ourselves for more and more action. Similarly, we are setting an example, informally, for those around us. If we normalize environmentally friendly action and everyone - or even more people - undertake those actions, then they start to add up and matter more and more. (My favorite, go-to, podcast, How to Save a Planet, has a great episode called Is Your Carbon Footprint BS? which addresses the question of how much our individual actions really matter.) Second, the things I’m suggesting in this article are really not hard to do. I understand you may not be willing to make a huge sacrifice right now. But how about a change that is really pretty easy?
Second, decrease your disposable plastic use. Some of my favorite swaps for disposable plastic are here. Disposable plastic is a for-real, serious environmental problem. The Guardian has a great graphic depiction of the plastics’ problem from Roland Geyer. The problem of plastic is so gargantuan that it’s hard to express in a few sentences. It is so gargantuan that geologists have literally posited that plastic will be the marker for our current geological era. As in, covering up the various layers of sedimentary rock that delineate other geological eras, our era will be marked by the layer of plastic that we’re leaving behind. We’re literally coating the earth in plastic. We don’t see this so much in the United States - at least in the wealthier areas. But in poorer parts of the world, mountains of plastic have become a true hardship (see some visual images here) - and much of this plastic comes from us. As many recent events have shown, this earth is not so big. While it’s easy to say “out of sight, out of mind,” the reality is that we’re all interconnected and the problem will not always be out of sight or out of mind.
You may be thinking, “I got it. No problem. I’ll just recycle!” I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but plastic is not that recyclable. Aluminum - yes! Totally recyclable! Go aluminum! Glass - yes! Also, pretty efficiently recyclable. Woo hoo, glass! But, plastic...no, not so much. You may be thinking, “You’re crazy! My town picks up my plastic for recycling every Wednesday.” Or, at least that is what I’m thinking. But the thing is, plastic can’t be efficiently recycled. There are lots of types of plastics - like the film that protects your dry cleaning, the hard plastic of your bicycle helmet, a soda bottle, etc. Plastics vary greatly and many types of plastic can’t be recycled at all. The fact that there is a recycling symbol on something is no indication that it is recyclable. The plastic industry lobbied for those symbols to be placed on plastics. Those that can be kind of recycled, require a lot of new, “virgin” plastic to be added before they can become something new. So, it is debatable whether or not the act of lugging our plastics to the curb as recycling is beneficial - or just makes us complacent about single-use plastic. As Geyer points out in the Guardian article, only 9% of all plastic is recycled. The rest is either burned in incinerators or goes to landfills. And, guess what, the incinerators and landfills are in poor communities - either in the US or other countries - where the pollution mostly impacts communities of color - one strong example of why climate justice is also a social justice issue. So, I’m sad to say, recyclign is not a solution for single-use plastic. Unforutnatly, we need to take steps to move away from single-use plastic.
When you take action to not use disposable plastic, feel free to feel high and mighty. You can know that you’re a savvy consumer, not doing what the plastics industry would want. In 1956, Lloyd Stouffer, the then editor of Modern Packaging, Inc spoke at a plastics industry convention and declared “the future of plastics is in the trash can.” Up until that point, plastics were treated as a durable, reusable product. Not something you’d throw away. However, Stouffer saw that profits could be greatly increased if consumers could be trained to throw products out and then re-buy them. So, products were designed and marketed to promote single-use items. The industries switch to disposable was so successful, that seven years later at another industry conference, Stouffer was able to say:
“What I had said in the talk was that it was time for the plastic industry to stop thinking about reusable packaging and concentrate on single-use. For, the package that is used once and thrown away...represents not a one-shot market for a few thousand units but an everyday recurring market, measured by the billions of units. Your future in packaging, I said, does indeed lie in the trash can. It is a measure of your progress in packaging over the last 7 years that this remark no longer raises any eyebrows. You’re filling the trash cans, rubbish dumps and incinerators with literally billions of plastic bottles, plastic jugs, plastic tubes, blisters and skin packs, plastic bags, and films and sheet packages and now even plastic cans.” (Source: How to Save a Planet’s “Recycling! Is it BS?” episode)
Wow! The plastics industry successfully marketed. They got trashy! Well, let’s not be so trashy.
I do want to mention that while swapping out single-use plastic is often easy, the products I suggest do require some upfront investment and therefore may not be viable for everyone. You can honestly assess for yourself if that is what is stopping you from reducing your use of single-use or if it is something more like inertia. Similarly, I understand that some people have time, physical, and other constraints that make it very hard for them to avoid single-use plastic. If that is you, thank you for still reading this and I welcome any feedback that you have!
Lastly, as you start to make swaps, please beware of the new Lloyd Stouffers of the world who are marketing products as “environmentally-friendly” in an effort to sell more units, when the environmental benefit is questionable. As people become more conscious of the environment, many companies are cashing in on this consumer trend. Products and marketing are made to appear environmentally friendly, when really there may not be any great environmentally benefit. This is sometimes referred to as “greenwashing” and is a real bummer. Of course it is better to buy shoes made from recycled plastic, then shoes made from virgin plastic -- IF you need shoes. However, if you don’t need shoes, then you’re still over-consuming and using unnecessary resources. (I speak, sheepishly, from experience.) Look for swaps where your net plastic consumption goes down.
So, let’s make the future of plastics in the metaphorical trash and not in the literal dump! Check out some of the swaps away from disposable plastic that have worked well for me and my family here. Please use the comments section to let me know other solutions that you’ve found. I’d love to amplify your ideas in future too, so that we can all learn together!