Educational Series: Wildlife is Drowning in Plastic Pollution


It’s used to wrap food at the supermarket, bag store merchandise, and package items for the mail: plastic seems to be everywhere and much of it is completely unnecessary. Have you ever opened a box from Amazon or other online retailers to find most of the space inside taken up by pointless plastic filler? Much of the plastic we encounter in our day-to-day lives is wasteful and serves little useful purpose–but once discarded it can prove deadly to countless animals.

Most people devote little thought to the plastic they throw out. But while a bag or disposable container takes seconds to throw away, it will likely persist in the environment for centuries or millennia, affecting countless animals and people who come across it. Every day U.S. consumers throw away 500 million plastic straws. Each year, we use 100 billion plastic bags. Around the world, one million plastic bottles are bought every single minute. The average American throws out a total of 185 pounds of plastic each year.

Some plastic products can be easily recycled but many end up being thrown in the trash anyway. Other items such as plastic packaging, straws, and utensils are difficult or impossible to recycle in most areas. As a result, over 90% of the plastic waste used in the U.S. never makes it to the recycling. Instead it is thrown in a landfill or discarded as litter. Much of it ends up in waterways like rivers and eventually the oceans.

You may have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, just one of the places where plastic waste finds its permanent “home.” It covers an area about the size of Texas where so many pieces of plastic float in the water, they are six times more abundant than marine animals. Other, slightly smaller garbage patches are found in other parts of the oceans. The effects of all this waste on marine life are devastating.

To seabirds, turtles, and marine mammals like whales and seals, a floating piece of plastic looks like a tasty treat–but eating plastic garbage can be deadly. Some animals choke, while others accumulate so much plastic in their stomachs that there is no room for food and they starve. Recently a pilot whale found stranded on a beach in Thailand was discovered to have 17 pounds of plastic in its stomach, including about 80 plastic bags.

Fortunately there are simple ways to reduce or eliminate plastic waste, each of which will protect more animals from this whale’s tragic fate. Recycling certainly helps, and in this area individuals can make a difference. Seek out information about what kinds of plastics can be recycled in your community. It’s equally important to know what can’t be recycled so you don’t contaminate loads of recyclable items headed for a new life. If no recycling services are offered in your town or city, write to local elected officials and demand to know why.

Yet, as important as recycling is, it can’t solve the plastic problem by itself. Part of the reason is many plastic products–especially packaging–are made from low-quality materials that cannot be easily recycled. Further, not all recycling facilities are equal. Recycling centers based in the U.S. can provide workers with good jobs while contributing to a cleaner environment. But until recently, fully a third of recycled plastic from the U.S. was processed in China, which lacks the infrastructure and environmental regulations to prevent plastic toxins from leaching into the environment during the recycling process. In response to growing problems associated with foreign garbage, China recently banned imports of 24 types of plastic and other waste.

China’s plastic imports ban means numerous products that could once be recycled now face an uncertain future. In the short term, many of these plastics will probably be thrown away. In the long term perhaps China’s refusal to serve as a global dumping ground will prompt the world to re-think its addiction to plastics.

While ordinary people can help tackle plastic waste by recycling what we can and avoiding buying unnecessary plastic, ultimately this problem is too big for individuals to solve. Because so many products come wrapped in unnecessary layers, it’s difficult or impossible to avoid plastic packaging entirely. When it comes to eating out, we don’t really need plastic straws or utensils–these items can be eliminated or made from biodegradable alternatives. But as long as major companies choose to provide these products and make them out of plastic, the problem won’t go away.

It’s for this reason growing numbers of people and organizations are putting pressure on major companies to stop using wasteful amounts of plastic. In countries like the UK and Belgium, McDonald’s has begun phasing out plastic straws in response to consumer pressure. Starbucks recently announced it will work toward developing cups that are 100% recyclable. In Australia, major supermarket chains Woolworths and Cole’s are taking steps to eliminate unnecessary packaging.

Governments can also make a difference at the local, state, and national level. Dozens of U.S. cities and counties have banned plastic shopping bags, one of the most ubiquitous plastic products. If your community hasn’t taken this step, contact your city council or county commission and ask them to step up. Meanwhile, New York City is considering a precedent-setting ban on plastic straws.

You can join the global movement for a plastics-free future. In addition to contacting your elected officials use the power of social media to shine a light on unnecessary plastic. Next time you run across wasteful plastic packaging, snap a photo and post it to Twitter with the hashtag #PointlessPlastic. You can make your tweet even more powerful by tagging the company that made or sold the product.

While consumers may not be able to end plastic pollution on our own, we can put pressure on governments and corporations that can prevent the oceans from becoming a global plastics dump. Get involved now and help save wild animals from tragic deaths by plastic.

Photo credit: Fabi Fliervoet

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