For the longest time, I lived guilt-free whenever I bought a Frappuccino or used a plastic bag. The cup and bag would last at least 450 years on Earth, but I dropped these items in the recycling bin and imagined they would be turned into something new, and be sold back to manufacturers. In reality, this was rarely the case.
To my surprise, I discovered that the US never recycled much of our plastics domestically. Many plastics damage recycling equipment, and some types of plastic are expensive, hazardous or impossible to break down and recycle (e.g., PVC, LDPE, Polystyrene). Additionally, the raw materials for plastics have historically been cheaper and easier to purchase and use, so there was little incentive to purchase recyclables. Many plastics ended up in landfills, and most “recyclable” ones went to China for processing.
China separated recyclables using cheap human labor instead of machines, but over the years this became more difficult. Firstly, plastic manufacturing grew exponentially.
The volume of recyclables coming into China became overwhelming. Our mixed paper, metal and glass went there, too. Also, many plastics were “contaminated” with other materials or food waste and became difficult and expensive to separate out. Although Americans and Europeans consumed most of the world’s plastics, more than 70 percent of the recyclables went to China.
Because of the sheer volume, companies began dropping plastics illegally–even properly sorted plastics. Around this time, Chinese citizens began protesting the severity of pollution in their country. It’s not easy to protest in China, but this–combined with poor recycling economics and the US trade war–pushed China to ban most recyclable imports in 2018.
So where are with recycling now? A few other Asian countries (with even cheaper human labor and worse environmental standards than China) are taking some of America’s trash, notably Malaysia, Viet Nam, and India. But literally tons of our recyclables are going to landfills or incinerators. And Americans are generating more trash than ever, with a per capita increase of 60 percent since 1985.
It seems like our world has reached its plastic carrying capacity. In the past few months alone, multiple whales have beached due to starvation and dehydration from the accumulation of plastic bags in their stomachs. Up to 90 percent of all seabirds have plastic in them, and soon this will reach 100 percent.
Plastic affects our own health too. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. When it breaks down, it breaks into smaller pieces. Microplastics are consumed by fish and other wildlife that we also consume. Even mosquitos and other insects are dosing us with microplastics!
It is time we reduce our use of plastics. Over 40 percent of plastics are used just once, so you can have a big impact by reducing single-use plastics. Here’s how:
- Bring your own cup and water bottle everywhere. Keep one in the car! I have a large stainless steel coffee mug for coffee and water.
- If you forget your cup, ask for paper cups over plastic when there is an option, even for cold drinks (like at Starbucks).
- Keep utensils and Tupperware on you (or keep them in your car). When you eat out, you won’t have to use plastic utensils or a container for leftovers. If you forget, let food waste be thrown away.
- Keep reusable bags in your car for shopping. You can put produce directly in the cart, or purchase small net bags that can be re-used for this purpose.
- Refuse bags for small items you can put in your purse.
- Drink your drinks without straws. If you really need one, buy bamboo or metal ones and keep them on you (or in the car).
- When buying products, choose plastic-free when there is an option. For example, glass jars over plastic ones.
- Instead of plastic wrap, put a plate upside down over leftovers or move leftovers to Tupperware. You’ll save money and plastic. If you really need a wrap, choose beeswax wraps.
You can still have your Frappuccino, plus all your other consumables. But you can make them guilt free with just a few new habits.