Plastic is a large and growing source of pollution in our environment. Plastic bags litter our streets and neighborhoods, plastic bottles clog storm drains, plastic packaging materials fill dumpsters and landfills, incineration produces toxic gases and contributes to climate change, and whatever doesn't get burned often ends up in our oceans, where gigantic patches of floating plastic called "gyres" have developed in the circular currents of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. Plastic waste makes up 80% of all marine debris and about 8-10 million metric tons of plastic end up in the oceans each year.
There are thousands of different kinds of plastic, each with its own unique components - a mix of chemicals that make the plastic soft or hard, clear or colored. Single-use plastic is made from a combination of fossil fuel stock (these days, mostly natural gas) and a mix of chemicals that includes many known toxins. Once joined together in the manufacturing process, they can't actually be separated again which makes recycling difficult if not impossible for most plastic items.
Even though every bit of plastic ever made is still here on earth somewhere, much of it has biodegraded over time due to sun, wind and wave action until it has become microplastics - tiny particles of plastic, some no bigger than 1 micron. Scientists have found these microplastics almost everywhere they have looked: in the deepest oceans, in the snow and ice at the North and South poles, in midwestern soil and in the flesh of fish, in the blood of Eskimos and in drinking water, and floating in the air, carried along by wind currents until it gently falls back to earth with the rain or snow.
Over the next decade, greenhouse gases created during the production and disposal of plastics will exceed that from burning coal.
Recycling of plastic has been a failure. Less than 5% of all plastic going into the recycling waste stream ever gets recycled.
One single use plastic water bottle could fragment into 20 trillion microplastic particles that are 1 micron in size.
The three most common sources of microplastics are bottles and food packaging, synthetic textile fabrics (especially polyester fleece), and particles from tire wear.
Scientists are still trying to determine how toxic these microplastics are to humans, but given that plastic is a combination of fossil fuels and chemicals, the prognosis isn't good. The only solution to our plastic pollution problem is to turn off the tap - stop making new plastic and develop alternatives that won't pollute the planet forever.
One significant source of plastic pollution is packaging materials. The commercial packaging industry has made great strides in creating and utilizing recycled materials. There is no longer any need or justification for using polystyrene "peanuts," plastic bubble wrap or molded packaging material which cannot be recycled. This and other plastics are made from toxic materials which are filling our oceans with "islands" of debris and putting all marine life at risk.
Your town can help address this problem by passing a resolution specifying that all materials and supplies shipped to the town must use biodegradable or compostable packing materials. Download the sample resolution. We've also developed a cost analysis of plastic and non-plastic packing materials showing that non-plastic alternatives are less expensive.
Plastic Pollution Shows on Green Street News
Other Plastic Pollution Resources
See our page on plastics and human health.
Visit the non-profit Beyond Plastics
International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN)