In July, 2018, Seattle became the first city in the United States to ban plastic straws and utensils in bars and restaurants (except for those made of compostable materials). Soon after, the Seattle-based company Starbucks pledged to get rid of plastic straws in their stores by 2020. These two announcements are part of the latest push among many citizens and companies to ban the use of plastic straws.
Lots of things are made of plastic, but it seems as of late, a lot of focus has been on plastic straws specifically. So why all the straw hate? Many believe that this whole initiative was started with a single turtle. In 2015, a video depicting a sea turtle with a straw stuck up its nose went viral. In the video, experts try to remove the littered straw from the turtle’s nasal cavity. The removal process was painful. Many were outraged at what they saw, and it suddenly brought a wave of awareness to the potential dangers of plastic straws and the environment.
Videos like the sea turtle one provide clear examples of how plastic can negatively impact the environment, but the potential harmful effects of plastic go beyond that. Scientists have actually been warning about the dangers of plastic for years. Not only does it affect animals, but many researchers believe it can have dramatic effects on the quality of life for humans as well.
Of the estimated 6.4 billion metric tons of plastic waste produced since the 1950s, only 9% has been recycled, and another 12% has been incinerated. What is left has remained in landfills and the natural environment. The main problem with plastic is that it doesn’t biodegrade. Plastic waste created by humans could linger around in the environment for hundreds, or even thousands of years.
While plastic itself doesn’t do much harm sitting in a landfill, the main concern many scientists have is when this plastic enters our oceans. Larger marine animals can become entangled in plastic bags and other debris. Sometimes, plastic gets mistaken for food.
When plastic is exposed to salt water and ultraviolet light, it can break into small pieces known as microplastics. These little fragments are virtually impossible to clean up. What’s worse, they are small enough to be eaten by fish, who in turn are then consumed by humans. A recent survey carried out by Plymouth University found that plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish.
Having said that, there are many benefits to plastic – it is cheap, easy to make, and useful for a variety of things. In the medical field, for example, plastic is a necessity (think of all the plastic gloves, tubes, and equipment). Plastic is also great for packaging and reducing food waste.
So plastic itself shouldn’t necessarily be seen as the enemy. The bigger issue is the amount of plastic created, and what it is being manufactured for. Plastic is noted for being long-lasting, yet many items made of plastic are for single use, such as toy packaging, diapers, utensils and many, many more. The world is currently producing nearly 300 million tons of plastic each year, and about 50% of this will be used only once and then thrown away. Don’t forget drink bottles. Some 480 billion plastic bottles were sold globally in 2016. It is estimated that a plastic bottle will take 450 years on average to biodegrade.
So what can we do to help? Remember the three R’s you learned at school? Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
Reduce the amount of plastic products you use on a daily basis.
Avoid goods that come in plastic containers, such as some frozen foods. Purchase food, like cereal, pasta, and rice from bulk bins and fill a reusable bag or container (it’s cheaper too). Use a razor with replaceable blades. Use cloth diapers. Say goodbye to straws.
Reuse plastic materials when you can.
And make sure you learn how to properly recycle common plastics. Recycling plastic is the key to keeping it out of our oceans.
Happy English learning!!