Plastic Free July, like Earth Day, is an annual reminder of what we need to do every day: reduce and work to eliminate plastic from our lives. Plastic is made from oil. People kill for oil with guns, with joysticks, and by tossing garbage into our waterways.
Eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the sea annually. Plastic breaks down into microplastic and then, no further. Plastic is often mistaken for food by water animals. Roughly 100,000 marine mammals and turtles, one million seabirds, and countless fish are killed worldwide by plastic they mistakenly eat each year. It clogs up their digestive tracts and they starve to death. Also, there are five garbage gyres (as they are called by the producers of the film A Plastic Ocean) in our seas. These aren’t so much islands as endless clouds of barely submerged plastic garbage. The one in the North Atlantic is twice the size of Texas. The others are in the South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean.1
Not all plastic is safe or recyclable. The number in the triangle (usually on the bottom of plastic items) gives you a clue. #1 is usually clear. It’s used for bottles containing soda and water, salad dressing, mouthwash, and peanut butter. It’s recycled into bags, furniture, carpeting, paneling, fiber, and polar fleece. #2 is opaque and used for milk jugs, juice bottles, shampoo bottles, cereal box liners, motor oil jugs, and yogurt and butter tubs. It’s recycled into pens, recycling containers, picnic tables, lumber, benches, decking, and fences. #4 is found in squeezable bottles, shopping bags, clothing, carpeting, and frozen food and bread bags. It’s recycled into compost bags, paneling, trash can liners and cans, floor tiles, and shipping envelopes. #5 is used in yogurt containers and ketchup, syrup, and medicine bottles. It’s recycled into brooms, auto battery cases, bins, pallets, bikes, ice scrapers, and signal lights. These are the safer plastics.
Plastic #3 (vinyl) may contain phthalates, which are linked to health issues ranging from developmental problems to miscarriages. It also contains DEHA, which can be carcinogenic and has been linked to loss of bone mass and liver problems. #3 is found in food wrap, detergent and shampoo bottles, clear food packaging, cooking oil bottles, medical equipment, piping, and windows. It’s recycled into paneling, flooring, speed bumps, decks, and roadway gutters. #6 is polystyrene aka Styrofoam. Rarely if ever recyclable, it damages the ozone layer and leaches potentially toxic chemicals, especially when heated. It can be found in some egg cartons, meat trays, and disposable plates and cups. #7 is the “other” category that includes polycarbonates, which are toxic. These plastics may contain BPA, which is linked to infertility, hyperactivity, hormone disrupters, reproductive problems, and other health issues. It’s found in sunglasses, iPod cases, computer cases, nylon, three- and five-gallon water bottles, and bullet-proof materials. It’s recycled into plastic lumber.
Some people and some companies recycle plastic. On a commercial level, companies like Green Mary (where this author works) or Waste Busters help participants at public events dispose of their waste in a green manner. Here’s one example of how this helps. At a recent event 1,610 pounds of waste was produced. That could go into the landfill, where the plastic would shine in the sunlight and the food garbage would release greenhouse gases. Instead, by utilizing greening practices, 1,000 pounds were recycled while 480 pounds were composted and sent to waste-to-energy plants. Only 130 pounds of that 1610 pounds went into the landfill.
Recycling starts at home, however. For instance, Jon and Betty Shelley of Portland have kept their landfill-bound garbage down to one 35-gallon can a year for over ten years. They are an example of what we can do on a personal level utilizing precycling, recycling, and composting.2 One way you can improve your game is by visiting My Plastic Free Life or Zero Waste Home. Keep your recycled paper dry and keep food waste out of the recycling bin. Recycling involves people handling material, so keep diapers and broken glass out of recycling materials. Flattened plastics are often mistaken for paper. Multi-material items, like Clif bar wrappers, aren’t recyclable. Don’t “wish” recycle; just include what your recycler can take. 3
Plastic is made from oil, and some people find alternatives. Fossil fuel companies have carbon reserves five times greater than what the planet can stand and stay below the 2∞C level.4 Recycling plastic is a necessary component of reducing the release of greenhouse gases. Another way we can fight climate change is through composting.
Food waste is carbon-based and emits greenhouse gases while decaying. 70% of global food waste ends up in landfills. Composting changes all this. A growing number of communities are providing commercial composting facilities, which trap escaping greenhouse gases for use in public transportation. There are 800 industrial-scale waste-to-energy (WTE) plants in more than three dozen countries with thousands of smaller systems at individual sites. Most employ aerobic digesters, which use microorganisms to break down and convert organic waste into biogas, biodiesel, or ethanol. City buses can run on this fuel, thereby keeping other gases in the ground where they belong. But it doesn’t end with fuel: There are a growing number of companies, including GreenWare, SpudWare, and Ecoproducts, that produce compostable one-time-use plates, cups, bowls, utensils, takeout containers, and cup lids made from vegetables, bamboo, wheat straw, sugarcane and palm leaves.
July is plastic-free month. How are you going to celebrate? What can you do better? List your actions at Plastic Free July.
1Leipzig, Adam, and Ruxton, Jo (Producers), & Leeson, Craig (Director). (2017) A Plastic Ocean. Hong Kong: Plastic Oceans.
2Green America (magazine), summer 2016, 17.
3Green America (magazine), summer 2016, 18–19.
4Klein, Naomi (2014). This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the climate. New York: Simon & Schuster, 148.