Plastic is surely one of the most significant and life-changing inventions of the last one hundred-plus years. What would we do without it?
Modern life demands plastic for everything from disposable diapers to the pipes that deliver our water and the bumpers that protect our cars. It's used for medical procedures and to make high-tech computers. It's almost impossible to find a corner of the earth that is not affected by plastic.
But it’s not always so munificent. For example, here in the U.S., we consume water from somewhere in the range of 50 billion plastic bottles each year — and yet we recycle only a fifth of that staggering number. The rest ends up in landfill. Pretty much forever.
There’s a healthy and hopeful movement afoot to reduce the number of plastic water bottles and bags we rely on and replace them with reusable containers. Sure, many of these containers are made from plastic themselves, but they don’t end up in our landfills as rapidly as disposable bottles do.
What’s more, it would save money. Every bottle of water costs a dollar or more. Do the math and then compare it to your water bill. Suddenly, tap water is pretty attractive. And in most municipalities, it’s just as good as bottled. (If you object to the taste of your tap water, install a filter on the kitchen faucet or use a filtered pitcher like Brita.) If there's a recurring and worrying issue with the water, contact your town government at once.
You may not realize it, but many bottling companies use municipal water to fill their plastic bottles. Not all bottled water comes from pristine mountain springs, nor is it necessarily better for you than tap water.
What’s the Problem?
The problem is that plastic never goes away. It’s not biodegradable and threatens the health of birds, fish and other wildlife. Also, it’s made from petroleum and so is a drain on that precious resource. For example, on average, every American tosses more than 500 light-weight plastic bags in the landfill every year. By some estimates, the amount of oil needed to make those 500 bags is the same as is needed to drive 60 miles in a car.
Plastic degrades to miniscule pieces. Billions of these tiny structures eventually find their way into our oceans and have formed gigantic plastic “islands” in both the Pacific and Atlantic.
These islands are created by currents in the oceans that corral the plastic in large and growing vortexes. The results are alarming. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as it’s sometimes called, is the size of Texas — although some experts suggest it could be far larger. A similar patch in the Atlantic is somewhat smaller, and growing.
Much of the debris trapped in these areas can be seen from the air, but far more is not visible; the infinitesimal pieces of plastic float just below the surface of the water — only determined by scientific samplings.
What To Do?
The best thing we can do is reduce our dependence on plastic. No one disputes that plastic is here to stay and performs innumerable vital functions, but providing containers for water and bags to tote groceries home are not necessarily among them.
Beyond reusable water bottles and reusable canvas grocery bags, the average consumer can pay better attention to recycling. Even better, make a conscious effort to decrease the amount of plastic you use.