Shah: The Last Straw

It's time the world moves on from plastic.

by Rachna Shah | 9/13/18 2:20am

 Earlier this summer, plastic straws were in the news. Seattle banned plastic utensils from bars and businesses, Starbucks announced it will stop using plastic straws by 2020, and major companies such as McDonald’s are joining the movement to end the use of single use plastics. It’s hard to imagine a time without plastics, but widespread use only dates back to the early 1950s. Over the past six decades, we’ve produced over eight billion metric tons of plastics – a number that continues to rise exponentially – of which only nine percent has become recycled. The plastic straw movement draws attention to the importance of replacing single use plastics once and for all. While the cost of change may appear prohibitive and daunting, we need to replace single use plastics with more durable materials, as the former damage the environment, food chain, and human health, both within our communities and around the world.

Since the early 1900s, plastic has been a cornerstone of the aeronautics, construction, packaging and transportation industries. More recently, plastic has been regularly used in electronics, ranging from hair dryers to coffee makers. Being both lightweight and strong, plastics improve fuel efficiency via aerodynamics and transportation, and are also easier and less expensive to install. In particular, plastic allows packaging weight to reduce by up to 400 percent and in production and energy costs by up to 200 percent. However, the benefits of saving and conserving energy by using plastic are outweighed by the consequences.

Plastics can harm the environment in many ways. For starters, plastic takes a long time to break down: between 500 and 1,000 years, to be precise. Even biodegradable plastic production, which is less than 0.2 percent of petrochemical-based plastic production, may not degrade quickly. Further, a study published in the journal Science found that half of manufactured plastic will become trash within a year of its production.

As a result, plastics will also continue to harm our food chain and ecosystems. Plastics aren’t digestible. As 270,000 tons of plastics float in the seas, they “form smaller fragments,” often consumed by marine animals, resulting in intestinal blockage, malnutrition or poisoning. By 2050, it is estimated that there will be more plastic than fish. When algae associates with plastics, a compound, DMSP, is released, which attracts hungry marine animals, especially zooplankton, the base of the food chain. Almost one million seabirds and 100,000 mammals are killed by plastic consumption each year and over 180 species consume plastic debris. Chemicals commonly found in consumer products have been linked to reproductive abnormalities and increased rates of heart disease and diabetes in animals.

The harm of these chemicals may extend to humans. Chemicals added to plastics, such as bisphenol A, found in the linings of food cans and beverage containers, can have adverse health effects in laboratory animals. However, more research is needed to understand the effects of these chemicals on human health.

There are many ways to reduce plastic waste in one’s day-to-day life: bringing a reusable produce bag to the grocery wstore, using Green2Go containers (newly made with more durable plastic) and refillable water bottles, using disposable food containers, and buying in bulk. On a larger scale, policy initiatives around the world and in the U.S have targeted reducing plastic and paper bag use. In 2014, California banned single-use plastic bags at large retail stores statewide. In addition to statewide bans, California, New York, Maine, Rhode Island and Delaware have labeling, recycling, or reuse programs for plastic bags in retail stores and Washington D.C has begun imopsing fees. On a global scale, the U.N has launched a CleanSeas campaign which 30 countries have joined, including Canada and France, but not the U.S.

In the European Union, over a third of food sold is in plastic packaging. Additionally, it is more expensive to transport drinks in glass versus plastic bottles; glass bottles weigh more, they cause more carbon dioxide pollution and raise transport costs to five times per glass bottle. Plastic wrapping also extends the shelf life of food, reducing food waste costs. Given these factors, perhaps instead of banning plastic, improving it is the better option: helping facilitate their breakdown and making future plastics biodegradable. For instance, Bulldog, a British skincare company, is developing polyethylene tubes made from sugarcane; however, said packaging may be up to twice as expensive as its plastic alternative.

Some argue that the real problem is a throw-away society. In 1955, Life published “Throwaway Living,” an article that celebrated the modernity of being able to throw items away rather than clean and reuse them as in the past. Since then, society has experienced the consequences of waste and begun initiatives towards progress. For example, the “Be Straw Free” campaign proposes an “offer first policy” businesses offer straws instead of giving them to consumers automatically. The campaign has found that 50 to 80 percent of customers don’t take the straw. Together, the world can change from a throwaway society to a zero-waste society, starting with straws.