Whether it’s single-use plastics like straws, bottles, forks, and spoons; or the non-biodegradable packaging the items are often sold in; or even things like coffee cups that end up in landfills where they will take hundreds of years to biodegrade (and may not ever do so anyway), single use plastics are leading to disastrous environmental effects. Not only do these plastics consume valuable resources to manufacture and ship them around the world, but they also harm animals in the process.

plastic waste
Photo credits to Jasmin Sessler

Scientists have found an abundance of plastic particles at the bottom of the sea, in the stomachs of certain fish species, and even on land where birds have been ingesting them. Though it may not seem like a big deal that fish are eating plastic, it is a serious issue. Fish are an important part of our ecosystem as they feed us by providing food that humans need to survive. The contamination of these fish by plastic is affecting their health, not just physically but also mentally.
In the lab, researchers found that some fish developed strange facial distortions as a result of plastic particle ingestion; their jaw shape became elongated and their snouts stretched. These alterations affect the fish’s ability to find food and feed their offspring. Even if the fish don’t die from these changes, they will most likely not be able to reproduce as the plastic will impede the sperm and eggs’ ability to make it successfully to an egg.

Humans may also experience health issues from plastics such as food poisoning or pulmonary damage. Many of the non-biodegradable plastics are highly toxic substances that can cause harm to humans and animals. Bisphenol A (BPA) is one such substance that has been found in many plastics. Some of these plastics may leach BPA through food packaging, causing health risks to humans who eat them.

An excess use of plastic has become a serious problem for our planet. In fact, scientists have found plastic in the stomachs of honeybees, seabirds, and turtles. The world generates over 300 million tons of plastic each year and it is estimated that over 13 billion pounds end up in the ocean. This results in a more than 100,000 marine animal deaths per year along with an excess of $13 billion dollars in economic losses; these effects are due to our ignorance toward plastic waste.

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The amount of trash we produce has increased by 40% over the past decade and only continues to increase. It is estimated that this year alone, we will dispense more plastic waste than there are fish in the ocean.

By attempting to solve this problem with less plastic, we are only creating a parallel problem. We will still have an excess of waste and there will still be harmful chemicals released into the environment that are unable to biodegrade naturally. Great strides need to be made toward finding out how to properly dispose of plastic since recycling is not working. It is not enough to think that we can just throw away plastic – it has a life span of only a few hundred years and then will eventually break down into tiny particles at the bottom of the ocean.
Many people will argue that we need to use plastic because it is an essential part of everyday life. Existing plastics that do biodegrade can be reused and recycled, but we should not be using new non-biodegradable plastics to begin with and should reconsider the uses for all plastic items. We need to make sure alternatives are available for us to use; we must stop thinking “less plastic”- think more “better quality” instead.

There are many positive steps that can be taken to minimize plastic usage; for example, the manufacturing of plastic bags in the United States has decreased by over 50% in the past four years, and 3.3 billion fewer plastic bags are used in the United States every year since 2008, when indoor recycling bins became available. However, it is impossible to completely eliminate our consumption of single-use plastics; they do work for certain purposes that we will still need to use them. Learning how to properly dispose of it is essential to keeping our environment clean.

The first step that must be made is to create awareness of the effects that single-use plastics have on our environment. If people are aware, they will be more likely to make different decisions about what kinds of plastic they choose to use. It will also be easier for people to remember not to use plastic bags or straws since they will see the effect it has on the environment.

To minimize global plastic usage, we must make sure that we can dispose of it. Even though we want to recycle our plastic, there are still too many bags being thrown away so it is important to understand how to properly dispose of all plastic. Many cities have recycling programs for paper, glass, and metal which must be used in order for us to effectively decrease our usage of single-use plastics.

The next step we must take is to decrease the amount of plastic that we use and to make sure that we recycle and reuse as much as possible. Even though some single-use plastics can be recycled, it is important for us to not waste these items. Many cities have separate bins for recycling where all plastic can be taken to be recycled. As for reusable plastic, most places will offer plastic bags or containers that can be used to hold food.

The last step is to decrease the amount of single-use plastic that we consume. We must focus on “less plastic” instead of “less waste”. There are many ways to lessen our consumption of single-use plastics; for example, if we use straws or bags that are made out of reusable materials, then they will greatly reduce the amount of waste that is created otherwise. We must adapt to using reusable materials whenever possible.