In our not-so-distant past, plastics were novel, full of promise, and spoke of a revolutionary shift toward a convenient, quick culture. People heralded single-use plastic as a modern innovation for busy families, eliminating the need to labor over dishes. Little did we know what implications this would have on today’s society. What started as an innocuous shift intended to make working women’s lives easier has instead birthed the throwaway culture of red plastic cups, plastic straws, Styrofoam plates, and single-use forks that has devastated so much of our planet.
As we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, our relationship with these novelties looks rather different. Now, plastic disposables are a given – single-use straws, forks, and clamshell containers beleaguer trashcans nationwide, and filter their way down streams and rivers, ending up in our oceans. Millions of tons of plastic garbage swirl in a large oceanic gyre referred to as “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. The constant motion and sunlight break these plastics down into smaller pieces – but it isn’t quite accurate to say they degrade. Rather, they break apart into smaller pieces called microplastics – pieces under 5 millimeters in length.
These microplastics have become a permanent fixture on our shores and in our bodies of water. And, left unchecked, they will become a permanent fixture in our own bodies as well. These microplastics are often coated in algae, making them appealing to fish, who mistakenly eat them – even zooplankton has been caught eating the smallest microplastics, thinking they were algae. These fish are eaten by bigger fish, which humans then eat. It’s a mistake to think we are immune to the ripple effect these plastics are having. Recent studies have linked these microplastics up to our food chain – the fish that people are eating now has been found to have these plastics in their digestive tracts, and even embedded into the flesh that people consume. A study from Belgium indicates that shellfish-lovers are swallowing around 11,000 plastic fragments annually.
The good news is these levels currently aren’t detectable in humans. The bad news is that, by 2050, the Ellen MacArthur foundation maintains that, pound for pound, there will be more plastics in the ocean than fish. And that is a tipping point with devastating implications.What can be done to avert this crisis before it becomes an unavoidable catastrophe that devastates our ecosystem? Regardless of whether these plastic levels are detectable in our own bodies or not, the fact remains that fish are already eating plastic.
The food chain has already been altered. Hormone disruptions and health problems are already evident in certain fish populations, and continued dumping of plastics in the ocean will only further disrupt the food chain. This in turn disrupts the entire health of our ocean – our ecosystem is so delicate that a whale’s digestion and phytoplankton work together to remove carbon from the atmosphere. We have to act before it’s too late.And so, what can we do to fight this? To get fish back to eating what’s good for them, for maintaining the vastly critical oceanic ecosystem that balances our lands? There’s only one solution: stop using plastics. Saying no to plastic and single-use items is the single most radical thing you can do to divest from petroleum, gas companies, the exploitation of native people’s land, and the pollution of our waters and food chain. In the United States right now, the community for sustainable living is blossoming with accessible movements like the nonprofit Be Zero, whose founder aims to bring the zero waste movement away from an aesthetic and towards viable results.When 500 million straws are used in the United States daily, it’s easy to feel frustrated, but finding and harboring a local community that minimizes their plastic footprint can help.
There are countless small changes you can make that add up to hundreds of pounds of plastic waste saved annually from your trashcan alone. Refuse the straw. Wash out an old glass peanut butter jar, and bring it with you in your bag to use as a to-go mug or a leftovers container. Refuse plastic silverware; plenty of companies make collapsible, reusable silverware or chopsticks, but it’s just as simple to bring one from home. When you go grocery shopping, buy from the bulk section whenever possible, and bring your own paper or cloth bags. Once you get into the habit of refusing plastics, it’s remarkable how quickly these small switches become second nature. And your impact won’t just end with your trash can.
Your actions reverberate outward to your friends’ habits, as well. By showing up with your own mug of tea, or refusing a straw when out to dinner, you are showing the people around you that divesting from plastics in your day-to-day life is simple. Empower your community. Fight to keep plastics from entering the food chain. Start small. What can you do to divest from plastics today?