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Consider making a New Year’s Resolution to reduce plastic waste

It is estimated that in the year 2010 alone, eight million metric tons of plastic waste entered the ocean. This is a result of improper waste management, but also reflects the increasing amount of single-use plastic in our society. Since the 1950’s, the amount of plastic produced each year has increased exponentially. In the year 2025, it is predicted that 16 million metric tons of plastic will end up in the ocean. Less than 10% of recyclable plastic is actually recycled.

Recycling is not the cure-all

When I share these statistics, it is common for people to ask me how I remain optimistic about the future. The answer is simple. I have hope. I firmly believe that each of us, by taking small, simple actions, can reduce our contribution to the plastic waste problem. Unfortunately, recycling is not the cure-all. Most plastic that has a recycling number on it can only be recycled one time. This is in contrast to metals and glass, which can be recycled an indefinite number of times. Even paper products can be recycled multiple times. Most plastic is made from petroleum. Because oil is cheap at the moment, it is cheaper for plastic manufacturers to buy virgin plastic than it is for them to purchase recycled plastic. This lack of demand for recycled plastic means that much of what is collected for recycling ultimately may end up in the landfill.

Biodegradable plastic

I am also hopeful that developing technologies will soon allow us to mass-produce truly biodegradable plastic (from biological sources). I recently visited the New Materials Institute at the University of Georgia. One of the projects being worked on there is the manufacture of bioplastics. Dr. Evan White, a chemist in the Institute, showed me around. He explained that these bioplastics are being created from bacterial waste products. They can be formulated to be biodegradable under certain conditions, depending on the intended use. Some are made to degrade under anaerobic conditions (e.g. if buried in wet sediments); others are made to degrade under warm conditions in the presence of oxygen.

These bioplastics can currently be produced—the challenge is in scaling up the production. As Dr. White put it, “We can make 5 pounds of this stuff, but we need to be able to make 5 million pounds before we can start to think about replacing petroleum-based plastic.” These new bioplastics are different from the “compostable” bioplastics currently available. Those products (generally made from corn or something similar) will compost, but only in commercial composting facilities. They need very high temperatures, water and oxygen in order to degrade. In a landfill or home compost heap, they will likely persist for decades.

Reducing dependence on single-use plastics

Until we have the ability to mass-produce biodegradable plastics, we all need to work on reducing our use of plastics. The easiest target for this behavior change is single-use plastic items. In the United States, we dispose of 50 million single use plastic water bottles every day.

  • Consider buying a reusable water bottle that you can carry with you, and refill from a tap or water fountain.
  • I carry a washable drinking straw in my car (along with a washable insulated cup). I am programming myself to say, “No straw please,” at restaurants. I can also use the cup as a take-out container for small amounts of leftovers, since it has a lid.
  • I also have a stainless-steel food container (with lid) and spork that travel with me in the car. This can serve as a plate, bowl or larger take-out container, and the spork lets me avoid plastic utensils at events.
  • Let’s not forget to use reusable shopping bags at the store.

If you are interested in reducing the amount of plastic waste that you produce, consider taking the Florida Microplastic Awareness Project’s pledge at http://bit.ly/plasticpledge. You can learn more about the project at its website, www.plasticaware.org.

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