Where do plastic products go after they are thrown into the blue recycling containers? Most assume they get recycled because it seems straightforward to put all recyclables together in a bin and eventually someone, somewhere will make sure it’s recycled properly. However, according to a study published in Science Advances in 2015, only 9 percent of plastic products that get thrown away are actually recycled and another 12 percent get incinerated. This leaves a whopping 79 percent of plastic products unrecycled or incinerated. So where is that 79 percent of plastic products?
These products are accumulating in landfills or overflowing into the natural environment as litter. Meaning, at some point, much of it ends up in the oceans. One 2016 study found that plastic products make up 80 percent of all marine debris in oceans. Marine animals are suffering from this, either by becoming entangled in the plastic or eating it, which can lead to suffocation or starvation. Plastics in oceans can also harm humans. Fish eat microplastics which can contain dangerous chemicals (i.e. PCB, DDT, and nonylphenol) which then enter the human body when the fish are consumed. Plastics have also been shown to harm areas with tourism-based economies due to the accumulation of litter on beaches. So, what is being done to reduce the amount of plastic entering oceans?
According to Blaire Langston, who studied marine debris while obtaining a master’s degree at UH Mānoa, the solution needs to be approached holistically, focusing on education, prevention and reduction.
“The biggest thing is that people need to stop consuming so many disposable products, especially plastic.” Langston emphasizes.
Plastic is cheap, durable, versatile and extremely convenient, making it challenging for most people to cut it out of their lives. People need to be educated on the importance of zero waste and be made aware of the fact that trash doesn’t just “go away”. This knowledge will assist in the reduction of new plastic debris in the ocean. Langston also advocates for many potential policy changes to reduce the amount of plastics being used and produced. These policies would place bans on common items that are found as marine debris such as plastic water bottles, bags, straws, and food wrappers, give incentive to businesses that want to follow zero waste practices and hold corporations accountable for producing non-compostable, short life cycle items. Bills like Hawai‘i’s Plastic Bag Ban, enacted in 2015, and the upcoming Polystyrene Foam Ban (SB2498) are an excellent start, but more can be done. You can contact your local representative and ask what is being done to keep marine debris out of the oceans. The more noise we make, the more likely representatives are going to both listen and act.
The facts are clear. Plastic is killing the oceans. According to a 2018 study published in Nature, over 12 million metric tons enter the oceans every year, which is equivalent to one truckload of plastic entering the ocean every minute. While plastic products are difficult to avoid in today’s world, there are still ways that we can reduce the amount of plastic we consume. Carrying around your own cutlery, reusable straws and reusable take-out containers are simple behavioral changes that can make a lasting impact. Ask yourself, is plastic worth the convenience?