Plastics in the environment

“If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, resold, recycled, or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production.” –Pete Seeger

Most plastics are an environmental nightmare. I’ve lately been learning about what happens as plastics begin to break down into smaller and smaller bits (although they don’t break down nearly as fast into more elemental chemicals). Scientists are finding plastic particles (“microplastics”) in fish and most land animals. This may or may not have any health effects–that’s still being studied–but nowadays, it’s quite likely that non-vegetarians are eating a significant amount of microplastics.

Single-use plastic packaging materials and carrier bags are probably the most significant sources of microplastics in the environment, but another source is the slow breakdown of synthetic fabrics as they are washed and synthetics fibers are released into wastewater.

The craziest thing is how completely single-use plastics are an unavoidable part of everyday life. When you buy anything, it’s likely to be packaged in a disposable plastic container; groceries come pre-packaged in plastic boxes or bags; etc, etc. Natural food stores are often a little better, but even there you’re likely to find many products packaged in plastic, that you have to use plastic bags at the bulk bins, etc.

It would be really good if we could put the single-use plastic genii back into the bottle. But if our children and grandchildren are to survive the effects of climate change that are coming in the next 75 years, our first priority has to be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing single-use plastics would have a small effect on this, but the major impacts are from transportation, power generation, the manufacture of cement, and so forth.

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