“If we don’t act now, it will be too late.”
Threats like this have been circling the news and internet for years now concerning the imminent danger climate change poses to our planet. On October 8th, CNN declared that the “planet has only until 2030 to stem catastrophic climate change.” Each new ultimatum becomes more and more drastic--the action needed for change a steadily more ambitious task.
The effects of climate change can be observed in endless ecosystems across the planet--our oceans suffering an especially noticeable blow. Though the future of our oceans has been in question for some time, a recent statistic has cast a new shadow over the topic: if immediate action is not taken, there could be more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050, according to Ocean Conservancy. Scientists estimate that there is already more than 8 million metric tons of plastic entering our oceans every year, and that plastic is finding its way into the bodies of sea life: it has been found in 59% of seabirds like albatros and pelicans, 100% of sea turtle species, and over 25% of fish sampled from seafood markets around the world. The human race is yet again faced with a choice: stand by and watch our oceans deteriorate and our wildlife perish, or stand up and take action. There is clearly only one choice that results in a happy ending: we must find a natural alternative to plastic.
To say our planet has a plastic problem is a drastic understatement. Over the last 10 years, humans have produced more plastic than during the entire last century, according to EcoWatch. Of that amount, 50% of the plastic is used once and then thrown away. Ten metric tons of everyday items like grocery bags, straws, and soda bottles was into the Pacific Ocean from the Los Angeles area everyday. The statistics go on and on, each more depressing than the last. Plastic has a rap sheet a mile long, or tens of thousands of miles long to be exact. Enough plastic is thrown away each year to circle the earth four times. But why did it become such a deadly environmental issue?
Plastic is made out of synthetic polymers: long chains of molecules that are found abundantly in nature. Cellulose, for example, the material that makes up the cell walls of plants is a common polymer. Over the last century and a half, humans developed a method for creating synthetic polymers. These synthetic polymers come in longer chains than those found in nature and are more flexible, pliable, and lightweight. Scientist’s ability to create and manipulate plastic made it an invention with endless possibility, starting with the first fully synthetic plastic made in 1907.
Though originally viewed as a revolutionary and positive discovery, plastic began to fall out of favor in the 1960s, a decade when environmental issues came into the public eye, and when the first plastic debris in the ocean was spotted. Plastic continued to gain a bad reputation in the 70s and 80s when America’s waste output was in central focus. Plastic was an immediate target, due to its unusually long lifespan. Most plastic is petroleum based, which causes it to not decompose in the way natural polymers would, by way of bacteria. When trash is buried in the ground it is exposed to decomposing bacteria, but bacteria is unable to decompose plastic, which requires the sun’s rays to break its molecular bonds. That is where a major problem arises: plastic buried in landfills will never see the light of day, and therefore take up to 1,000 years to degrade. Though many plastic companies offer recycling as a solution, plastic still ends up in landfills and scattered through nature. Health concerns about the effect of the chemical BPA--used in plastic manufacturing--on the hormonal system of children only added to growing concerns.
The good news? Plastic may have a long history in the United States and around the world, but that doesn’t mean it is guaranteed a future. Scientists have begun to address the problem: Daniel Burd, a student at Waterloo Collegiate Institute recently created a new bacteria that is able to digest plastic, while the Ocean Cleanup project is created an artificial coastline around the the Great Pacific Garbage patch which uses natural forces of the water to trap floating plastic. Additionally, there are two new types of biodegradable plastic on the market: a plant based hydro-biodegradable plastic and a petroleum-based oxo-biodegradable plastic, which will break down within 90 days in the right composting facility conditions according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Though there are many encouraging developments in fight against plastic, the fact remains that the transition from our current plastic to biodegradable alternatives--or ideally, a plastic-less world--will be long and difficult, and will leave plenty of time for more damage to be done. Therefore, no citizen of the U.S., or any country for that matter, can believe for one second that their impact does not matter. MHS, for example, has taken a step toward reducing their environmental impact by using metal cutlery in the cafeteria. Though you may not think about the one plastic fork you through away matters, everyone who takes hot lunch is throwing away their fork, and the number plastic forks that ends up in the landfill gets bigger and bigger with every day, week, and year. Small actions add up, and if everyone were to take small steps to reduce their usage of plastic, the effects would be seen.
Here are some ways one person can do their part:
Choose reusable shopping bags and water bottles (Americans throw away 35 billion plastic water bottles a year)
Wash and reuse single serve packaging like ziploc bags or use reusable tupperware
Don’t ask for plastic straws at restaurants (if a server gives them to you they can’t legally take them back if you don’t use them)
Bring your own mug to coffee shops
Buy digital movies instead of DVDs
Replace any plastics you can with reusables
Volunteer at beach cleanups
Support businesses that recycle plastic into products (like jewelry or phone cases)
Most importantly: spread the word!
Many of us have heard suggestions like these before: take five minute showers, pick up trash on the street, reduce-reuse-recycle, etc. But our choices have never mattered like they matter now--the stakes have never been higher. It may not feel real and the threat may not feel imminent, but our future hangs in the balance. By 2050--the last year scientists project we have the opportunity to make a change--us current MHS students will be in our late late 40s to early 50s. We might live near coastlines, we might be saving for a nice retirement home in Florida, we might have kids or young people in our lives we love. What will our futures look like on this planet? What about generations to come? What kind of world are we going to leave when we are gone? We must act now, before it is too late.