Thirty years ago, I remember flying from Los Angeles to Seoul, Korea, where only a row of seats served as the invisible divide between airplane smoking and non-smoking sections. There were ashtrays at doctors’ offices, and I tried to enjoy meals with someone else smoking a cigarette only a table away. That was my norm.
Today, my seven-year-old son lives a different, healthier reality as he reads “No Smoking” signs in airplane bathrooms and elevators with confusion saying, “That is so silly. Who would ever smoke in a plane or elevator?”
Global progress against smoking has been impressive, with a steady decline over the last three decades, thanks to parents and active community members who successfully “de-normalized” smoking in society. Once people were aware about the harmful effects of primary and secondary cigarette smoke, implementation of protective measures against smoking became incredibly effective.
We now face another “normalized” threat to combat. Plastic.
Long-Term Plastic vs. Single-Use Plastic
In many ways, plastic is a good product, which makes our lives more enjoyable and affordable. This refers to long-term-use plastics—computers, smartphones, medical devices, cars, furniture, even kayaks—which contain plastic components or are fully made from plastic. In many cases, plastic composition is what makes these products more affordable, and even better suited for their intended use. Durable and pliable, long-term-use plastics are incredible substances, but it’s important to understand the need for careful disposal at end-of-life.
When synthetic plastic was first made, it seemed to be a great way to protect the natural world from the negative impact of human consumption. Unfortunately, we were sold a big lie about plastic—that you can throw it away and be done with it—which is not true, because there is no “away” with plastic. It does not degrade nor does it naturally return to Earth. Every piece of plastic ever created still exists today, and it becomes harmful.
Common, everyday items—plastic bottles, bags, and snack wrappers; foam take-out containers, coffee cups and packing materials—account for up to 85% of waste. While they may seem convenient, these “single-use” plastic products are a threatening problem.
Microplastics: A Big Problem
Our cultural habit of frequently using disposable products has created a societal reliance on throw-away plastic that is strangling the environment. Single-use plastic has particularly negative effects on our waterways, and it also impacts human health.
Once in the ocean, plastic eventually breaks into tiny particles, known as microplastics. These bits are mistaken for food and easily ingested by even the smallest organisms on the oceanic food chain. Contaminated zooplankton feed on phytoplankton, fed on by small fish, fed on by squid, which continues up the food chain into human meals.
If we remain on the current course, using and disposing single-use plastic like we do currently, there will be more plastic than there are fish in the ocean, by 2050. Regardless of whether you live inland and properly dispose of your trash, there is a good chance some of your plastic waste has found its way to the ocean. More than 80% of ocean plastic pollution comes from land-based sources.
- More than one million plastic bottles are bought every minute.
- Less than 10% of those one million purchase plastic bottles are recycled.
- An estimated one trillion plastic bags are used every year.
- One trillion plastic bags is the equivalent of having the contents of a large waste truck being dumped into the ocean every minute. It kills sea life, fouls waterways and beaches, and leads to harmful chemicals reaching the human food chain.
The Particular Harm in Styrofoam-Made Containers
Compounding the plastic pollution epidemic, plastics absorb free-floating chemicals in the ocean, so when microplastics enter the food chain, the additionally absorbed toxins settle into the muscles and fat of fish, which is the part we mainly eat.
Polystyrene—better known by its Dow Chemical trademark name, Styrofoam—is one of the worst offenders of plastic pollution. Sometimes referred to as expanded polystyrene (EPS), it is made into ubiquitous white food take-out containers and is a health hazard.
EPS is made using a chemical called styrene that has known carcinogenic effects. According to the EPA, regular exposure to styrene in humans can affect the central nervous system, with symptoms such as headaches, weakness, depression and CNS dysfunction (affecting reaction time, memory and intellectual function).
Another offender is Bisphenol A (BPA), used in polycarbonate plastic bottles, which causes endocrine (or hormone) disruption by altering systems in the body that are controlled by hormones (endocrine system). These disruptions can cause cancerous tumors, birth defects and other developmental disorders. BPA is a better-known plastic product, and the general public’s reaction against it resulted in many BPA-free products.
These are only a few of many hazardous chemicals used to give plastics different properties.
Parents Have the Power to Affect Change
The campaign against smoking required global change in how societies perceived smoking, educated children about negative hazards, implemented policies banning advertisements targeting kids, and set age limits to purchase cigarettes.
As parents and educators, it may seem like we don’t need is another thing to worry about for our kids. But have a responsibility to influence good behavior and create the positive change ensuring their future.
We need to rethink our plastic habits immediately, and change is possible. Affecting change is essential in response the grave plastic pollution threat to our well-being.
What We Can Do
It’s possible to make single-use plastic pollution something of the past by de-normalizing it. Just as my son is surprised about the need for signs prohibiting smoking, the future generation can end single-use plastics.
While some may not be able to completely avoid plastics, avoiding single-use plastics and educating others, is the first step to a safer, healthier society.
- Refuse single-use plastic.
- Replace straws, plastic bags, and plastic water bottles with reusable.
- Recycle those plastic items that you can’t avoid.
- Don’t cook food in plastic containers. Heating plastic releases harmful toxins.
- Encourage kids to get involved finding alternative plastic-free snacks. Bananas and oranges already have their own packaging!
- Encourage schools to stop selling water bottles and install water refilling stations.
- Encourage schools to implement plastic-free policies.
- Learn more on the Plastic Oceans International website: PlasticOorg.
Youth Always Leads the Way
The problem can seem overwhelming, but it is solvable. Where adults tend to want to find a solution that solves the entire problem, students recognize that no action is too small because every positive action solves part of the problem.
As head of Plastic Oceans International for nearly two years, I’ve witnessed how finding solutions is a constant for our youth. They are visionaries who provide the inspiration and progress for everyone.
Our award-winning documentary film, A Plastic Ocean, has screened at more than 500 schools worldwide to approximately 50,000 students. I’m still humbled every time I see the powerful impact the film’s message immediately has on kids,.
In Vineland, New Jersey, fifth and sixth grade students at Pineland Learning Center created a Wall of Change, to educate adults and other students about plastic pollution. They also created a system of bins where plastic are collected and taken for recycling.
At the Tanglin Trust School in Singapore, kids in first to sixth grades watched the film, completed the education supplement, and then they took action. The school no longer offers free plastic bags for uniforms and school supplies. The cafeteria started fitting bottle-filling spouts to water coolers to increase use of refillable water bottles. They also sell juice drinks in beakers rather than plastic bottles, and the school is sourcing refillable water bottles for students.
New Film to Educate Youth Worldwide
Plastic Oceans has a new film, and education and discussion guide, for youth, ages 5 to 10. It’s available in several languages and the program is being rolled out for students in multiple regions with the help of The Breteau Foundation.
The goal is to teach as many young people worldwide about the harm of single-use plastic, and to inspire the next generation to find solutions to our global reliance on plastic.
Details and sign-up forms to screen the film, and use the education and discussion guide, are available on the Plastic Oceans website at PlasticOceans.org.
There is no Planet B
It’s imperative not to be fooled into complacency. Changing habits may be difficult, but schoolchildren have proven it is possible. There is no Planet B, and we must treat it as such by working together to ensure a healthy environment now and for generations to come. Join us in the fight to end plastic pollution to protect our global environment and future.
About the Author: Julie Andersen is Global Executive Director of Plastic Oceans International. Julie has worked in public health and nonprofit management internationally for the past 15 years in the US, Japan, Hong Kong and Thailand. Her career has focused on the effective communication of information regarding new means of improving and safeguarding human health, as well as the environment, against the negative effects of industrial development. Julie was raised in San Diego, where the ocean was part of her daily lifestyle as a swimmer and triathlete. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry & Cell Biology and her Masters in Public Health. As Global Executive Director of the Plastic Oceans Foundation, Julie combines her education and career in the life sciences with her love of the ocean.
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