Sea Change is a new Passion Passport column created in collaboration with Erasing Waste, an online community dedicated to raising awareness about waste pollution and offering simple, every-day solutions that encourage a more sustainable lifestyle. In order to create change, we believe you have to imagine it and see that taking those first steps isn’t so hard, and isn’t something you have to do alone. In the first installment of this column, we analyze the plastic waste crisis and offer solutions like reusable plastic products and community organizing that can help us see change. 

Humans use plastic every day, and it’s become an integral part of how our society functions. However, we are now seeing the long-term impacts of our relentless plastic consumption, and  particularly its effect on our oceans. Birds, mammals, and entire ecosystems are being negatively affected by the plastic we consume. Let’s walk through how plastic came to be, why it’s such a problem, and ideas for getting out of this situation.

When you’re done reading, check out some must-have recycled plastic products for your next adventure. 

surfer half-submerged in the ocean at sunset

When Did Plastic Emerge?

Plastic use has only surged in the past century, especially after World War 2. Because of its unusual properties and ease of production, it has led to many innovations in medicine, engineering, technology and other fields. Over-reliance overtime however  made plastic synonymous with convenience, and now a large percentage of plastic waste (around 40%) is only used once before it is thrown away. These single-use plastics are the biggest contributor to the plastic epidemic, with humans worldwide buying one million plastic bottles a minute and throwing away nearly four trillion plastic bags annually. As our population and needs increase, the usage of single use plastics is only going to become more commonplace unless we make a change. 

Why is Plastic Pollution Such an Issue?

The core difficulty with plastic pollution is its immense life cycle. Whereas regular garbage in a landfill takes around 2 to 6 weeks to decompose, plastic can last anywhere from 10 to 1000 years before it’s decomposed. This  gives plastic   a much greater chance of entering our ecosystems. As the plastics break down into smaller pieces, they eventually flow into our oceans (to the tune of around 25 million tons a year) or end up in feeding places for many animals. In fact, around 700 species have been affected by plastics in some  way. Seabirds and fish tend to eat plastic until their stomachs can’t digest properly, while turtles and aquatic mammals can be strangled by plastic nets or six-pack rings. These devastating effects often go unnoticed  by human eyes, the old adage “out of sight, out of mind” ringing true.

Dusky clouds over a darkening ocean.

Another big issue with plastic is how it breaks down. Because plastic waste is made of fossil fuels that never truly decompose, small bits of plastic simply continue to separate until the smallest pieces are microscopic . This has led to a whole new sector of plastic pollution called microplastics. These microplastics, at 5 millimeters or less, are spread throughout the water and can be found everywhere on Earth. They’ve been found everywhere from the slopes of Mount Everest to the fissures of the Mariana Trench. This affects a whole new menage of animals, including filter feeders and small fish who cannot separate the plastics from their bodies. Even humans can ingest these microplastics and thereby absorb harmful chemicals like into organ tissue. . 

How Can We Fix It?

Fixing the current problem is tough for two reasons- one, an abundance of plastic already exists, and two, changing the  consumption habits of entire  populations will not be easy. However, the biggest change you can make today is in your own life. Monitor your consumption habits for a week and write down how much plastic you are throwing away. At the end of the week, observe your results and see where you can make a change to cut down on waste. Using 10+ water bottles a week? Invest in a reusable plastic or aluminum water bottle. Ordering take-out three times a week? Ask if they’ll fill up a Tupperware container instead. There are so many small solutions you can make to lessen your waste output every day. 

woman holding reusable plastic water bottle

Read more about how reusable plastic products can help reduce your carbon footprint

Of course,  solving the plastic crisis will also require large-scale change. Corporations are the leading cause of single-use plastics, with companies like Coca-Cola and Nestle churning out tons of waste each year. Do all you can to read about  circular economy models (where waste never has a final resting place and is always reused) and try to raise awareness through your friend group or workplace.  Participate in or start a neighborhood cleanup; it may feel small and simple, but who knows how many people have wanted to make a difference and would join you? 

If you have a local chapter of the Sunrise Movement, Sierra Club, or similar environmental activism group in your area, consider dropping someone a line to join a meeting or event. Many of these organizations have concrete policy goals and ideas for how to achieve them, so you don’t have to worry about standing up to this crisis alone. Group activism  can take the form  of protests and petitions which can influence either government agencies or the corporations themselves to make a more sustainable supply chain. This solution is no easy feat, but as more attention is put on the massive plastic problem, support will definitely grow in the near future. 

A man reading on a plane at night
Photo by Mpumelelo Macu

Lastly, be mindful of your plastic use when you travel. Being on the go creates the constant temptation to grab a quick coffee at the airport cafe, a plastic bottle of water, you name it. Bring a reusable water bottle and a thermos for your coffee instead, perhaps also politely declining the plastic snack products your airline, train, or ferry offers you. You might feel that this requires an extra level of preparation, but taking a small amount of time beforehand to make your travel habits plastic-resistant will make your experience easier overall and probably save you some money

In conclusion, it’s easy to feel pessimistic about our future when confronted with global environmental issues like the plastic crisis. However, the best thing to do is remain optimistic and make changes in your own life to combat consumption habits. Keep yourself in check, lobby for large scale change, and promote solutions that move us in a sustainable direction. Only then can we save this planet from the constrictions of plastic. 

What do you do to minimize plastic waste in your life? Do you have any favorite reusable or recycled plastic products Let us know in the comments or on Twitter

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