At the height of World War II the U.S. increased plastic production by 300 percent in an effort to preserve natural resources by replacing them with synthetics. Initially, Americans clamored to buy plastic furniture, dishware, and jewelry. By the 1960s, though, plastic waste wasn’t just appearing in landfills, but oceans, fields, and rivers as well. The material became synonymous with conformity—and cheapness. So began throw-away culture.
Over 90 percent of all the plastic ever made has never been recycled. Today, roughly 40 percent of plastic is used for single-use packaging that the Environmental Protection Agency reports grew from 120,000 tons a year in 1960, to 12.7 million tons in 2006. In Colorado alone, less than five percent of the two billion single use plastic bags purchased and discarded annually are recycled. Facing burial by plastic, mountain towns are wrestling to find solutions. In 2011, Telluride became the first mountain town to regulate single-use plastic bags. Boulder, Colorado’s bag fee is said to have reduced usage by 10 million bags a year. In Vermont, State Legislators recently passed an ordinance that imposes a paper-bag fee and bans plastic bags, polystyrene food packaging, and straws altogether. Globally, Canada, with more coastline than any other country, recently pledged to invest $1.5 billion over five years to protect its oceans and enact coastal protections. That country hopes to ban single-use plastic by 2021.
It’s a start, but we aren’t doing enough. The grim statistics just keep coming: According to Oceana, 17.6 billion pounds of plastic from land-based sources enters the marine environment each year. By weight by the year 2050, our oceans will contain more plastic than fish. By that time, 99 percent of seabirds will have plastic in their digestive system. We need to follow Canada’s lead and ban single-use plastics. Forsaking straws and investing in recycling simply won’t cut it. Worldwide, 91 percent of plastic is not recycled, and the U.S. recycles only 9 percent of its plastic waste. Because it’s tough to make single-use plastic recycling make economic sense, we simply need to stop using it.
If you tried to cut back as our household has, you know how difficult this can be. The oatmeal we bought in cardboard tubes for most of our lives now comes in plastic bags. It seems everything has a tear-off tamper proof lid on it these days. To succeed we’ll need to fundamentally reshape our ingrained consumer habits—and demand that manufacturers of all stripes, from food and beverage to the outdoor industry, take responsibility for their actions and change their packaging.
Let’s begin by giving up the plastic bags that are blowing into our mountain forests every time the wind shifts. And then we can skip plastic bottles—nearly one million of which are sold every minute worldwide. Choose bar soap over pump soap. And skip the silly plastic produce bag. If you stop to think how many people have already touched your apples you’re going to wash them before eating anyway. Don’t buy disposable plastic razors, cups, or toothbrushes. Buy your berries in season from the farmers market in the old containers made from wood pulp that we used through the 1990s. Paper products have a bad wrap, but the simple fact is that the more paper we use the more forests we have—the forestry industry sells off forest land to developers when demand falls.
Whatever you do, don’t assume that because you recycle your plastic that you’re good. In 2018 alone, the U.S. shipped 157,000 shipping containers of plastic waste to countries like Thailand, and Malaysia, notorious for poor waste management. If you think much of that waste didn’t end up in landfills or our oceans you’re lying to yourself.
Scientists hope to eventually have the know-how to convert plastics back into fossil fuel, or a truly biodegradable product, but for now, the only way to arrest our dystopian future is to embrace things that either last or can easily be recycled. A famous line in the film The Graduate had it that “There’s a great future in plastics.” It was meant as an existential gut punch. But inadvertently it foretold our environmental ruination. There is no future in plastics.