By Cedar Walters

West Central Initiative Climate Officer

Take a quick look around the room. How many plastic objects can you find? Chances are, it’s at least in the dozens. And every single piece of plastic produced, unless it is in the percentage of trash that is incinerated, still exists in some form today. Just like a cookie that won’t break apart into butter, eggs, flour, and sugar but crumbles into smaller cookie crumbs, plastic doesn’t decompose or break down—it just fragments into smaller and smaller pieces that more easily permeate our environment and bodies. 

Plastic is wreaking havoc on the environment, particularly in aquatic habitats, a topic frequently featured in the news and other media. But it has an impact on our bodies too, with microplastics being found in bodily fluid and tissue, such as blood and heart and testicular tissues.

Despite plenty of alarm and media coverage, plastic production is ramping up, not down. Plastic production has increased sharply—from approximately 2 million tons annually in 1950, when plastic started to become more common, to more than 300 million tons annually today. Plastic production is set to double or even triple by 2050, partially due to an increase in demand for cheap consumer products but also by fossil fuel companies ramping up plastic production as another way to make money from oil. And that is something we don’t think about often enough: plastic is made from petroleum. 

That leads us to the next problem: plastic production is contributing to the carbon pollution that is overheating our planet and threatening our children’s future. And although it is not the leading cause of climate change, plastic production contributes more planet-warming pollution than the airline industry, according to a new report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.  

Approximately half of all plastic products produced are for single-use items, such as straws and bags, that are used for minutes or hours but then last for hundreds or thousands of years. Plastic itself is an extremely useful material—lightweight, cheap, endlessly malleable—that has had numerous benefits. It’s not so much the material itself that is such a big problem, it’s how we use it as completely disposable that is leading to its overuse and resulting environmental crisis.  

So, we know plastic is a big problem. But what is the average person supposed to do about it? 

A growing wave of larger-scale solutions are in the works. This includes extended producer responsibility legislation, which puts more of the burden of disposal and recycling on producers. As consumers, we also need to show companies that we don’t want so much plastic by buying and using less of it. I like to think of each purchase as a signal to companies telling them what to make more of. So, we need to send the signal that we want less plastic. 

It can be very difficult to avoid plastic packaging and products entirely, but we can all make positive changes. Some tactics are easy, like bringing reusable bags to the store when you shop or saying “no” to a bag altogether for smaller purchases. Aldi and Costco have shown us that we can easily manage stores not giving out plastic bags. Bottled water is a double environmental whammy—both for the plastic used to create the bottles and for the large environmental footprint of shipping water around on trucks when safe, municipal tap water that is more rigorously tested for contaminants is readily available in most communities in the U.S.  

To use the words of illustrator and environmentalist Emily Ehlers: “On a scale of 1 to 500 years, how much do you actually need that?”  

Let’s all start asking ourselves that question before we buy something plastic because I’m not sure how much more plastic pollution—and greenhouse gas emissions—the planet can take.