Of the more than 300 million tons of new, virgin plastic produced globally per year, half of it is designed for single use and viewed as disposable. Answering global demands for convenience and access, especially in the industries of food and medicine, plastic has allowed for innovations that bring more products to more people than ever before.
But by and large, the innovation stops at invention and does not follow through with end-of-life solutions for these durable, long-lasting materials. Every year, 10–20 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans as a result of linear solutions like landfilling allowing the proliferation of these discarded items into natural ecosystems.
Many of us are familiar with the image of soda can rings posing danger to marine animals from a couple decades ago, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. Microplastics create an estimated $13 billion a year in losses from damage to marine ecosystems (not to mention the severe degradation to natural capital suffered by animals and their habitats), as well as financial losses to fisheries and tourism. If things don’t change, we are projected to see more plastics than fish in the ocean by 2050.
Changing the perception of “single-use” plastics (and all plastics, for that matter) is needed to create and strengthen systems that will capture these materials for recycling, divert them from landfills, and decrease virgin production in lieu of more regenerative resource structures.
Seeing plastic waste for what it is, a nearly-indestructible, highly polluted manmade substance that requires a manmade solution, is the first step to reevaluating our dependence on it as a raw material. Keyword: seeing. One Beach Plastic is the work of two artists that see plastic as an opening into a pinpoint look at consumerism and the whole of human culture. Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang connect plastic to consumers with works of art that will, inevitably, stand the test of time.
Plastic cannot biodegrade, and it does not dissolve or get absorbed by the environment naturally—it is made to last forever, and inevitably causes damage. Through its blog platform, active social media presence, and, notably, a short narrated by actor Jeff Bridges on its homepage, the worldwide Plastic Pollution Coalition aims to create awareness around our interactions with plastic in order to alter our habits, from picking up trash on the beach, divesting from single-use items and questioning where our trash is being taken.
Similarly, the environmental 501(c)3 Plastic Oceans Foundation released its 2013 documentary feature film A Plastic Ocean to change the minds of anyone who thought that plastic pollution wasn’t a big deal. Images of animals suffering and of children up to their ankles in refuse make plain the scourge of disposable plastics using a medium that people can easily access and understand. A vehicle for social change, the film tells a story that provides a greater awareness of the complex problem of plastic pollution, and the very simple part that the viewer can play to steer the story’s course.
While we work to change people’s perspectives enough to prevent the compounding of an already large-scale problem, we must also work from the other end and change the perspectives of manufacturers and major brands regarding post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic as a viable option for production. Why aren’t we recycling more than the 9 percent of the plastic recovered in the U.S.? Because it is not economical due to the lack of demand for these materials in the current market.
Viewing plastics as something other than disposable is to bring value to their component material parts. TerraCycle’s recent partnership with Proctor and Gamble to put out a fully recyclable shampoo bottle made from beach plastic (difficult-to-recycle for its exposure to contaminants and UV light, depreciation, and mixed material makeup) for Head and Shoulders creates a market for recycled materials, viewing them as more sustainable, economically and environmentally, than producing additional plastics.
Whether single-use, disposable and/or “highly recyclable,” the average time it takes for most plastics to decompose is 450 years, with some plastics that we use in everyday life (like plastic shopping bags or plastic bottles) projected to take up to 1000. The fact is that plastic is not disposable at all, and changing the perception of plastic for consumers starts with the story that manufacturers, major brands, governments and social agents tell.