Hello everyone, Jenna here! I hope that you are all doing well. Being back in the full swing of university, it is a very busy time of year. In addition, living off campus and in my own apartment has given me a new perspective on something that is a very pressing issue, plastic!
Wednesday’s are garbage collection days in my area of Waterloo. As I walked down the street today to head to campus, I noticed so many plastic water bottles, straws and single-use food containers in recycling bins beside the curb. I also saw many garbage bags filled with these recyclable products, but now being mixed with organic matter them impossible to repurpose. It also happened to be a very windy day here in Waterloo, so I also saw many bottles flying free of their bins and tumbling their way down the road.
This post is about plastic consumption, and what really happens when we use single-use plastics like water bottles. I understand that during times of high stress, people often dissociate from their surroundings and focus in on the stressful tasks at hand. That can be problematic when approaching environmental issues because people are also dissociating themselves from the issue. Especially for students, plastic water bottles may seem like a cheap, quick way to stay hydrated; when a student tosses a bottle into the recycling bin (or garbage bin, sadly) after they’ve emptied it, I can bet you that they don’t stop to think about where that bottle is going to go next.
This doesn’t apply to just students—everywhere I go I see plastic water bottles, or Starbucks cups, or Tim Horton’s coffee containers or McDonald’s bags. It’s all the same. In this post, I am going to show you just where that bottle that you drank from today may end up tomorrow or next week or next year. By doing so, I hope to give you a new perspective on the world and how our small actions, good or bad, can have a lasting effect on our surroundings.
A little bit of background on plastic:
Scientists first began reporting on plastic pollution in oceans 50 years ago, which was only two decades after plastic products like water bottles, plastic wrap and food packaging became commercially available. In 2016, plastic production for that year reached an all-time high at 335 million metric tonnes; 322 million tonnes were produced in 2015, an increase of 13 million tonnes.
To put it in perspective, a blue whale (the largest mammal on earth) can weigh up to 200 tonnes. The amount of plastic we produced in 2015 is equal to the weight of 1,675,000 full-sized blue whales! Just doing this calculation blew my mind.
Plastic production is only expected to rise as once-rural communities face rapid urbanization, joining the fast-paced, consumerist society that we live in today. With all this new plastic being produced every year, most of which is single-use plastic, you would think that it would have a short life, considering how much we are constantly producing, right?
Unfortunately, while we use these plastics for a short amount of time, their life does not end once we throw them away. Plastic can far outlive any human, let alone most other organisms on the planet. Here is the lifespan of various plastic products that we use on a daily basis:
- Plastic Water bottle: 450 years
- Disposable diapers: 500 years
- 6-pack collars (for pop cans): 450 years
- Polystyrene foam (Styrofoam): more than 5,000 years
You may question the accuracy of these lifespans. After all, how can we predict what will happen to a piece of plastic in 5,000 years? There are some very sophisticated scientific tests that accelerate the ageing process using high temperatures and statistical calculations. While these life expectancies may vary slightly due to environmental conditions or the materials that a specific brand of plastic products are made of, they are very accurate predictions.
When we go to the store to buy a carton of plastic water bottles or order take-out from our favourite fast food restaurant or buy an iced coffee to drink during class, we often don’t stop to consider where the materials that make up the bottle/container/straw we are using come from. We also don’t think about where it will go once we throw it in the garbage.
We, as humans, have the tendency to dissociate ourselves from our waste: out of sight, out of mind. The second that bottle leaves our hands, or the Styrofoam food container gets tossed in the garbage, or the straw falls out of our cup onto the group, we forget about it. We don’t consider what will happen to it next, where it will end up. This in itself is a problem.
I am now going to take you on the life journey of a water bottle. Sounds exhilarating, right? Sarcasm intended. First, I will show you how water bottles are made. After that, we’ll see how they get to you, the consumer, from the factory. We will then see how long their “useful” lifespan is, and where, exactly, they go once you throw them away. The simple fact is that the out of sight, out of mind ideology is ultimately leading to irreversible environmental damage. Even worse, this mindset can impact your health in the end. Keep reading to find out how.
Without further ado, let’s learn more about the life of plastic:
The life of a plastic water bottle begins like many of the cheap, single-use products that we have today: in a factory. Most if not all bottles are made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a synthetic polymer that is mouldable when heated. It is also called polyester, which you may recognize as the main material in your clothing. In a factory, the polymer is heated and moulded into the shape of a bottle.
Source: Getty Images
More than just PET goes into making the bottle. It takes 3.4 megajoules (MJ) of energy to produce one bottle, which is just under a kilowatt of energy (1 kW=3.6 MJ). The source of this energy is often oil, a fossil fuel that produces greenhouse gases when burned. Fossil fuels and GHGs are a whole other issue worth discussing, but to keep it short and sweet, they damage our ozone, cause ocean acidification and yes, intensify climate change.
Water bottle production uses about 17 million barrels of oil each year, which is enough oil to fuel 1 million cars for a year. Don’t forget about the energy it takes to power the production factory, run the machinery, package the bottles, ship the bottles to consumers, run the stores that sell the bottles, and even recycle them. It takes 22 gallons of water to produce one pound of plastic, and double the amount of water found in a standard 500 mL bottle. For your perspective, there are communities in the world that don’t have access to this much fresh water for their entire lives.
Once production is finished, the bottles are shipped across the country or world to retailers. Energy and other resources go into powering the retail store that you buy the bottles from, into the car that you drive to and from the store in, and the plastic bag that you use to carry the bottles into your house with. After purchasing the bottles, we (surprise, surprise) drink the water.
If you are thirsty, you may drink the entire bottle in a few minutes. You may drink several in a day. It’s astonishing to think that we produce 20,000 water bottles every second but may only use them for a few minutes.
An empty water bottle is where the main problem begins: now it is time to dispose of it. Plastic water bottles should be recycled, but if they are contaminated with other substances (perhaps covered in dirt/food/grease) it may not be possible to recycle. Even if it is completely clean, statistics show that our plastic water bottles are not being disposed of properly. Want to guess the percent of bottles that are actually recycled? Go ahead, pick a number right now.
Source: Penn State University
Of the plastic bottles that are thrown out, 91 percent of plastic is not recycled. That’s about 8.3 billion tonnes incorrectly thrown in the garbage. Remember, we produce 20,000 bottles a second; that’s 19,800 bottles per second that end up in the trash. The whole purpose of recycling is to reuse the plastic and create a new product out of it, preventing it from ending up in one of our country’s overflowing landfills. When these bottles are thrown in the garbage instead of the recycling bin, there is no way of repurposing their materials. Even worse, the garbage bin is usually not the final destination for the bottle. Thus begins the bottle’s destructive journey into our natural environment.
When it rains or it is considerably windy, objects in your garbage can get separated and drift. This can happen at public waste receptacles when it’s garbage collection day and you put your trash bags out on the curb (as I witnessed today), or even when the garbage is dumped into the landfill. Of course, littering only intensifies the issue by making it much easier for plastics to drift through the environment.
Plastic and our animals
Additionally, microplastics can escape down the drain of your sink, shower or washing machine in your very own home, directly flowing into our water systems. These products are much harder to prevent from entering our waterways, so let’s focus on plastic bottles, which each and every one of us can take immediate action to prevent from ending up in our oceans.
Water bottles are very light when empty, making them easy to float away from their waste piles. Wind or water can carry garbage through cities, into forests until it gets caught in a stream or river; from that smaller water body, the waste flows downstream until it reaches larger bodies of water, such as lakes or oceans. Once the plastic arrives here, it can be stuck for a long time. This is where the serious damage occurs.
Source: Coastal Care
Fish, sea turtles, mammals and marine birds, like the albatross, see the small water bottle lids and mistake them for food. They choke on these pieces, swallow them only to have them block their internal organs like their intestines, or have their organs torn apart by these undigestible pieces of plastic. Here is a link to the trailer for Albatross, a documentary that illustrates the life of this marine bird and the impacts that human activity is having on their life. Warning: the content is disturbing to watch, yet is heartbreakingly important for you to see.
Source: NOAA Fisheries
Animals can also get trapped inside plastic bottles or other pieces of drifting plastic, limiting their movement. As a result, they could starve if they cannot hunt, hide from predators, or even drown if they require oxygen but cannot swim to the water’s surface.
Chemicals released from plastic water bottles can also do tremendous damage. Many plastic water bottles contain endocrine disrupting chemicals such as Bisphenol A, or BPA. An endocrine disruptor is a chemical that impacts the body’s ability to create and process signals from hormones.
Hormones play an essential role in the body for regulating and maintaining our body’s homeostasis, or natural balance. Hormones play roles in our circulatory, digestive, and immune system, as well as other essential processes in the body.
BPA and other chemicals in plastic mimic hormone signalling molecules, latching on to the receptors meant to accept the hormones. As a result, the hormones cannot reach their receiving sites and cannot communicate their important messages to the body, thus the systems relying on these signals (circulatory, digestive, immune, etc.) start to fail.
Source: Peregrine’s Bird Blog
I could go on about the adverse impacts of our plastic waste, but I do not want to overwhelm you with so much information that you get confused. The point I am trying to make is that single-use products like plastic water bottles are undoubtfully wreaking havoc on our planet and its ecosystems.
Source: Plastic Pollution
My hope is that by now you realize how important it is that we address this problem and stop purchasing single-use plastic items like water bottles. I am going to leave you with one more thought, which if you are familiar with PickWaste then you’ve probably heard this before.
As I mentioned, our plastic waste that ends up in these oceans ultimately ends up in the fish and other organisms living there. Fish is one of the most popular protein choices around the world for humans.
The plastic that we throw away, which gets swept up by wind or water and ends up in the oceans, is later to be consumed by the fish that we eventually eat. We are indirectly consuming our own plastic waste, and by doing so, consuming all the other complications (physically and metaphorically) that we have created for the planet’s ecosystems.
Source: Blue Ocean Network
I’m not condemning society for purchasing single-use plastic—that’s not my style and I realize that attacking people about their habits is not an effective way of creating positive change.
Instead, I am hoping to educate and inform you on the impacts that our actions can have on the planet so that next time you reach for a plastic water bottle or disposable cutlery or straw, you stop and think about that piece of plastic’s life.
Where was it made? How did it get to you? Where is it going to end up once you throw it away in the garbage, or toss it onto the grass? Is there an alternative way for you to drink/eat/carry out your daily activities that don’t involve single-use plastics?
It’s actually quite easy to reduce your plastic consumption. Ask for no straw at restaurants, or bring your own metal/glass straw. It is so easy to find these in stores today:
I’ve seen them at Bulk Barn, Loblaws/Zehrs/Valu-Mart, Walmart, health/wellness stores and at online retailers like Amazon. Some restaurants and cafes have started serving drinks without straws, or even using metal straws instead of plastic ones—I was so excited when one of my favourite cafes served me an iced coffee with a metal straw the other day!
You can also ask your favourite fast food/restaurant if they will put your food in a reusable container; many food retailers in Waterloo now allow you to bring in your own reusable container, which is amazing.
Some places will even give you a discount on your order when you bring in your own container! I buy toothbrushes made of bamboo instead of plastic, always carry around a reusable water bottle, and even have my own set of metal cutlery I bought for only a few dollars at Walmart.
I’ve taken many other steps to live a lower-waste lifestyle, all of which are very easy for you to do, too! If you want to read more about some of the things I do to live lower waste, check out my blog post with my tips here.
Thank you all for reading. Plastic pollution is an important issue that deserves more recognition; the only way we can stop it is to tell more people about it. Each and every one of us that makes a single change in our daily habits can add up to a tremendous positive impact on the planet.
I encourage you to make one small change in your life today surrounding your plastic use. If you stop using even one piece of plastic today, that is one less piece that could end up in our oceans tomorrow. Let’s be the change, starting right now.