5 Reasons You Should Pay Attention to Plastic

Everyone should care about plastic. It’s true the stuff is a miracle to human health — plus it’s cheap for us to buy as individuals. However, plastic has a dirty, negative side in that it’s also terrible for human health, global finances, and is a bane to our environment.

The manufacturing, existence, use, and disposal of plastics should be of concern to everyone in the world — including those of us who live in Central Oregon.

How can something so fantastic in one way be so terrible in another? Here are five reasons plastic should be important to you, followed by four things you can do to stand up for your rights and those of the planet.

1.) Plastic is made from petroleum products and is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Extraction and transportation: The main ingredient in single use plastic is derived from ethane, which is a byproduct of fracking — an environmentally detrimental mining practice that shoots water, chemicals, or sand. Extracting and transporting the ethane and natural gas from its source to the processing plant is, in itself, a carbon-intensive activity. The pipeline corridors are required maintain plant-free buffer zones, which removes carbon sequestering trees, not to mention the carbon emissions required to create and maintain those buffer zones.

Processing and manufacturing: Once the ethane gets to the processing plant, it gets combined with chemicals to make it solid AND pliable or… “plastic”. This process causes incredibly nasty emissions that contribute to climate change.

End of life: Once we have used the plastic to its purpose and we dispose of it, the plastic emits carbon pollution as it degrades.

2.) Plastic is bad for human health.

One visible example of this is in manufacturing. The plants that turn oil or gas into plastic emit highly toxic chemicals into the air, water, and earth; the aptly named cancer alley is an extreme but not uncommon example. A second visible example is in disposal: waste to energy plants burn plastics for fuel. While some of these plants have may have precautions in place to prevent the chemicals from entering the air and water (such as the Corvanta plant in Marion County, Oregon), many do not.

Plastics that we eat from can contain toxic chemicals such as BPA (often found in the lining of aluminum cans), phthalates (found in food packaging, toys, etc), and PFAS (found in cookware and food packaging).  They leach into our food and water and end up in our bodies. There are studies that show those chemicals having detrimental effects on humans, particularly developing fetuses and children. One study shows the average human ingests about a credit card worth of plastic each year. However, plastic is relatively new on the timeline of humanity — over half of the plastic ever made was done so in the past 15 years — so we really don’t know all potential consequences from its existence.

3.) Plastic has lasting detrimental affects on wildlife.

I’m not talking about one turtle with a straw up its nose or one albatross with a belly full of plastic. Those images are truly gut wrenching and devastating, but they don’t show the whole picture. After the plastic we use leaves our hands, where does it go? I’m especially referring to the brittle single use plastic we use 1 time but is around for hundreds of years. Either we throw it away or we recycle it.

Recycling it: Well here’s some news: only 9% of plastic that has ever been made has been recycled. Most kinds of plastic are hard to recycle, not recyclable, or it costs more to transport and recycle the material than the end product is financially worth.  While recycling is a very important part of a circular economy and closing the waste loop, we cannot just recycle our way out of this problem.

Throwing it away: If the plastic gets landfilled responsibly, it will still be there forever. For us in Deschutes County, that is a problem because our own Knott Landfill is projected to be full by 2029. If the plastic doesn’t get landfilled and ends up in the Deschutes river, for example, the sun causes it to break down into tiny particles called microplastics. Those end up in the water where fish and birds easily mistake them for food. Eating microplastics causes the animals to feel full even though they haven’t eaten anything digestible. Microplastics have been found in the air, in lakes and rivers, in the ocean from its surface to the deepest parts. It has even been found in our polar regions embedded in the snowpack.

4.) Plastic might be cheap to buy new, but we will pay for it in the future.

It may be less expensive for a restaurant to buy single use  Styrofoam or other plastic than non-toxic alternatives today. But how are our children, our governments, and our earth going to have to pay for the repercussions of its use in the future? Will they pay for it with money? Or will they pay for it with poor health? My bet is on both.

5.) Plastic pollution of all kinds is also a human equity issue.

  • First, plastics factories are built in areas where residents don’t have money to fight against them; those residents are disproportionately people of color. What do you think would happen if ExxonMobil wanted to build an ethane cracker plant (fracking) in wealthy neighborhoods?
  • Second, proximity to drilling and refining aside, people with a low income do not have financial means often don’t have the choice between buying a set of reusable Hydroflask pints and Styrofoam cups. So they are forced to eat and drink and buy packaged foods whose packaging contains chemicals that consequently enter their bodies. They may not have a choice in the matter.
  • Third, much of our plastic “recyclable” waste goes overseas to developing nations that lack the infrastructure to handle our contaminated recyclables. This means that much of the “recyclables”, which were actually just trash in the first place, end up being thrown into the environment. Into their back yards, into their water ways including rivers and oceans. Additionally, when they are able to process the plastic, the factories that turn those recyclables into a useable product often emit toxic chemicals during the process.

Time will tell, but we need to act now to take our dependence off of plastic before it’s too late. So here are 4 quick ways to do that right now.

1.) Buy less plastic.

If you have an alternative option, do it. Use reusables!

2.) Tell your favorite restaurants about this important issue.

Let them know there are non-toxic alternatives to take out containers and that you will pay 25 cents extra for it. Suggest a “no thanks” option for single use extras like straws, condiment packets and plastic ramekins, and single use plastic silverware.

3.) Tell your legislators this is an important issue.

There are many bills in the Oregon and federal legislations this year. Find which ones pertain to plastic and tell your elected officials they should support them. Environment Oregon has a list of several plastic issues they are behind, for a start. Not sure who to contact? Check out this find your legislator tool.

4.) Talk about it, talk about it, talk about it.

Tell your friends, tell your kids, tell your coworkers. Although Lipps, Inc probably weren’t talking about plastic pollution, considering the amount of lycra and polyester that existed in music videos in the late 70s and 80s, I don’t think their idea of Funkytown was piles and piles of plastic litter.” Gotta move on…” The only way through this is together.