What Lurks Around Every Corner, Lives for Hundreds of Years, and Claims Innocent Lives?

By Noelle Herring

Nope, not vampires. PLASTIC.

I’ve been thinking about plastic a lot recently. Grocery bags, shopping bags, water bottles, utensils, sandwich & snack bags, polystyrene, food wrappers, bubble wrap, packaging, cups, bowls, plates, straws, containers, lids, sachets, tooth brushes, stretch plastics, MICROPLASTICS. Between attending the ZERO by FIFTY community series on plastic and witnessing a field trip to the top on the Missoula Landfill, I’ve also heard about and seen a lot of plastic. These pictures were taken while I was standing on top of a 200ft tall garbage mountain AKA the Missoula Landfill. According to the workers there, plastic makes up 65-70% of the total waste they receive!

As long as we start recycling everything it’ll be no big deal though, right?

UGH.

Many plastics can’t be recycled. In fact, most of the plastic products I listed above have one and only one destiny, to be thrown away. There is no recycling of soft and thin plastics, they would clog up the machine and increase the possibility of contamination. I read a statistic the other day stating that the majority of plastic that we throw away will eventually make its way into the oceans. Here’s another fact about the fate of plastic: polystyrene (Styrofoam) and plastic bags exists once created, for 500 years or more. Something you use for one instance and then throw away will continue to exist way beyond your own lifetime.

Furthermore, just because you put something into a recycle bin does not guarantee that it will get recycled. Our recycling gets taken to the nearest holding/ sorting facility where it is picked through. Only the most valuable materials will be recycled in the US, everything else is either taken to a landfill or shipped overseas to be dumped on the lands of countries lacking the infrastructure to manage it.

Even if it is recycled, the plastic gets downgraded. This means that a plastic bottle cannot be melted down and made into another equivalent bottle. Recycled plastic has lost some of its integrity, and therefore will be used to make other things. Recycling will not be able to keep us from having to produce more given the current demands. Plus plastic pollutes at EVERY stage of its life, not just when it’s created.

At the ZERO by FIFTY community series on Plastic, there was talk about microplastics. Even though there will be weathering, water, animals, people, etc. that encounter plastics and wear them down, they don’t go away. Instead they break down into smaller and smaller pieces which can be harmful when ingested. More and more animals are being found with microplastics in their digestive systems. These particles and pieces slowly fill up their stomachs leaving little to no room for food, which results in their eventual starvation. But plastic doesn’t just exist in single use forms. Plastic is all around us. There is no avoiding it. The computer screen I am looking at right now is framed with plastic, the keyboard I am using to type these words is plastic, my clothes have a blend of synthetic material (made from plastic), the chair I am sitting on has plastic armrests. IT’S EVERYWHERE.

And although I am so disgusted by plastic and don’t want anything to do with it; I can’t avoid it, and I am not perfect. There is so much to be said of this topic, and I know just one blog post can’t cover every facet. The point is that we need to keep talking about it, and we need to wake up those who are unaware of reality. We need to make the changes within our lives in order to help people, animals, and the environment; increase demand for zero waste products; refuse plastics whenever possible; and be a positive influence on those who have yet to adopt the lifestyle. It’s going to take everyone putting forth the effort; individuals, local businesses, big businesses, governments, etc. To quote Anne Marie Bonneau, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly, we need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”

This post was largely inspired by Youpa Stein’s presentation at the ZERO by FIFTY Plastic community series. Her language is sprinkled throughout. She is dedicated to reducing plastic waste and has been an influence for me through her tenacity, hard work, and beautiful soul. And a brief mention of the other speakers: Sarah, Chase, Romy, Grace, and Skye who are all making incredible waves in Missoula’s Zero Waste community.

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