Let's Address Plastic Pollution Now

Last week, a Cuvier beaked whale washed up on the shore of the Philippines in bad health and was soon in the care of local marine biologists. The whale later died after the team was unable to nurse its injuries, and what they found within its body was a big reason why. An average Cuvier beaked whale is 19 feet long,weighs about 5,400 pounds, and feeds on squid and deep-sea fish, but this particular whale’s weight had some extra unsavory components: its stomach was found to have had 88 pounds of plastic in it when it died.

The news is yet another example in a growing list of stories of marine life struggling to deal with, and often dying prematurely, due to the large amounts of plastic that exist in our oceans. Every year, about 1 million seabirds die from plastic pollution in the ocean, which affects virtually all marine life such as turtles, whales, seals, and fish. This problem persists not only because of our extensive plastic use, but because of our inability to properly recycle these products on a large scale. While the United States undoubtedly has a role to play in reducing our world’s plastic pollution in the oceans, that role might very well be as much an advisory position as an active one. According to a 2017 study, over 50% of the world’s plastic pollution which winds up in the ocean comes from 5 South-Asian countries: Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and China.

Worldwide, we dump approximately 9 million TONS of plastic into the oceans every year. That plastic harms ocean ecosystems, confusing fish and marine life into thinking our discarded plastic is food, as well as polluting the ocean waters with products that don’t belong. Another byproduct of all this plastic is dirtier beaches for people to experience and ultimately clean up.

Unfortunately, these stories come at a time when plastic management is becoming more crucial by the day for the United States. Effective January of 2018, China announced that it was no longer going to import the world’s plastic waste for recycling, citing environmental and public health concerns. Since 1992, the Chinese had taken approximately 45% of the world’s plastic, making its decision to stop importing plastic all the more impactful. Currently, less than 20% of the world’s plastic gets recycled, including less than 10% in the United States. It’s time for that to change.

The underlying question is simple: what can we do about it? The most pressing issue for the US currently is figuring out how to dispose of our plastic waste that we can no longer send to China for recycling. Currently, most of our excess plastic goes to landfills or to countries lacking the proper infrastructure to properly manage it. Our mindset as the United States has to become one of leadership, rather than doing what is convenient.

This means that our domestic capabilities for the proper recycling of plastics has to be better, and the strength and ingenuity of the American economy can help. Our capacity to produce renewable energies such as solar has seen significant development, and is only getting stronger as technology advances. We can improve our ability to recycle plastics if we consider the economic benefits that come with the environmentally friendly practice. In 2015, the US exported roughly 2 million tons of plastic scrap which was valued at approximately $810 million. The cost of properly recycling plastics is high, at around $4,000 per ton, but the return on that investment results in significant profit.

Additionally, companies that use plastic extensively could save on energy costs by using recycled plastic than if they use new inputs. Of all the plastic that the US dumps into the oceans every year, anywhere from 26-41% is from plastic water bottles. If these bottles found their way to places that can properly reuse the materials, companies like Coca-Cola and Nestle could be more efficient in their energy production of new plastics. Currently, recycled plastics generate less than 10% of each company’s plastic production. This emphasis on the economic potential and efficiency gains could prove vital in America taking responsibility to do its part to clean-up the oceans.

A perfect example of private sector action on this issue has been Adidas, who have rolled out an entire line of shoes manufactured from ocean plastic found in places like the Maldives. With other initiatives such as making football jerseys from recycled materials and cutting plastic bag use, the company was able to save 40 tons of plastic use in 2018. This “upcycling” process has not come at a cost to the company or to consumers. Consumers purchased 5 million ocean-plastic shoes in 2018, and Adidas plans to over double their production by the end of 2019. In addition to their pledge to cut carbon emissions, Adidas is a prime example of how economic growth and environmental stewardship in the private sector are not mutually exclusive.

People will often wonder what they can do to help resolve the issue of plastic pollution. The answer is to lead by example in your everyday life. Buy a reusable water bottle or reusable grocery bags. Recycle correctly. One person’s actions may not clean up the oceans altogether, but if each American follows the example of his or her neighbor, the benefits may add up quicker than we think.