Illustration by Sarameeya Aree
The earth is inundated by plastic. Humans produce 430 million tons of it every year, two-thirds of which are single-use or short-lived products. This becomes waste that fills the oceans, permeates the soil, destroys ecosystems, and can have serious negative health effects.
People have been sounding alarms about plastic pollution and its detrimental impact for decades. This year on June 5, people from more than 150 countries will participate in the 50th anniversary of the United Nations World Environment Day to #BeatPlasticPollution. But annual days dedicated to the environment and campaigns with catchy hashtags aren’t enough. Mindsets and patterns of behavior ingrained and reinforced over time also need to change.
As a parent of two kids, I’ve seen time and again how well-meaning, climate-conscious people still mindlessly buy plastic tchotchkes that mostly end up in landfills. Especially with kids, the opportunities and occasions are endless: Plastic trinkets for birthday party goodie bags, plastic decorations for holidays and school events, plastic bead necklaces for parades, plastic decals for crafts, plastic toys for prizes—the list goes on.
Much of this seems to be the result of extensive consumerism and upholding traditions. The reasoning goes that without the knick-knacks from Walmart or the dollar store down the road, the birthday party won’t be the same. Or if the Mardi Gras-style plastic necklaces aren’t thrown from parade floats at throngs of spectators, it just won’t be as much fun.
There was a time when plastic wasn’t all-consuming in my life. Soon after graduating from university, I got itchy feet and planned an extended working holiday backpacking trip. The limited space in my bag and weight restrictions meant I could only pack the most essential items—a few articles of clothing, a couple of pairs of shoes, basic toiletries, a sleeping bag, a journal, and several books.
It was enough. I didn’t miss the plastic tchotchkes one bit. The experiences I had and the relationships I built during that trip left me happy and fulfilled. For nearly a year, I was a free-spirited, minimalist hippy who serendipitously left minimal impact on the environment.
To be sure, plastic is one of the most adaptable materials around. It’s affordable, durable, and lightweight. Its flexibility has made it prevalent in everything from packaging to clothes to beauty products. Without plastic, we wouldn’t have today’s convenient and life-saving devices like computers, cell phones, and medical instruments.
However, the harmful, mindless consumption and disposal of unnecessary single-use plastics in everyday life need to diminish dramatically.
The plastic pollution crisis is a regulation problem as much as it is a consumer one. Some U.S. cities and states have regulations or acts that restrict or ban the use of single-use plastic products such as grocery bags and straws. However, there are no federal rules that restrict single-use plastic. A third of the U.S. has laws that prevent plastic bans. But, the U.S. and China—the largest producers of plastic waste—have yet to commit at a national level to a United Nations initiative that aims to circulate plastic in the economy at its highest value for as long as possible.
Legislation and regulation are critical to ending the plastic pollution epidemic. Talking to local representatives and supporting businesses that are striving to reduce single-use plastic products in their supply chains—including supporting them on social media—are two important actions that people can take. When a company is using unnecessary plastic—such as single-use bags in the produce sections of grocery stores—contact a manager and ask them to do better.
Fortunately, more and more eco-friendly consumer products seem to crop up daily, and there are plenty of steps regular people can take to help tackle plastic pollution around the world. But there’s still a colossal amount of work to do to salvage our planet by supporting regulations and shifting attitudes around our throwaway plastic culture.
As we head into the summer events and parade season, I’m going to drive the conversation around environmental impact in my community and purchase only items that can safely be composted or recycled. Better yet, I’ll scrounge around my house to find things I can creatively reuse and repurpose. It’s a mindset shift that, in the long term, will benefit our kids and future generations much more than plastic tchotchkes.