Be Your Own Birder

The REAL Problem With Plastic

There is a lot of debate, discussion, and outrage over plastic these days – plastic in the ocean, plastic on the beaches, plastic in rivers and lakes, plastic killing wildlife, plastic fouling natural vistas, plastic choking landfills. Plastic isn’t the problem, however – plastic is a fantastic, versatile material that improves our lives in countless ways.

Plastic Cutlery - Photo by SOLO Estonia
Plastic Cutlery – Photo by SOLO Estonia

How Plastic Is Treated

Some of plastic’s best qualities are its worst downfalls. It’s easy to manufacture, plentiful, and cheap. That makes it all too easy for us to treat plastic as eminently disposable, discarding it after use rather than allowing the material to perform to its full potential. There is so much plastic, why take the time to clean or care for it, when in just a moment you can have a fresh, new piece ready to use, no effort necessary? Time is so short these days with our overcrowded schedules, even the little bit of time it might take to clean or repair something plastic may be time that just isn’t there – or at least we think it isn’t.

Dishsoap Bubbles - Photo by Scott Robinson
Dishsoap Bubbles – Photo by Scott Robinson

It is exactly that careless, disposable, thoughtless attitude that vilifies plastic. But it isn’t the plastic that is the problem – it’s our attitude, our lack of care for making the most of amazing resources, the belief that it isn’t worthwhile to trouble ourselves. Instead, we trouble our environment and our wildlife to tend to the plastic we have discarded.

Plastic Isn’t Natural

The problem with leaving plastic to the environment, however, is exactly what we’re seeing in scenes of littered beaches and floating debris. Plastic is not a natural material, and the processes used to create it and make it so durable also make it virtually impossible to decay and disintegrate naturally back into the environment. Plastic cannot return its elemental components – carbon, hydrogen, chlorine, sodium – to nature. It is doing its best, exposed to weathering, but it’s also doing what it’s meant to do – stay intact and durable. We’re mad at plastic for doing what it is supposed to do.

Plastic Cap Being a Plastic Cap - Photo by pedro proenza
Plastic Cap Being a Plastic Cap – Photo by pedro proenza

The Biggest Problem Is the Smallest Use

There are certainly plastics that we love and use over and over for many years without difficulty. The smaller plastics with smaller uses, however, are the biggest problem, and it can be summed up in two simple hyphenated words:

Single-Use

By definition, a single-use item is designed to be used just once, then discarded or destroyed, having served its momentary purpose. There are many single use items that indeed should be used singly – hypodermic needles, facial tissue, cupcake wrappers, band-aids, cotton swabs, condoms. But what about the forks, spoons, knives, cups, plates, straws, containers, wraps, bags, bottles, and other plastic items that are treated as single-use? They end up being discarded, but they’re more durable and reusable than many people realize.

Plastic Straws - Photo by Chemist 4 U
Plastic Straws – Photo by Chemist 4 U

We don’t think twice about the plastic we reuse over and over. How many times have you opened and closed a plastic storage container or file? How many times have you drunk from the same plastic cups or used the same plastic bowls? How many times have you used a plastic calculator, clicked a plastic computer mouse, pushed the plastic button on a garage door opener, or zipped up a plastic zipper?

Why, then, do you discard items designated as single-use? Just because it’s easier or convenient, or because someone told you to throw it out? Why not reuse them? Why not let these items demonstrate their durability as plastic was meant to do?

Treating Our Plastic Better

The problem is single-use, and the solution starts with us. We have to reevaluate how we define plastic items, and how many times we really use them. I invite you to start with an inventory, to take stock of all the plastic in your life, particularly the plastic you throw away. I will do the same, and we’ll move forward with tips for how to reduce that single-use mentality and make the most of all our plastic!

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