Updated: Sep 15, 2022
Microplastics by the Mediterranean sea surf line. Photo by Irina Spector.
It was raining non-stop for several days last week here in New York where I live. Before that, we’d had a multi-week heat wave and a near drought. The Minnewaska State Park Preserve, one of the most famous New York State parks in the area, was closed due to a week-long wildfire believed to be caused by a lightning strike and a result of Climate Change.
As a sustainability consultant, I help companies lower their contribution to Climate Change and protect their businesses against its consequences. Plastic waste, which directly contributes to Climate Change is another area I advise my clients on.
Recently I went to Far Rockaway beach which is only 30 minutes drive from my home in Queens and is my favorite and closest beach to go to every summer. Two emotions make being at the beach a love/hate experience for me: my love for the ocean and my worry about how polluted with plastic it is. The latter spoils my beach time quite a bit!
While at the beach, I usually do a small-scale beach cleanup, picking up plastic debris along the surf line. This time I promised myself that I’d relax and not worry about plastic. But, alas, that was only wishful thinking!
The photos below show a somewhat unattractive pile of plastic trash I collected that day in short 15 minutes and most of it was single-use plastic: caps from water and soft drink bottles, food wrappers, and plastic bags of various sizes. These types of plastic debris are among the top kinds of trash picked up during most coastal cleanups.
Many pieces I’d collected looked like sea creatures, even to me, a human. Now, imagine how they look to a sea turtle or a hungry seagull! Can you guess whether it’s a jellyfish or a plastic cup cover in the photo on the right? It took me several seconds to figure that out, and I only realized it was a plastic cover after I looked much closer…
Plastic debris at Far Rockaway Beach, New York City. Photo by Irina Spector.
According to UNESCO Ocean Literacy Portal:
Plastic waste makes up 80% of all marine pollution: around 8 to 10 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year. It’s the weight of around 50 thousand blue whales, the largest animal on the planet!
Plastic generally takes 500-1000 years to degrade. Even then, it becomes microplastics (pieces of plastic 5 mm or smaller), without fully degrading.
Half of all plastic produced is for single-use purposes, designed to be used just for minutes and then thrown away. 98 percent of that plastic is made from virgin feedstock, i.e. fossil fuels.
And before you say: “ Most of us diligently recycle plastic waste!”, here is another statistic:
Less than 10% of all plastic generated in the world has been recycled.
The plastic problem is multifaceted. First, there are just 20 petrochemical companies that produce polymers that account for the vast majority of single-use plastic waste globally. Then, there are only a handful of companies responsible for pushing most plastic made from these polymers on their customers.
I agree with many who say that these companies, not the consumers of their products, should be responsible for reducing and sustainably disposing of plastic waste produced by them. But while local jurisdictions are grappling with making Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) into law, what can their downstream customers, including both businesses and individual consumers, do to deal with plastic waste responsibly and possibly save on materials and waste disposal costs as a result?
Here are some sample suggestions for businesses on how to reduce their plastic waste and therefore decrease their impact on Climate Change:
Reduce: work with your supply chain to lower the amount of plastic packaging. That may be done by:
Avoiding packaging altogether where possible;
Taking back your packaging to be reused or recycled;
Replacing plastic with renewable, recycled, and recyclable materials like paper and cardboard.
Redesign: reevaluate your product design to find opportunities for reducing the use of virgin plastic in your own products and packaging.
Reuse and Rethink: introduce circularity into your operational processes. That may include:
Creating a take-back program for your company’s products and packaging. Refurbish, rebuild and/or reuse them;
Replacing vending machines dispensing single-use water bottles for employees with water dispensers, and encouraging employees to use reusable water bottles and coffee mugs;
Rethinking your company’s swag’s environmental footprint by replacing “things” with “experiences”.
Recycle: implement a recycling program for the remaining plastic waste to avoid landfilling and/or incineration.
Discolored and brittle pieces of plastic I pick up at the beach have spent a significant amount of time in the water, sloshed by ocean currents around the world before finding their way to Rockaway Beach.
I’ve been doing cleanups for more than 12 years and feel happy that I can prevent ocean plastic from floating around further and becoming food for sea birds, fish, and other sea creatures. I realize that my small effort, being important, is far from enough on a global scale. But it does matter! Because every little thing helps, no matter how small!