The massive accumulation of waste plastics in our landfills and the environment is a difficult problem, one for which there are no easy answers. Plastics have transformed nearly every aspect of our lives — our cellphones are largely constructed of plastics; the medications we rely on are packaged securely with plastics; and the cars we drive are safer due to plastics. When the CEP editors began work on the Special Section on Waste Plastics Recycling (pp. 23–41), it prompted me to think about the role of plastics in my life. Inspired by the special section, I decided to complete a “plastics audit.”
For one day, I tracked every piece of plastic trash that I generated and placed it into a pile on my kitchen floor. By the end of the day, what began as a small pile ballooned to fill a 3-gal trash can. It was surprising how much trash I created in my day-to-day activities. For example, making a simple salad for lunch created trash from the empty dressing container, single-use produce bag, and plastic clamshell that held the cherry tomatoes. My afternoon granola bar and string cheese snack were both wrapped in single-use plastic. Later, my online shopping order arrived. The four pieces of clothing were individually wrapped in single-use plastic bags and shipped in two separate plastic pouches.
My plastic pile continued to grow as I whipped up dinner. I frequently rely on meal kit delivery services to make my life a bit easier. My preferred service ships me three meals per week, in which ingredients are carefully measured and portioned. My dinner that night contained three different seasonings in single-use plastic pouches, salmon wrapped in paper and plastic, green beans in single-use plastic packaging, and a small plastic pocket of Dijon mustard.
The audit gave me a new appreciation of plastics, and it forced me to acknowledge how many single-use plastics I interact with and dispose of every day. However, I don’t believe that simply replacing all single-use packaging with an easier-to-recycle substance, such as cardboard or paper, is the answer to our plastics problem. Mitigating the plastic waste crisis will require better and more efficient recycling strategies, as discussed in this month’s special section. In addition, critical policy changes must be made to limit our consumption of plastics.
This process has already begun at the local level, with some municipalities banning single-use plastic straws. Jersey City, NJ, (where I reside) began enforcing a ban on single-use plastic carry-out bags in June 2019, which prohibits retailers from providing plastic bags to customers at checkout. Instead, customers must bring their own bag or use an alternative bag provided by retailers (often for a small fee). Adapting to this change was difficult for me at first. However, I quickly grew accustomed to bringing my own bags to the grocery store, and I became more cognizant of saving and reusing the plastic bags I do have.
Many people (myself included) have a difficult time breaking bad habits and making smart, environmentally conscious decisions. Small changes in policy — such as banning plastic bags — may have little effect on our day-to-day lives, but can cut down on the amount of waste that ends up in the environment.
I encourage you to complete your own plastics audit. Like me, you may find that you could easily live without many of the single-use plastics you throw away every day.
Emily Petruzzelli, Editor-in-Chief
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