With Valentine’s Day past us, maybe it’s time we rethink our relationship with plastics?
Can I Have Your Digits?
The United States both produces and uses a lot of plastic products. We often think of single-use plastics like bottles, cups, plastic shopping bags, and drinking straws as being wasteful. Maybe with a modest effort, we can avoid using many of these. But our plastic use also includes more durable goods like furniture, phones, and cars. And we might think of less durable products that range from shower curtains to toothbrushes.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that, in 2018, almost 36 million tons of plastic waste entered the U.S. municipal solid waste stream (USEPA). This represented just over 12% of municipal solid waste. About 9% was recycled, and 16% were burned for energy. This left about 76% needing to be landfilled.
For how these figures have changed since 1960, see the figure below.
It has been noted that New Jersey has a higher rate of incinerating plastics, with 28% burned and 58% landfilled in 2014 (Guran).
My Achy-breaky Heart
With plastic products, we are often tempted to look to recycling to change our discarded plastics into something useful again. But there are limitations to this potential approach.
- One issue we’re all familiar with is that only some household plastics are commonly recycled. We squint at our seltzer bottles and almond butter jars to see if they are #1 (PETE), #2 (HDPE), or another number, and then compare that to the guidelines from our local waste authority.
- Plastic food containers often need to be relatively clean, and single-stream recycling needs to be free of trash. Particularly difficult for U.S. post-consumer recyclables was when China largely began rejecting all but the least-contaminated recyclables in 2018 (Guran).
- Even when plastics are recycled, the resultant products are often of a lower quality than the original product (Guran). This is sometimes called cascaded recycling. These new products may end up in the trash rather being able to be recycled again.
A Few Other Thoughts to Swipe Left On
- The production of plastic itself has an environmental impact. This includes the use petroleum oil, natural gas, water, and the generation of greenhouse gasses (Guran).
- Plastics commonly make their way into the environment by bypassing the municipal solid waste stream. This may be the result of intentional littering of disposable products or of lighter items being carried from a recycling bin by wind or lost during transportation.
It’s the Little Things That Count
The video webinar by Casey Lippincott, linked below, discusses the issue of microplastics. Some microplastics, like fibers on clothing or microbeads in cosmetics, are produced to be small plastics particles. Others come from the degradation of plastics in the environment. When these make their way to waterways or oceans, they can be inadvertently ingested by wildlife and then move through the food chain.
Who’s My New Beau?
We’re all familiar with the motto Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
But in the video below, Casey Lippincott suggests that there are three R’s we should start with first: Refuse, Repair, Rethink.
- Refuse to use single-use plastics like straws or disposable shopping bags.
- Try to repair items instead of disposing of them. Perhaps you can educate yourself and others on how household items can be repaired. Maybe use social media marketplaces to rehome products you no longer want.
- In general, rethink the products you buy. Is there a non-disposable alternative that serves the same function?
A few suggestions from Casey Lippincott:
- Make an assessment of the consumable products you use. How much waste do you produce in disposable coffee cups, takeout packaging, paper products, and packaging?
- Replace disposable products with more durable products: reusable water bottles, reusable coffee cups, eating utensils to take with you when eating out, reusable food storage containers that can replace takeout containers, and reusable straws.
- Also, using cotton hand towels rather than paper towels, and investigating reusable shopping bags, reusable storage bags, bees wax food wrap, and even reusable produce bags for grocery shopping.
Resources and further reading can be found after the Upcoming Events.
Upcoming Events and Programs
- The Earth Day Every Day webinar series returns in March. Visit https://envirostewards.rutgers.edu/earth-day.html to register for the free series. Topics are: Native Plant Gardens; New Jersey’s Marine Resources; Deer Control in New Jersey; What To Do When You Find Baby Animals; Infusing EcoTherapy Into Your Life; From Rain Gardens to Rain Barrels; Protecting Watersheds at Home; Food Systems and Climate Change; Trees, Wonderful Trees
- Rutgers 4-H at Home offers everything our young people at home: everything from webinars, to short term clubs, to activities and recipes. https://nj4h.rutgers.edu/4h-from-home/
- Visit Rutgers Cooperative Extension Marine Resources. Learn about Barnegat Bay Shellfish Restoration Program; Introductory Fisheries Science for Stakeholders; Marine Extension Program Seminar Series; Seafood Safety Website. https://ocean.njaes.rutgers.edu/marine/
Resources and Further Reading
Guran, Serpil. 2019. Plastic Waste as a Feedstock for Circular Carbon Economy. https://cues.rutgers.edu/2019-microplastics-conference/pdfs/1_Guran_Plastic-Waste-as-A-Feedstock.pdf .
Lippincott, Casey. 2020. Reducing Plastic Waste. (Video.) https://rutgers.webex.com/rutgers/lsr.php?RCID=ddf78f636fc1a2399021e99a0f556bec . Passcode: EarthDay2020.
Nj.gov. 2020. Governor Murphy Signs Legislation Banning Single-Use Paper and Plastic Bags in New Jersey. https://www.nj.gov/governor/news/news/562020/20201104a.shtml .
USEPA. 2021. Plastics: Material-Specific Data. https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/plastics-material-specific-data .
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