The impact of single-use plastics on the earth and the health of its inhabitants is immense. It begins with fracking to extract the oil, gas, and coal used to make plastic. Plastic production spews greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And then there’s disposal. Used for an average of 12 minutes, single-use plastics take up to 1,000 years to break down into microplastics, where they continue to pollute the earth. Each year, only 9% of the plastic waste generated in the United States is recycled. The number is even lower for plastic bags; an estimated 1% get recycled every year.
In 2020 in an Italian supermarket, scientists found microplastics in produce including carrots, broccoli, potatoes, apples, and pears. How did this happen? Research shows that microplastics contaminate farmland in a few ways: sewage sludge, plastic mulch, and slow-release fertilizer, among others. Microplastics then enter plants through cracks in the root systems. Et voilà. Plastic-infused fruits and vegetables.
A staggering eight million tons of plastic pollution contaminates oceans every year. Thousands of sea turtles, whales, and other marine mammals—many of whom are endangered species—are maimed or killed when they become entangled in plastic waste or try to ingest it. Once in the water, plastic breaks down into microplastics, which are impossible to extract, and contaminate drinking water. They’re also consumed by fish, which has health implications for seafood-loving humans, as well as for animals that live in and off the seas.
About 32 million tons of plastic are incinerated or buried in landfills nationwide. When burnt, plastic releases black carbon and toxic gases into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and threatening human health. Landfills and industrial plants are often located in low-income areas, where residents, disproportionately BIPOC, suffer the consequences. The result? Places like Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, where the cancer rates of nearby inhabitants have skyrocketed.
The truth about recycled plastic and bioplastics
Despite the plastic industry's claims to the contrary, plastic recycling is a myth. Recycling plastic is labor-intensive and costly when compared with producing virgin plastic. And so it isn’t done. Wish-cycling—the habit of putting items in the recycling bin with the hope they’ll be recycled—exacerbates the problem, creating excess work for recycling companies to sort through non-recyclable items, which can get caught up in the machinery. And so most plastic—whether “recyclable” or not—ends up polluting the environment.
Biodegradable plastics aren’t much better. While bioplastics are made from plants rather than fossil fuels, they typically require controlled industrial composters to properly break down—and there are only 20 facilities in the country that are equipped to do this. Because biodegradable packages rarely include information on how to properly dispose of them, consumers mistakenly place them in recycling bins or home compost piles, where they create methane or are incinerated at landfills, contributing to pollution in the same dire ways as plastic.