As I am writing this article on the outdoor patio of the Free Speech Movement Cafe, the plastic water bottle that I purchased two minutes ago is glaring at me in my periphery.
What gives me the right to study and advocate for environmental issues? I occasionally forget my reusable bottle at home, and the computer I am typing on will end up in a landfill one day, releasing harmful toxins into the environment. The truth is we are all living in a society and economy that make the picture-perfect, sustainable lifestyle — free of plastics — unattainable.
Even when we are not buying single-use plastic bottles, plastic is all around us — in our clothes, tea bags, food packaging, chewing gum and even our bodies. We are frequently ingesting small plastic particles found in our food, water and air, and these toxic particles accumulate in our cells, causing a plethora of health issues that scientists are only beginning to understand.
Synthetic plastics didn’t even exist 150 years ago, so how did we get to the point where they are prevalent in our everyday lives?
The first synthetic plastic was invented in 1907 by Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a chemist who desired to create a material with endless possibilities. As this proved successful, the plastic industry surged during the industrial mobilization of World War II. Post-war consumerism contributed to its continued growth throughout the 21st century, becoming the trillion-dollar industry it is today.
In the 1960s, the initial enthusiasm about plastics started to diminish. Scientists began noticing that plastic waste was accumulating and persisting in the environment, and anxieties about pollution and environmental degradation permeated throughout society, especially during the counterculture movement.
While the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” is considered synonymous with environmental advocacy, its history is rooted in the corporate greed of the plastic industry.
A confidential report was sent to industry officials in 1973, revealing that plastic recycling on a large scale is not feasible. As this threatened to discourage consumers from buying plastic and could potentially lead to plastic bans, the industry did everything in its power to hide this knowledge from the public. Tens of millions of dollars were spent on recycling initiatives that deceived people into believing that producing and purchasing plastic had a net-zero impact on the environment as long as consumers reduce, reuse and recycle. In reality, less than 10% of plastic has been recycled, which translates to millions of tons of plastic ending up in U.S. landfills every year.
While plastic production rises every year, plastic recycling remains inefficient and costly. Corporations continuously deflect responsibility for plastic waste onto consumers, perpetuating the belief that incorrectly sorting waste between trash and recycling is at the root of the problem. While consumers are significant contributors to the issue, we have very limited control over where our plastic bottles go after we put them in the recycling bin.
To effectively reduce plastic waste, time and money must be invested in curbing plastic production, improving the recycling process and offering both accessible and sustainable alternatives. The most important power that consumers have is holding industry and government officials accountable. By instigating more plastic bans and investments in sustainable technologies, we can create real change for the sake of the environment and human health.