We wouldn’t get far in our day without it. Although it has only been around for less than a hundred years, its ubiquity compels our dependency on it. The vast majority of products manufactured today include it in some form or another, if they aren’t made out of it entirely. It is lightweight, durable, versatile, convenient and cheap. Human civilization has moved from the Stone Age, to the Copper and Bronze Ages, and finally to the Iron Age. For the last century, however, we have been living in the Plastic Age, and plastic pollution is now plaguing the planet.

Despite the apparently miraculous nature of traditional plastics, the problem is they take millennia to decompose. And, when they do, they release dangerous chemicals and gases into the natural environment. Additionally, the manufacturing process itself spews toxic by-products into the atmosphere, land and waterways. This all adds to the plastic pollution that plagues our planet.

“I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth.”
– Pete Townshend

Plastics invariably find their way into the planet’s food chain. Plastic bags caught on trees and fences flutter in the wind, drift down the street and are blown out to sea, where they choke the digestive systems of unwary animals that eat them. Turtles mistake the bags for jellyfish, dolphins mistake them for squid, and birds and fish eat floating styrofoam pellets thinking they are fish eggs.

Furniture made from recycled tires near Phitsanulok, Thailand

Diane relaxes on furniture made from old tires near Phitsanoluk, Thailand

As avid scuba divers, we see the effects of plastic and its production on the marine environment on the majority of our dives. This further prompts us to see as much of the planet as we can while it’s still in a relatively natural state.

The Numbers Game

Most of our food is packaged and stored in plastic of which three types have been labelled as hazardous to human health. #1 plastics, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), is a recognized carcinogen and is found in most children’s toys. It is commonly used to package food and liquids, and cover the houses in which many of us live.

#6, polystyrene, is more commonly known as styrofoam. Although the use of styrofoam in cups is waning, it is still used extensively for protective packaging for large electronic items like televisions and computers. The production of styrofoam destroys the ozone layer and it cannot be recycled.

#7 is a catch-all for anything that cannot be labeled as #1-#6. #7s are usually made from polycarbonate whose main component is bisphenol A. Bisphenol A is a hormone disrupter that acts like estrogen and results in insulin resistance. It is commonly found in tin-can lining, food storage containers and reusable water bottles.

It is worth mentioning biodegradable and compostable plastics. All plastics are degradable – eventually. A plastic may be degradable but not biodegradable. And although it may be biodegradable, it isn’t necessarily compostable. In other words, bio-degradable plastic breaks down too slowly to be called compostable and will leave toxic residues in the natural environment.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rethink

Undeniably, plastic has many positive and useful aspects. The trick is to minimize its negative impact on ourselves and the world around us. So, what to do? The three Rs (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle) are as good a set of guidelines as any. However, recycling is the last thing to which we should look for a solution. It uses resources and energy that could be applied to more productive processes. Additionally, many single-use plastics – such as drinking straws, disposable cutlery and food wrap – are never recycled.

Reusing is a much better option. Bring reusable containers and cloth bags to the grocery store, and use old plastic bags for loose fruit and vegetables instead of ripping a new one off the roll in the produce aisle. Use the bulk food section instead of buying products packaged in plastic and styrofoam. Some stores are taking the initiative without waiting for government legislation or incentives.

A bench made of recycled plastic bags at a grocery store in Townsville, Australia

A bench made of recycled plastic bags at a grocery store in Townsville, Australia

These are things that we can do, not only at home, but also while we travel to help protect the natural world everywhere we go. Recycling and reusing are noble actions that demonstrate a relatively elevated social conscious. However, we should concentrate on Reducing to really make a difference in the amount of plastic pollution. There are many products in the marketplace we can use to replace plastic. A big part of reducing is “rethinking”. Rethink every action in the context of its environmental impact, which starts with whether or not we really want or need the product at all.

Fish Net Stalking

Ghost fishing net on beach near Townsville, Australia

Discarded Fishing Net

But, singe-use plastics make up only 50% of the garbage found in the oceans. The other half of the garbage comes from the fishing industry. Not only is commercial fishing depleting the sea of its fish at a staggering rate, it is also mostly responsible for poisoning it at the same time.

Discarded fishing gear like long-lines and ghost-nets entrap, ensnare and entangle fish, dolphins, whales, turtles and everything else unlucky enough get caught up in the byproducts of our taste for seafood and the ignorance perpetuated by ecolabeling.

We have all seen videos of scuba divers freeing some poor creature from the clutches of a discarded seine net and commend the liberators as heroes. But, we think little or nothing about it when standing in the supermarket’s seafood section deciding which commercial fishery to support. If you want to save the oceans from plastic pollution, stop eating commercially-harvested seafood.