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How Can You Help Stop the Plastic Waste Problem?

Brenna O’Leary • December 12, 2020

Do you ever look around in disbelief at the amount of technology in our lives? Do you ever feel like it’s distracting you from what’s important? Or keeping you from simple pleasures, like reading a book or gazing out the window? Sometimes it feels like there’s an app for everything, and – let’s be honest – there probably is one.

Why do you use plastic bags?

Do you use them because it’s convenient? Maybe because you don’t have or want to buy reusable bags? Do you know the impact bags have on the air, animals, people, and everything on our Earth? Think about why they are necessary to your life when there are so many better alternatives out there!

I’ve always been an Earth-conscious person. Starting to dive deeper into the world of microplastics, recycling plants, and the sheer amount we waste every single day made my stomach hurt. We are suffocating ourselves, the plants, and animals of the Earth using this stuff every day.

Do you know how many plastic bags are wasted every single day13 billion plastic bags are used around the world every day. Can you believe that something so minuscule is more prominent on the Earth than we are?

Think about how many of those bags end up in the Ocean or blowing around on the highway. Each one of those bags takes at least 300 if not almost 1,000 years to decompose in nature. Plastic breaks up in nature how rocks do to make sand. As time goes on, the pieces get smaller and smaller, making it easier for about any animal in the ecosystem to eat it thinking it’s food. 

Plastic bags are offered for your convenience so you don’t have to carry two drinks and a hoagie out of the store. 

Unfortunately, they are also the most polluted thing on the Earth. That’s probably because we use them constantly without hesitation. But why do you need to use them?

I was talking to someone in the store the other day after she had bought a gallon of milk.

“Can you double bag that for me?” she asked the lady, looking almost weary as she spoke. I immediately turned and commented: 

“It’s got a handle already, why do you need four more?” I thought I was being funny in a way that makes you think, ya know? 

She went on to explain how one time she broke a plastic bag and the whole gallon of milk exploded down her driveway. A terrible experience if you ask me… I feel for the lady, truly.

“So why use a bag at all? You can’t break the bag if you carry the jug.”

It was like I had four heads in the middle of the store. A foreign subject of not using a grocery bag to take home one item from the store. 

How in the last 40 years have we become so dependent on the use of plastic? Why do you need a bag to carry something with a handle? 

How can we unlearn this habit of doing everything for convenience without caring what the consequences may be around us?

The Problem with Recycling

We can not rely on recycling to “clean up the environment” because most plastics are not recyclable. Yes, even if you were to remove all labels, clean and put it in the recycling bin. (Which if you don’t do all of that it definitely will not be recycled) Chances are it will be thrown into a landfill after you’ve done all that precious work.

So why do it?

Do you know what is and isn’t recyclable? Plastic bags, Straws, zip locks, chip bags, toothbrushes, cotton swabs, band-aids… None of these are recyclable! Only about 9% of the 350 trillion tons of plastic the world manufacturer a year is recycled. And that spiderman toothbrush you had when you were 10 is still somewhere out there wondering what it did wrong.

Some of the worlds ‘recycling plants’ burn it all, even if it is illegal in most countries. Releasing horrible chemicals into the air that travels the entire Earth. Saying you recycle isn’t enough anymore!

How can we reduce plastic waste? Stop using it! Recycle what you can (and do it properly). Check the number on the bottom. If it’s a 1, 2, or a 5 it is technically recyclable. But it needs to be prepared properly and put in the correct bins. Most of the things they deem recyclable still aren’t accepted in the plants at the end of the day. There are so many outlets to learn and help stop the single-use plastics epidemic happening around us.

When you see these numbers on different items, it gives you the go-ahead to recycle or throw away. Numbers 1 and 2 are always good to recycle. 3, 6, and 7 are definite throw-aways. 4 and 5 are dependent on your local recycling company. Give them a call to see if they can recycle the 4’s and 5’s or if you should throw them away!

Wanna know a weird thing that isn’t accepted in the recycling? Coffee mugs! That one definitely surprised me…
What’s a fun way to use a coffee mug you don’t drink out of anymore? I used one for a little plant in my kitchen! 

Things like ceramics, tires (tires are actually a huge problem when it comes to microplastics) pizza boxes, cardboard milk and juice containers, plastic to-go containers, napkins, paper towels, yogurt cups, and some light bulbs aren’t accepted for recycling. In most counties, they won’t take any of it if it’s in a bag. 

If you want to know more about how car tires contribute to the microplastic issue, check out our post “How Your Tires Are Harming Marine Life”.

Have you been recycling wrong all along? It’s okay, we’re learning!

The Effects of Plastic Waste on Animals

I know you’ve seen the video of the turtle with the straw stuck in its nose. Do you know how that happens? When the turtle comes up from the ocean to breathe, it sticks its head up to take a breath and sniff! Up goes a stray straw from some coffee you drank last year into the nasal cavity of this poor little guy. Now, this turtle quite literally has to live or die with this straw stuck up in his nose… How uncomfortable!

You’ve also seen the countless videos of people cutting seals, turtles, and birds from nets, six-pack holders, and whatever else they can swim into. When the net cuts open the necks of those poor little guys or it gets stuck in their throats. Just because these animals don’t know that they are in any danger around these things.

Whales are some of the most affected animals when it comes to plastic waste in the oceans. They eat by swimming with their mouths open and filtering plankton and other small fish into their mouths. So if there’s a plastic bag in the way, they have no knowledge they are even eating it. Until there are 30 meters of plastic waste in their stomach they cannot digest and they end up starving to death.

They found a whale a few years ago off the coast of Indonesia, dead… And in this whale’s stomach was not only the cause of death but upsetting to think about. 155 plastic cups, four water bottles, 25 single-use shopping bags, and a pair of flip-flops in this whale’s stomach. 

You’d have to be a stone not to feel a little guilty about that poor whale. But that is the tragic reality of the impact of plastic waste on our wildlife… And there are thousands of other examples exactly like that.

If we’re the smartest species on Earth we should take care of the other species in any way we can… We need to be the good guys! Take strides to make a change that we can all feel proud of each day. In doing so we will know that we are making a real difference for ourselves, our children, and the animals on the Earth.


Honestly, microplastics are what scare me the most about any of this. Single-use plastics break up over and over again, getting smaller and smaller with time. Now that water bottle is 70,000 pinheads of plastic big enough for almost anything to eat.

Take zooplankton, for example. The smallest living species eat these pieces of plastic, then hundreds of other species eat the zooplankton. Now the crab you’re eating for dinner has microplastics in it because of the plankton. Which means you could have microplastics in your body! Pretty much every species on Earth has microplastics in their digestive tract, or worse.

Most animals on land and sea die with microplastics stuck in their stomach. The way we’re moving now, the ocean will be more plastic than wildlife by 2050. 30 years from now! There won’t be any beaches left or birds, fish, the coral reefs… They won’t exist someday because we destroyed it. All because we have to live an existence based on convenience. 

One of the biggest reasons microplastics are harmful is they absorb chemicals, pesticides, and contaminants from the ocean water. It’s almost as if these pieces are chemical magnets, which doesn’t sound any better than it is. I promise.

So how do we know these chemicals aren’t seeping out of the plastics into the animal’s bloodstream, or muscles? Or doing that in us after we eat the animals? Well, we don’t yet…
Here’s another great article to learn more about microplastics in fish! 

We do know that in species like oysters, muscles, and larvae plastic has very harmful effects. When plastics are introduced early in life it decreases their liver function, fertility, and growth patterns. Furthering the decrease in the wildlife of the oceans.

Effects Of Burning Plastics In The Environment – Air Pollution

You might be thinking, well how does plastic actually get into the air… That sounds bogus. I’m sorry to say that you’re probably breathing microplastics and harmful chemicals as we speak.

We make plastic from natural oil and fuels. The extraction alone of the materials needed to make plastic is causing air pollution. Then producing the plastic bag or water bottle with these oils created even more harmful fumes that disperse into the air. It gets slightly technical here but some of these fumes are harmful to us, animals, and the Earth itself.

Some of the chemicals released into the air from these processes are incredibly harmful for us. Carbon monoxide, methane gases, sulfur dioxide, benzenes, hydrogen sulfide, even formaldehyde, to name a few. And those are the ones that are easily recognizable, there’s a slew of other ones I wouldn’t want to have to pronounce in front of a crowd.

Our only reliable way of disposing of plastic waste in the world right now is to burn it. It goes into this giant room of an incinerator to melt down to nothing. But it’s not gone now, it’s a part of the air. When plastic burns it turns into some quite harmful gases that can travel the entire Earth. So the plastic incinerator plants in Malaysia are off-putting chemicals and gases that were breathing in as well. 

Scientists have started to create enzymes to ‘eat’ the (PET) single use plastics. Which is only one of many types of plastics that are manufactured. And while someday this could be a great solution to disposed plastic waste, it isn’t a reliable solution at this stage in experimentation. These little enzymes aren’t able to eat the plastics anywhere close to the rate we trash it. Hopefully someday scientists can evolve the enzymes to make a notable dent in plastic waste pollution. 

Look at us! Here we are using something that, in every single way, is destructive. From sourcing materials, all the way to disposal plastic is destroying our lungs, animal life, crops, soil, etc. 

You name it, single-use plastics are critically affecting it.

Here’s a bunch of things you can swap out to waste less (and save money)!

That’s the big question, right? How can any of us make a real difference in all this when we’re the consumer. Start small! Living sustainably is a marathon, not a sprint.

  • Buy a reusable coffee mug/water bottle instead of the styrofoam or plastic ones. 

  • Reusable straws are fantastic, I use them all the time. Then you can save your lipstick and the turtles!

  • Reusable shopping bags, they aren’t expensive at all and are sold almost everywhere. There’s a ton more uses for them than just running to the market. 

  • Beeswax wraps are an amazing switch from tin foil or plastic wrap (and you only have to buy them once!!) 

  • Reusable sandwich bags are much more sturdy than plastic ones and again you only have to buy them once. They also sell mesh produce bags for shopping, they’re fantastic and I use them for all kinds of things.

  • Dryer balls and Cora balls are great for replacing dryer sheets and catching microplastics that can come out of your clothes. 

  • They have cloth makeup wipes, sanitary products, and reusable cotton swabs.

  • When you buy seasonings, buy glass containers instead of plastic. Use glass soap containers or bars of soap. 

  • Save all of your glass jars for different things around the house! You’ll start to find things you want to use them for before you finish the jars! 

  • Bamboo sponges and scrubbies are a great alternative to your average dish sponge (which are plastic too). Bamboo toothbrushes are another cool bamboo alternative to plastic.

Thousands of large and small businesses alike are making the effort to change their current packaging or have none at all. You’d be surprised by the number of places that allow your own containers or bring back the ones you got there.

Some wineries around the country are starting to recycle. They take any wine bottles you have as long the bottles are clean. They also take corks. All these things would end up sitting in a landfill if they weren’t collecting them and they go to great use. Who doesn’t love a glass of wine that helps save the Earth?

We’ve approached a time where even the global companies are out here trying to make a difference. We need to think about what we buy and how we use it when we do buy it.

In the long run, a lot of these things will save you money, while saving the Earth at the same time. What’s not to love? There’s a ton of upsides to living sustainably. 

Most things have a glass, paper, or another alternative. What else can you think of that is unnecessary plastic usage?

You Can’t “Flip a Switch” on Plastic

Let’s be realistic here… You can’t completely get rid of anything non-reusable in your life in a weekend. That’s not what I’m going for here at all. 

We want to educate our friends, family, and children. We need to think about our choices and the impact of what we use every day. Make better choices a little bit at a time, even if it is a little bit more work at the end of the day. Because this life isn’t just about us.

Day by day we have to change things when we can and get better as we go. It’s a huge learning and unlearning curve for a lot of people in our country and many others. But our great-grandchildren will be looking back at the early 2000s and not believe we actually lived like this. They’ll thank us for making a change when we did. 

Now that you’ve made the switch, I promise you’ll feel a little extra pride when using these Earth friendly alternatives. Taking your water bottle to the store and telling the cashier “I have my own bags” always puts a smile on my face. Or when your coworkers compliment you on your new coffee mug that you’ve been bringing in. You’re definitely going to have a new pep in your step knowing that you’re saving the animals and the Earth! (And looking cute while doing it)

Grow Your Own Food

Growing your own fruits, vegetables and herbs is a huge way to reduce single-use plastic waste every day. Think about how many times you bought veggies for dinner wrapped up in plastic. All the time because they usually look the nicest.

But how nice will they look when you go outside to the back yard to grab the green beans for dinner. Clip all the herbs to make your marinara. You’ll be the coolest house on the block. People rave about my garden all the time and all the beautiful plants that come out of it.

Now I can’t forget to mention the sheer amount of food you really get from growing it yourself. I took seeds from a jalapeño I got at the store in April and planted half the actual pepper into a pot. Now, late into the fall, I still have more jalapeños than I know what to do with! You can’t beat that.

You can take all your scraps, whether you grow a garden or not, and start a compost as well which will create new fertile soil for the next year. I like to take my veggie scraps and make broth to freeze, then you don’t have to buy any next time you make soup!

By growing a garden you’re not using the single-use plastics nearly as much; helping the animals, saving money, and the Earth. If you can’t get with that I don’t know what else to tell you!

At the end of the day… We need to learn how to make a change. Why not have fun with it! There’s so many options to choose from that fit every lifestyle and budget. Let’s help to build a planet we are proud of and the animals can thrive on!

Author Bio: Emily Batdorf is a copywriter, educator, and artist who lives in Michigan. She enjoys the outdoors year-round, whether skiing, hiking, or swimming in the Great Lakes.