There's a big lie about plastic — that you can throw it away. But that's not true; there is no "away."
Plastic bottles, plastic bags, snack wrappers, foam takeout containers, foam coffee cups, packing materials: these common, everyday items make up 85% of our waste stream. These items aren't biodegradable and our ability to recycle them is limited.
This societal reliance on throw-away plastic is strangling our environment — particularly our waterways.
More than eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the world's oceans each year, where it kills animals and fouls waterways and beaches. This isn't the work of careless litterbugs at the beach. Over 80% of ocean plastic comes from land-based sources. Even if you live inland and take care to properly dispose of your trash, there is a good chance some of your plastic waste has found its way to the sea.
Consider the American Great Lakes, where 80% of the litter along the shorelines is plastic. That trash doesn't stay put — it flows through the canals and river systems through the St. Lawrence Seaway and into the Atlantic Ocean. A takeout container that blows off a Chicago landfill can wind up off the coast of Africa.
From there, the damage gets far worse. Once in the ocean, plastic eventually breaks into micro-particles that cause toxins to enter the food chain.
A single discarded piece of plastic breaks down into millions — and these bits are mistaken for food and ingested by even the smallest organisms on the oceanic food chain. Contaminated zooplankton feed on phytoplankton, which are fed on by small fish, who are fed on by squid — and so it goes on up to our dinner plates.
Compounding the problem is that plastics adsorb chemicals that are free-floating in the ocean, so when the plastics enter the food chain, additional toxins settle into the muscles or fat of fish — the parts that we like to eat.
One of the worst offenders of plastic pollution is polystyrene, which is more commonly referred to by its Dow Chemical trademarked name, Styrofoam. It is sometimes called EPS, for expanded polystyrene, and is made into those ubiquitous white food takeout boxes. EPS is the second-most-found beach debris in Southern California, according to a recent study.
It's also a health hazard. EPS is made using a chemical called styrene that has known carcinogenic effects. According to the EPA, regular exposure to styrene in humans can affect the central nervous system, with symptoms such as headaches, weakness, depression and CNS dysfunction (affecting reaction time, memory and intellectual function).
Here in California, we have access to better recycling options than most of the world. But EPS generally isn't recycled because it is coated with food waste. When thrown away, its light weight allows the wind to blow it from landfills into our environment.
Even if we did make an effort to improve EPS recycling rates, California's existing plastic burden is already overwhelming the state's recycling capabilities. In the last year, more than 20% of recycling redemption centers in California have closed. The ubiquity of plastic products in our economy has driven down costs, making it economically challenging for recyclers to compete. Furthermore, unlike other recyclable materials such as glass and metal, plastic often can be turned into only one other product, which can then never be recycled again and ends up in landfill.
The longer-term solution is not just to recycle more: It is to use less. We call this the "upstream solution." By reducing the amount of plastic we use, we make a more profound impact on the environment than by recycling.
The good news is that a bill now in the California State Senate, SB-705, proposes banning single-use EPS food containers in California. Passing the law would reduce tons of polystyrene (and its micro-pieces) from entering our oceans.
We have known about the negative environmental impacts caused by EPS for decades, and yet the plastic pollution continues. It's time for California to take this critical stand to protect the environment.
SB-705, however, is just one step toward solving our global plastic problem. We can stop using single-use plastics altogether and find environmentally friendly replacement materials. Post-consumer recycled paper, bamboo, corn plastics, etc. are abundant and renewable resources — all of these products biodegrade when composted.
In the two minutes it took you to read this article, more than 60,000 pounds of plastic were dumped into our oceans — a fair share of it from California. That plastic could very well have profound health consequences for you and the ones you love.
Thankfully, solutions still exist. The less plastic we make, the less we throw away, the healthier our state, our planet and ourselves.
Julie Andersen is executive director of Plastic Oceans Foundation USA, which produced the film "A Plastic Ocean."