As a co-op, we believe that a life outdoors is a life well lived. We’re dedicated to protecting and advocating for the lands we love, and that starts with understanding the macro issues and trends that impact these outdoor places and the people who recreate in them. The "In Our Nature" series is designed to help us all become more informed and active stewards of the environment. Have a topic you’d like us to explore? Let us know in the comments below.
The first fully synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was invented in 1907. Strong, light and moldable, plastics quickly gained popularity. Today, they’re central to our lives, offering solutions that are critical to our health, safety and comfort.
Plastic packaging keeps food fresh for longer, reducing waste and minimizing the need for preservatives. Plastics in hearing aids, heart valves and prostheses allow people to live longer, more comfortable lives. And plastics in biker riders' helmets keep them safe.
It’s because they’re so useful that we’ve embraced plastics for single-use products, like shopping bags, straws and even salt shakers. But that’s where the trouble begins.
In 1950, global plastic production totaled 2.2 million tons per year. In the years since, annual production has increased nearly 200-fold, amounting to 420 million tons—roughly the weight of 13 million garbage trucks—in 2015 alone. While not all of that plastic ends up in the environment, an estimated 8 million tons reaches waterways annually, disrupting marine life and finding its way into the food chain.
What can we do about it? Consuming less and more mindfully is a great start. Here are four ways to reduce plastic pollution, based on reporting for this installment of “In Our Nature,” with input from REI’s own product sustainability team.
Step 1: Use less plastic
We know we have a plastic problem. On a daily basis, the average American generates 4.48 pounds of trash, according to the EPA. In 2015, that meant 262 million tons of trash ended up in landfills, where waste takes decades to decay.
“Problems arise when plastics are manufactured irresponsibly or disposed of inappropriately by throwing them directly into the environment or into the wrong waste stream,” said Genna Heath, a sustainable materials and innovations program manager for REI.
The good news is there are easy ways ways to reduce your plastic use. To start, practice mindfulness when shopping. Before buying, ask yourself: Is this reusable, recyclable and do I really need it? Try to steer clear of the item if it can only be used once. Heath keeps a “plastic swear jar” in her kitchen, depositing 50 cents each time she buys a disposable plastic item. At the end of the month, she donates the funds to a noteworthy nonprofit or invests in a more eco-friendly option to help her do better the following month.
It’s also a good idea to reuse what you can, buying used or fixing what you have instead of immediately replacing it. You can also learn what you can recycle in your area. Since recycling guidelines vary, get in the habit of checking to see if an item is recyclable before tossing it in the bin. If you’re on the go and guidelines aren’t available, err on the side of caution, depositing the questionable item in the trash instead.
“Contamination in the recycling process can reduce the market price for recycled materials, break recycling equipment, introduce hazardous chemicals, and even prevent recyclable materials from being used all together,” Heath said.
Learn more: What Is Mindful Consumption?
Step 2: Prevent plastic from entering our water and food supply
By 2050, scientists estimate the ocean will contain more plastic than fish by weight, according to a recent study. We’re still determining exactly how that plastic stands to impact marine ecosystems, but we do know that plastics don’t break down in the digestive tracts of fish and other marine life, and that some plastics contain additives that pose a risk to human health when ingested.
“We don’t yet know what harm is caused by plastics in water and food,” said Matt Thurston, director of sustainability for REI. “But we know it's a cause for concern and we should be doing what we can to prevent unknown harms.”
While recycling is a good way to staunch the flow of large plastics into the ocean, microfibers, or tiny strands of fabric, are also building up in our waterways. Some microfibers are tiny pieces of synthetic fabric, which is a type of microplastic. You can help prevent their spread, too.
Begin by washing your clothing less often, as microplastics and microfibers are released during laundering. Next, say no to fast fashion since the more textiles we buy, the more tiny fibers are created. When it comes time to wash your clothes, consider using a front-loading washer, as these machines have been shown to release fewer microfibers than top-loading washers. Finally, invest in a microfiber filter, like the LANGBRETT Guppyfriend Washing Bag or Lint LUV-R Solutions filter, to capture microfibers before they make their way out of your home.
Read the Co-op Journal’s previous coverage: Microfibers Are in Our Environment. How Are They Getting There?
Step 3: Vote with your wallet
It can feel overwhelming to face the big environmental problems impacting our planet, including plastics. But you have power as a consumer. “Our economy is driven by consumer preference,” said Heath. “By adopting more intentional spending behaviors, consumers can collectively influence manufacturers.”
When it’s time to invest in something new, weigh your options. Could you borrow the item, purchase it second-hand, or even rent instead of buy it? The fewer products you consume, the fewer get made. If purchasing a new item is your only option, look to brands that are seeking to lessen their impact with the processes they use and the products they make. Shopping with brands that prioritize recycled and recyclable materials is a great start.
For inspiration on how to reduce your impact as a consumer every week of the year, read the co-op’s Opt to Act Plan.
Step 4: Contact your policy makers
Ready to take things a step further? Use your voice to make a difference in your community by calling your local and state legislators and asking for plastics reform. For information about ongoing initiatives, visit the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for the protection of oceans and beaches across the world.
How do you reduce your plastic use? Tell us in the comments below.