In 40 years, the use of plastics in the U.S. has tripled. Plastic waste generation was at 73 million metric tons in 2019, breaking down to about 1.3 pounds per American per day. It’s an absurd amount of plastic waste if you think about it. In one year, the average American generates close to 500 pounds of plastic waste and recycling. 

Have you ever considered the impact of single-use plastics on the environment? Think about this. Of the 73 million metric tons of plastic waste, 85% goes to the landfill. Less than 10% is actually recycled. This number has worsened as it was 9% in 2018 and decreased to about 6% in 2021. 

That means the 1.3-pound average a person generates each day, about 1.1 pounds goes to the trash. Recycling is vital for so many reasons, but that’s just one thing you can do to help protect the environment from plastic waste.

Plastics Cause Problems

If you drive down the road and have a plastic wrapper in your car, that wrapper can fly out of an open window and end up on the side of the road where it ends up in a waterway. If it makes it to the ocean before a fish or bird swallows it, it ends up in the ocean trash where it is ingested by a fish or other aquatic animal. 

Even if the plastic isn’t ingested, it breaks down in the sun creating tiny plastic particles that clog up a fish’s lungs. Microplastics can end up in our water, too, as the particles can be too small for filtration to capture.

A study of blood from 22 volunteers found up to 1.6 µ/ml of plastic particles in those samples. You drink it and ingest it when eating fish, seafood, and plants like kelp. You get it in filtered water at water treatment plants that desalinate water. You breathe it in the air. What will those microplastics do to your body? No one is sure, yet.

That’s just one of the ways plastics end up in the wrong place. You put your curbside trash and recycling outside for early-morning pick-up service. During the night, it gets windy and winds knock over your bin. Plastics blow down the street.

Or, a wild animal gets into your trash and recycling and drags items to their dens or into the woods where the plastic eventually ends up in the water or into the soil where it can end up in groundwater. It can also break down and end up in the air.

China Restricted Foreign Waste

In 2021, China announced restrictions on the amount of waste the country would accept from foreign countries. The amount dropped to 0.6 million tons, which is a small fraction of what’s generated in the U.S. This posed a big problem as the U.S. wasn’t set up to recycle that much plastic. As a result, some cities stopped recycling plastics and instead burned them in incinerators, which can increase air pollution. 

Some states took measures to stop plastic waste by changing laws. Among the many changes that have taken place:

  • California requires beverage manufacturers to use recycled plastic in their plastic beverage containers at a rate of 15% by 2022, 25% by 2025, and 50% by 2030.
  • Maine passed a law requiring companies that create cardboard or plastic food containers and packaging to pay for recycling through an “Extended Producer Responsibility” program. Ten other states, including Oregon, are taking or considering similar measures.
  • Vermont banned the use of plastic bags in grocery stores. Shoppers must bring their own bags or purchase paper bags for 10 cents. The state also banned plastic straws.

People Also Need to Do Their Part

Changes to state laws help, but it’s just a small part. People have embraced bad habits over the years, and it’s not changing quickly. It’s also up to you to do your part.

Skip the Single-Use Water Bottle

In the U.S., it’s estimated that people use around 50 billion single-use water bottles each year. That’s about 13 bottles per month, per American. To make all of those bottles, petroleum is needed, as petroleum is a key ingredient in plastic. Because of that, you have greenhouse gases and damage to the environment from the extraction, transportation, and processing of petroleum, and then the manufacturing process that turns raw plastic into bottles.

If people switched to refillable water bottles, it would reduce a large percentage of waste that goes to landfills, is incinerated, or ends up in the ocean. It’s estimated that every person could keep just over 150 single-use bottles out of the waste stream. 

But, you have to consider the material of your reusable bottle, too. A reusable plastic bottle is still going to break down eventually and need replacing. The typical lifespan of a polycarbonate water bottle is 1 to 2 years. Metal can be a better option. A stainless-steel water bottle lasts 10 to 12 years. A reusable glass water bottle lasts a lifetime.

Purchase Reusable Shopping Bags

Purchase reusable shopping bags and use them instead of plastic or paper bags. If you need plastic bags for cleaning your cat litter, purchase biodegradable compost bags instead. 

Line your vehicle’s trunk or bed with plastic crates and coolers When you shop for groceries, put the groceries back into your cart without bags and load them directly into the crates when you return to your vehicle. You can wipe them clean after using them.

Instead of taking plastic produce bags, turn an old t-shirt into washable produce bags. You can also purchase reusable produce bags if that’s easier.

Recycle Your Plastic Film

Save any plastic film you get from the dry cleaners, online orders, etc., and bring it to the grocery store when you go shopping. You’ll find these bins at the entrance or with the bottle return machines. 

Plastic film like bakery bags, produce bags, and bags that new clothing comes in is all recyclable. It’s just not recyclable in your curbside container.

Purchase Glass Food Storage Containers

When you have leftovers to carry to work or school, use a glass container. It will last far longer than plastic containers. Glass is also better for mixing bowls.

Repurpose as Much as You Can

Instead of recycling plastics after one use, repurpose them as much as you can. You could take a single-use yogurt container and use it again and again to start seedlings in the spring. When the seedling is big enough, move it to the garden.

Take your plastic prescription bottles that would otherwise go into the trash due to their smaller size and use them to store items like screws, bolts, and nuts. They’re also great for organizing small items like beads and sequins if you’re into crafting. 

Make Sure You Recycle Properly

Don’t wish-cycle and end up contaminating a load of recyclables. If you’re unsure how to recycle a specific plastic item, ask your hauler or use Recycle Nation’s recycling guide to find out what to do with it. The more you recycle correctly, the better it is for the environment.