Be the Solution! – Reducing your Waste Footprint
Van Burbach, PhD, PG
In the last 50 years the amount of solid waste generated in the United States has increased by over 250%, to over 262 million tons in 2015, of which over 13% are plastics! Globally, plastic waste has increased over 1500% between 1965 and 2015. Globally, we generate over 300 million metric tons of plastic waste annually and almost 8 million metric tons of that plastic ends up in the world's oceans annually, according to a 2015 study from UC Santa Barbara. This plastic waste can kill as many as 1,000,000 sea creatures every year. The problem is huge and can seem overwhelming, but what can we do about it? We got into this mess one piece of plastic at a time, and that is how we need to get out of it – one piece of plastic at a time. Each and every one of us has contributed to the problem, so each and every one of us has the opportunity to be a part of the solution.
We have all heard the mantra “reduce, reuse, and recycle”, but most of our effort in recent years has focused on recycling with little attention being paid to reducing and reusing. Many people seem to have the mindset that if they drink their bottled water and through the bottle in the recycling bin instead of the trash, they are doing their part. What they don’t realize is how ineffective recycling can be. The Waste Management Hierarchy, which has been widely accepted by the EPA, environmentalists, and the waste industry, recognizes that reducing and reusing are the best ways to reduce the amount of waste we create.
According to the EPA, 9.1% of plastic material generated in the U.S. Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) stream was recycled in 2015. Another 15.5% was combusted for energy, while 75.4% was sent to landfills. This is only counting the waste that makes it to a landfill or recycling center, it does not count all the waste that is improperly disposed of, either purposefully or inadvertently, and ends up in our streams and rivers, and eventually in the ocean.
So what happens to the plastic waste we recycle? Until recently, we shipped most of it to China. In 2016, China imported two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste. In 2018, that ended. China abruptly announced that they would no longer receive plastics or many other recyclables from the USA or Europe. This put the recycling industry into a tailspin. Some of the waste we use to ship to China is now being shipped to other countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and India; however, much of it is just being sent to landfills.
This practice of shipping our plastic overseas has another downside. An article by Jenna Jambeck published in Science found that many of the countries we send our plastics to are mismanaging them. China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia together generate 49.5% of the global mismanaged plastic waste (Jambeck, et al, Science (Feb. 13, 2015), Vol. 347, #6223, pp. 768-771). That leads me to wonder how much of the plastic we send them is ending up in the world’s oceans.
So what is the solution? We definitely need to build our own recycling infrastructure so we can process the recyclable plastics ourselves, instead of shipping them overseas. We also need legislation and economic incentives to reduce our dependence on single use plastics. But the biggest, most effective thing any one of us can do is work on reducing our own waste footprint. Imagine a cube of crushed plastic that is eight feet wide, 8 feet deep, and eight feet high. That is how much plastic waste is generated every year by the average American. You and I are the problem, so you and I have to be the solution!
What can you do? REDUCE!
Avoid buying or using single-use plastics!Carry a reusable water bottle and fill it from a Shaklee Pure Water filter pitcher.Use a real coffee mug, instead of a Styrofoam cup.Refuse plastic straws & plastic utensils – take your own reusable ones.Use reusable cloth grocery bags instead of plastic grocery bags.Buy concentrated products, like Shaklee Basic H.Buy products with less packaging - buy in bulk. (Larger sizes use less packaging per product and usually cost less.)Choose to purchase reusable products, like glass storage containers.Buy products made of or packaged in recycled materials. Take used goods to thrift stores, and buy things from thrift stores.Share things with friends & neighbors. Wash and reuse plastic bags and containers.Be creative – use discardable items for crafts, etc.
We got here one piece of plastic at a time. We can solve this problem one piece of plastic at a time. Small things matter and small adjustments to our lifestyles can make a big difference. Together, our small sacrifices of convenience can add up to a major reduction in the amount of plastic and other waste being generated, and that is good for all of us. With every little decision you make, you are either contributing to the problem or being the solution! It’s up to you and me!