Millions of people are feeling the heat – literally – from relentless heat waves this summer in the Northern Hemisphere. Smoky skies from wildfires are aggravating certain health conditions. Flooding is damaging communities and people are losing their lives and their livelihoods. The signs of a changing climate are all there. It can all seem hopeless. So, what can we do? I’m going to be dedicating one Science Wednesday a month to climate actions – focusing on what can we do, as consumers and individuals. While ultimately, we need large-scale societal transformative change, which requires large-scale systems-based changes (e.g., at the government and corporation levels), each and every one of us can take action now. Let’s start the conversation with plastics.
Did you know that at the heart of plastics are fossil fuels? Petrochemicals, oil, natural gas and coal are part of the creation and distribution of plastics. The life cycle of plastic, from the chemical building blocks to manufacturing to disposal, results in a significantly large carbon footprint: emissions equivalent to those produced by 189 coal plants each year. Most plastic also sticks around, taking hundreds of years to decompose. Without changes in the patterns of our consumption and the (re)use of plastic, emissions may skyrocket in the future to nearly 15% of our total global carbon budget!
Globally, packaging is a large source of plastic use (40% of total plastic use, in fact) in a regular consumer’s life. This packaging is often single-use and while some is recycled, most ends up in landfills or is burned. Unfortunately, this burning usually occurs near low-income communities and communities of color, leading to chemical exposure and reduced air quality.
There’s also the problem with microplastics – tiny fragments and threads of plastic that come from our personal care products, tires, disposable containers and larger plastic products. Microplastics are the size of a sesame seed (5 millimeters) or smaller and have been documented across our oceans, inside our bodies, in the food we eat, in the water we drink, in the snow in the mountains, and even down in Antarctica.
So, what can we do? Start with awareness – do an audit of plastic in your home. There are a growing number of options to recycle and repurpose traditionally hard-to-recycle products, like plastic film. Ridwell is a company that can help you with not only recycling of plastic, but also electronics, batteries and lightbulbs. The simplest solution, though, which also saves you money, is to minimize the plastic. Use reusable shopping bags, not plastic at the grocery. Do you really need to put your fruits and vegetables in those produce bags? Get reusable ones and then thoroughly wash your produce when you get home. Look for packaging made of paper, glass, and metal (aluminum) instead. In personal care products (e.g., soaps), check for copolymers in the ingredients and avoid those.
Synthetic clothes can shed a lot of microplastics, so buy a fine-mesh bag (the company, Patagonia, sells these) to use in the washing machine. The bags trap microplastics, which can be thrown in the trash rather than sent down the drain and into our water supply, ecosystems, and eventually oceans. Finally, don’t support companies that continue to excessively package their goods in plastic and show blatant disregard for the environment all for the sake of profit. The less consumers buy, the more likely companies take notice and are forced to change their ways. We have power in our dollars.

photo by: Ulyana H. Peña