Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff makes it a habit to say “No straw, please,” when she goes out to dinner. In fact, the executive director of the 5 Gyres Institute makes it a habit to avoid single-use plastic just about everywhere. In a recent TEDX Talk, she explained why.
Rachel says she started asking questions after the birth of her third child, Chloe, 10 years ago. She had already heard about endocrine disrupters, hormone-mimicking chemicals that can affect fertility and reproduction, obesity, and cancer. What she didn’t know was that plastic can absorb and leach endocrine disruptors so effectively that a tiny piece of microplastic can be a million times more toxic than the water around it. When those microplastics are eaten by small fish that are eaten by bigger fish, plastic can work its way up the food chain – straight into us.
This might not be an issue if plastics in the environment or the food chain were rare. But it turns out that so much plastic is being used and thrown away that plastic is becoming omnipresent. In the U.S., we use 500 million plastic straws every day. Globally, a million plastic bags are consumed every minute. And with only around 10% of plastic being recycled, most of this ends up in the environment.
If we continue like this, Rachel reports, scientists predict that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. And probably, fish will be eating more plastic! Already, scientists have found microplastic in 33% of shellfish, 25% of fish, and in sea salt, as well as in 83% of global drinking water samples.
Rachel compares plastic pollution to the particulate matter in smog. Like dangerous air particulates, microplastics “know no boundaries and there are no superhero scientists swooping in to clean them up,” she warns. And that makes them, like smog, difficult if not impossible to remove once they’re released.
Is there a solution?
Unfortunately, composting “bio plastics” doesn’t seem to be the answer because in order for them to break down, they must be processed in an industrial compost facility, not in your home compost pile, and these facilities are still pretty rare. They won’t break down in a landfill, either, and they certainly won’t degrade in the ocean. “Regular” plastic made from petroleum like the kind used in most bags and bottles can’t be composted at all.
Recycling helps a little bit – but not nearly enough, in part because of the 300 million tons of new plastic made from fossil fuels every year.
“Our single use plastic habit has exceeded our ability to recycle it,” Rachel reports.
By the way, just because a plastic item is imprinted with the recycling symbol and a number inside it doesn’t mean it can be recycled. Rachel points out that polystyrene, also popularly known as Styrofoam, is considered a #6 – but it still can’t be recycled.
The key, recommends Rachel, is to start refusing single-use plastic whenever possible. We’ve previously recommended consumers stop using plastic straws. But single-use bags, cups and packaging need to be replaced, too.
Smart public policy can help. More than 30 countries have banned or taxed plastic bags, starting with Ireland, which saw a 94% reduction in first month. Here in the U.S., many cities and counties have also instituted a “bag tax.”
Rachel begins her TEDX talk by showing disturbing video of some scientists trying to remove an ugly and painful straw from the nose of a big sea turtle. The video has garnered nearly 17 million views on YouTube and other sites so far and inspired an entire movement devoted to eliminating plastic straws.
While the video is gut-wrenching, Rachel says that it helped people understand that plastic you use once and throw away needs to stop.
The long-time activist and Moms Clean Air Force member, is optimistic that using single use plastic is a habit that can be changed. She compares the opportunity to smoking. In the 1960s, she says, 40% of adults smoked cigarettes. Today it’s less than 15%. We can all make an effort to reduce single use plastic similarly.
Along with carrying reusable cups, bags, water bottles and saying “No thanks,” to plastic straws, Rachel says,
“By working together to support better legislation, corporate ingenuity and individual activism, we will solve the problem of plastic pollution. We’ll return to a world where conservation is commonplace, resources are valued, and children everywhere swim in clean ocean waters, a world that once again makes sense.”
Watch Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff’s TEDX talk: