Plastics are synthetic materials that are commonly used for water bottles, packaging, and other items. Typically, these items are used once ("single-use"), or for just a short period of time, and are then thrown away.
While plastic is a recyclable product, it frequently ends up in the landfill where it will remain for many decades because it does not easily break down. Plastic can only be recycled a certain number of times before it must go to the landfill. When plastics end up in the environment, they affect the plants and animals that live there. AZA SAFE species, like sea turtles, sharks, rays, penguins, vaquitas, and coral, are all threatened by plastic waste.
Plastics are bad for the environment, animals, and people because they can last for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Plastic pollution affects water sources and is consumed by animals and people, impacting the health of both. Plastics can also break down over time into microplastics (pieces less than 5 mm in length) which enter water sources and move through the food web, causing harm to animals and the people that consume them.
The most common types of plastic garbage are cigarette butts, plastic bottles/cups, plastic bags, plastic straws and stirrers, plastic drink lids, and plastic food containers or wrappers.
Plastic has been produced since the 1950s. As a result, more than 9 billion tons of plastic have been produced and nearly 7 billion tons of that is waste. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., the average American produces 270 pounds of plastic waste every year.
According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, scientists estimate that nearly 9 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. Due to ocean currents, plastic waste eventually accumulates in particular areas causing phenomena such as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located between Hawaii and California.
Plastic ends up in the ocean when it is thrown on the ground or falls out of a trash bag and eventually ends up in a drain or body of water that leads to the ocean. Plastic can also end up in the ocean when beachgoers leave their trash on the beach and it gets carried into the water by the wind, rain, or waves.
About 17 percent of the animals affected by plastic are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. Animals that are affected by plastic garbage include fish, sharks, sea turtles, dolphins, whales, and birds. AZA SAFE works to protect species like sharks, rays, sea turtles, African penguins, coral, flamingos, and more, that are affected by plastic garbage.
Animals are injured or even killed by plastic when it pollutes their habitat. They can become entangled or trapped in it, eat it, ingest the chemicals from it in their water supply, and more.
Animals eat plastic because these pollutants can have the same size and color as their food. Many animals also consume plastic when they consume other animals. For example, a shark could eat a smaller fish that had consumed plastic or a variety of microplastics, which results in the shark also consuming those plastics.
Animals get trapped when they try to walk or swim through discarded plastic. For marine animals, this is often referred to as “ghost fishing” or “ghost nets” as there is no one on the other end to pull the fishing line (or whatever plastic material that it is) out of the water, and the ensnared animals frequently die as a result.
According to the Sea Turtle Conservancy, over one million marine animals die each year due to plastic pollution in the ocean.
If you encounter an animal injured by plastic, you should not touch or approach the animal and instead contact your local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Rescue Center. If you encounter a marine animal, you can also contact your local stranding network that has partnered with NOAA Fisheries.
You can stop using single-use plastics by finding reusable options! The most common single-use items have a reusable replacement, including reusable water bottles, straws, tote/bags, silicone, metal or glass food storage, and more. Be prepared and carry reusable options with you when you go out, and choose to refuse plastic when not necessary. For example, when shopping for items like produce, you can skip the plastic bag and put it straight in your cart.
Alternatives to plastic bottles include metal, glass, and aluminum. Alternatives to plastic bags include mesh and fabric bags. Alternatives to plastic food storage include silicon bags and glass or reusable plastic containers. Alternatives to plastic straws include reusable silicone and metal straws. Make your own plastic-free pack that you can easily bring with you to make refusing plastic easier. This pack can include a reusable straw, utensils, reusable bag, and a reusable bottle, or whatever fits your lifestyle.
According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, only nine percent of plastic waste is recycled each year in the United States. Recycling is effective if done correctly. Check with your local waste management district to ensure that you are recycling correctly and not “wish-cycling”. Sometimes, when trash is included with recycling, the recyclables end up in the landfill. Not all plastics can be recycled due to chemicals that may have been added.
Glass and aluminum are better for the environment than plastic, but it depends on where you live to determine which of the two are better than the other. Check with your local waste management district to determine if you are able to recycle aluminum and glass, and if you are only able to recycle one in your area, try to use more of that one. There are many ways to reuse glass (like pasta sauce jars and other jars) in your home and as bulk shopping containers, if that is offered at your local store.
Paper straws are better than plastic straws because paper straws are biodegradable and able to decompose, unlike plastic straws. Paper straws reduce harm to animals if they consume them since they fall apart, unlike plastic. Unfortunately, paper straws are also not recyclable. A better alternative to paper or plastic straws is reusable straws made out of metal or silicon.
The best replacement for a single-use, plastic item is something that can be reused. This can look different for every person and every lifestyle, so finding something that works for you is the most important. That could be a glass or hard plastic reusable water bottle, a bamboo or metal straw, or mesh fabric produce bags.
Some techniques to reduce your plastic waste include being prepared and carrying reusable options with you when you go out, choosing to refuse plastic if it is the only option, and reusing plastic you have at home to give it a longer life before you dispose of it.