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The Throwaway Society of Plastic

Updated: Dec 7, 2023


We have all heard the phrase “throwaway society” over and over, and we all agree, ho

wever resolvedly, that this is who we are as Americans. However, this doesn’t mean we have to accept that fate. We can make changes, even small ones to turn around the disastrous environmental trajectory we are on with one significant 1907 scientific breakthrough: plastic.


For decades, people perceived only the benefits of plastic and not the toll it was taking on human health and the environment. Through decades of research, the evidence is stacking up against these perceived benefits and proving that plastics are indeed a huge global problem.


According to information released by Earthday.org, plastics are problematic for many reasons:


  • They are not biodegradable and will remain plastic, in one form or another, forever.

  • They are manufactured by refining oil and natural gas which then releases harmful chemicals into the air including carbon monoxide, benzine, and methane.

  • The astronomical amount of plastics manufactured each year compared to the very small amount that is actually recycled.

  • Many plastics contain harmful chemicals (phthalates and BPA) which can leach into food and beverages when the container is heated. These chemicals are linked to a number of health problems including reproductive system abnormalities and cancer.

  • Microplastics (when plastic breaks down into tiny pieces due to exposure to sun and water) are everywhere- in our water, seafood, and even in salt causing potential danger to all living things.


Our use of plastics increases every year with no end in sight. In 2021, over 40 million tons of plastic waste was generated in the US alone, according to a report by the environmental group Beyond Plastics. Sadly, only 5-6 percent was recycled. Ten percent was incinerated and 85 percent was sent to landfills. At this rate, 12 billion metric tons (more than 1 billion elephants!) will enter landfills by the year 2050 according to an article by the BBC.


I myself, as a solid waste management director and avid recycler find these numbers staggering, and I struggle to comprehend how we got to this point. Why is so little plastic being recycled? The answer to that question is complicated. Many reasons contribute to the pathetically low number of plastics that are actually recycled and turned into useful items: lack of adequate plastics recycling facilities to handle the huge amount of plastics received through local recycling efforts, all the additives in plastics (dyes, etc.) make the recycling process more difficult and expensive, and the phenomenal cost of collecting and sorting plastics at local recycling facilities, to name a few.


In Henry County, recycling efforts have been challenging, but there are many individuals who are following all the principals of recycling and doing what is necessary to keep as much as possible out of landfills. As far as plastics go, we are limited to only a small number of items that are actually eligible for recycling: those labeled with a recycle number 1 or 2 on the bottom of the container. All other numbered plastics are actually considered trash in this area as they are more difficult to recycle and there is little demand for those higher numbered plastics on the open market. Economics plays a huge role even in the recycling business.


Even knowing all that we do about the difficulty in recycling plastics does not mean we should give up. What it does mean, definitively, is this: we must reduce our dependence on plastics in order to change this trajectory. Each of us can contribute to significant change by living with less plastic. We can Choose to Refuse single-use plastics (cups, straws, bags, cutlery) and accept the challenge to make a change personally. My challenge to our community is to take part in Plastic Free July. For one month, challenge yourself to change four behaviors that contribute to our plastic waste problem such as: switch plastic water bottles for refillables, skip the straw and plastic cutlery, bring your own reusable shopping bags, and pack a waste-free lunch in reusable containers. You can find more information about the challenge at plasticfreejuly.org or on our Facebook page. Together we CAN make a difference!






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