Steve Genovese, South Portland Sustainability
Our world has a love affair with plastic.
In 2019 alone, we produced more than 450 million tons of plastic globally, which is a staggering 900,000,000,000 pounds (that’s 900 billion pounds!). This is the equivalent of more than 112 pounds of plastic produced each year, for each person on planet Earth.
A torrid love affair?
Since its creation in the early 1900s, synthetic plastic has become the gold standard for convenience products and packaging across the globe. From utensils and cutlery, to bottles, bags and most other packaging items, plastic is an everyday use for many. But what is plastic and what consequences do we experience from its global
Synthetic plastics are derived from crude oil, natural gas, and petroleum that are refined into ethylene and propylene. Together, these two chemical compounds form the polymers used in new or “virgin” plastic production. Plastic continues to be so widely used as single-use and other packaging products because it is inexpensive and easy to produce. Unfortunately, it is not biodegradable – meaning that plastic doesn’t break down. This strength has become our greatest challenge – every single piece of plastic ever created on Earth still exists on the planet today and this has become a global environmental challenge.
Reduce, reuse, recycle – everywhere
Inevitably, after plastics serve their intended purpose, they become pollution in our environments. In Maine, plastics that are not recycled are incinerated in trash-to-energy facilities like Ecomaine. While energy and emissions-capture technologies are used in these facilities, there is no way to completely avoid the release of harmful greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants. Other plastics end up in our waterways and oceans, polluting marine environments that many in Maine survive on. Ultimately, how we manage plastics and plastic pollution today will have an enormous impact on all of our lives tomorrow.
Many communities here in Maine have taken steps to reduce community-wide reliance on plastic. For example, Portland was the first community in Maine to ban plastic straws. Maine also has a thriving culture of reuse, where thrift stores and antique shops are commonplace. Reuse initiatives like the South Portland Swap Shop and many other swap shops statewide accept gently used items that then can be claimed for free by other residents.
In 2021, Maine became the first state to pass an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for Packaging Law, which requires manufacturers and corporations to pay for the cost of packaging – a measure that will reduce convenience plastic packaging at a large scale and increase environmental responsibility of all producers.
Ultimately, the transition away from plastic will take action at all levels in order to make a global impact. Individual actions, like swapping out plastic bags for reusable ones, create the ripple effect necessary for larger corporations and governments to take action. It’s also important to remember that eliminating plastic consumption or living a “zero-waste” lifestyle is a privilege not everyone can afford because in many situations plastic alternatives are more expensive and less readily available than plastic. But if you can reduce plastic usage at home, please do!
All of us can do something to help reduce plastic use. By recycling, we can eliminate the need for new plastic production and encourage the use of recycled materials for the creation of new plastics. And plastics such as food containers, bottles, and bags have biodegradable or reusable alternatives. So if possible, invest in stainless steel or glass storage containers and bottles, and canvas or silicone bags – maybe carry a water bottle and fill it with tap water instead of buying water in plastic, for example – these are great ways to reduce the need for single-use plastic. And when we do purchase plastic-packaged items like a cold soda at the corner store, or packaged greens in the supermarket, reuse or recycle that packaging as much as possible.
Steve Genovese is a Resilience Corps/Americorps Fellow in the City of South Portland Sustainability Department. He can be reached at [email protected].