3.6 trillion. That’s the amount of pieces of plastic that swam within the Great Pacific Garbage Patch alone. More plastic lines our streets, clogging up waste management systems, releasing toxins into the air, contributing to flooding, and destabilizing marine environments. Most of this plastic is single-use, and often results from plastic bags, with each American using an average of one single-use plastic bag per day. Plastic bags contribute unfathomable harm to our world each day, yet we continue to produce them en masse. There are a few solutions we have tried: outlaw single-use traditional plastics, tax such plastics, and reusable alternatives.

90 countries in the world have passed some form of traditional plastic bag ban, citing issues of environmental pollution. Such bans, in the U.S. would be in line with the current trend of our legislation. Many individual states have already passed bills implementing single-use plastic taxes or partial bans, effectively establishing some precedent. When implemented, these legal measures tend to be effective, compelling both private companies and consumers to modify their behaviors.

Other alternative solutions, such as a plastic bag tax, can help aid in making consumers think twice about the type of products they are using for their packaging. These taxes encourage consumers to seek out packaging products that are environmentally friendly or recycled, and thus are not subject to the same heavy charges.

Reusable alternatives also help consumers. Thicker plastics don’t suffer the same wear and tear, and when manufactured well, can be washed and reused within a household after purchasing.

Yet despite an abundance of good options, the issue still remains that plastic containers are entrenched in our society. We rely on them the safely cart goods from place-to-place, to maintain hygiene standards. Some disabled people especially still rely on the unique characteristics of this type of packaging. In the face of this, it becomes important that what little plastic we do rely on, is made well. More importantly, it must be made eco-consciously. Reinventing our production systems is the next horizon for young professionals like myself. Ensuring that we study from the past to ensure that we still have a future, engineering methods of work that maintain high Green standards. This looks like water-conscious methods, recycling (so that it does not end up in the ocean), and toxin awareness.

The earth and the many bounties it provides is perhaps humanity’s greatest gift. We all, collectively, must strive to protect it. Our past overconsumption and lack of care with plastics has created a serious issue that threatens our very existence. We must take this threat seriously, reinventing the way we live if we want to solve these issues. Reducing plastic waste in the world’s oceans will never be a one-size-fits-all project. Rather, a multi-pronged approach is essential. We must all work in tandem to regulate plastics, reuse our packaging, control its disposal through careful recycling, and the reinvention of our supply chain. All in all, this is an environmental issue we must face together.

Essay by: Cybella Maffitt
Columbia University

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