Single-use plastics are one of the leading contributors to mass pollution and environmental issues. Plastics in the environment pose considerable threats to wildlife, both on land and in the ocean. Plastic bags are consumed by sea turtles and dolphins, confusing them to be jellyfish. They break up into fragments, rather than decompose, and are easily spread by the wind. Some also contain harmful chemicals and toxins, which are ingested by tiny organisms, which are eaten by bigger marine life, which later ends up in the food chain for humans too.
The popularity of plastic has boomed in the last decade due to its beneficial properties. It is cheap to manufacture, lightweight and can serve multiple purposes. The production of plastic continues to skyrocket and we are unable to manage to the waste generated from this resource. Plastic packaging accounts for more than half of all plastic waste worldwide. The material can take up to a thousand years to decompose completely. Plastic bags block waterways, choke small marine animals and can cause further transmissions of vector-borne diseases. Styrofoam products contain harmful toxins that, if ingested, damage the nervous systems and organs. Plastic litter is costly to tourism, fishing, and shipping industries.
Plastic isn’t the problem. It’s what we do with it. And that means the onus is on us to be far smarter in how we use this miracle material – Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment
A recent study by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that 90% of bottled water from popular brands contained tiny pieces of plastic. An average of 325 plastic particles for every liter of water being sold was found in 259 bottles analyzed across 19 locations. The most common type found was polypropylene – used to make bottle caps. These small particles are called microplastics and are a result of plastic breaking up into smaller fragments.
It is still unsure what the effects of microplastics in water will have on human health. However, it is an emerging area of concern and one that is likely to cause even more upstir in the near future. The good news is that governments and activists are becoming more aware of this pressing issue, and are taking steps to reduce the damage caused by plastic. You and I can get involved too, in our daily lives, in fighting pollution and waste.
The most common single-use plastics found in the environment are, in order of magnitude, cigarette butts, plastic drinking bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, other types of plastic bags, and foam take-away containers. These are the waste products of a throwaway culture that treats plastic as a disposable material rather than a valuable resource to be harnessed.
What is being done by the government and countries internationally?
Humans are responsible for the creation of plastic, and consequently, its mismanagement and waste. Nature is not engineered to digest this product, and as a result, we’ve seen widespread contamination of ecological systems and species. The damage is evident and widely circulated on social media. We have to act now to prevent even worse implications from this pollution. Now is the time to reduce unnecessary usage. Dispose of plastic wisely and switch to more environmentally-friendly alternatives.
There’s a joke …that in South Africa, there are so many plastic bags littering the environment that many joke that plastic bags are “the new national flower”
Around 60 countries have put in place bans and levies that restrict the use and manufacturing of certain plastics. Straws, for example, are quickly being replaced by paper ones. This trend is popular in fast food chains and other big food retailers. Shopping bags are no longer provided for free, and consumers need to pay a small price if they wish to use them. The Chinese government announced that they will ban the importing of eight types of plastic scraps. In South Africa, Germany and Japan, manufacturers embrace the culture of recycling used PET bottles. Furthermore, in South Africa, recycling waste has created jobs and business opportunities. Last year, Tunisia, banned all production and distribution of single-use bags.
What can I do to prevent contributing to waste and ocean pollution?
- Ditch the disposable coffee cup for a travel mug
As somebody myself who can’t function without caffeine, I have invested in a travel mug. Instead of burning through several single-use, disposable coffee cups every week, I now give the barista my travel mug. Some coffee shops even charge you less per a coffee if you use a travel mug. So if you’re one of those who pull into the local cafe on the way to work to grab that crucial cappuccino, consider bringing along a travel mug. Another great option would be to sit down and drink the coffee there. So, consider asking for your drink to be served in a mug.
- Bring your own grocery bag
Rather than asking for a single-use shopping bag when out buying groceries, bring along a cotton or reusable grocery bag. Most convenient stores have these available at checkout. Grocery bags are not only sturdier, removing any worry of a plastic bag ripping, but they can be reused at home for a variety of other purposes.
- Skip the straw
Straws suck! Unless the beverage absolutely requires a straw to drink it, consider just sipping on the can or out the bottle. You could give it a quick wipe if concerned about germs, or decant it into a glass to drink. Plastic straws are one of the most common pollutants in the ocean. Rather ask if they have paper straws.
- Raise awareness to those around you.
A quick Google search will provide you with dozens of convenient ways to be more environmentally conscious. Also, if you want more solutions read here. Share what you know with others and encourage them to cut down on their usage.
Organizations that are fighting plastic and helping to save our oceans
Here is a list of causes, clubs, organizations, and societies around the world working to reduce pollution, stop single-use plastics and saving our oceans and wildlife:
- Plastic Pollution Coalition – a growing alliance focused on making the world free from plastic. The organization comprises more than 700 groups of businesses and thought leaders. Want to join the coalition? Sign up here:
- Clear Blue Sea – A highly-motivated group focused on cleaning the ocean of plastic pollution. Through educational outreach and technological developments, they hope to ensure the survival of marine ecosystems.
- 5 Gyres – a nonprofit organization focusing on empowering action against the global health crisis of pollution through science, education, and adventure.
- Friends of the Earth are part of an international community dedicated to protecting the natural world. Ultimately, they lead campaigns and provide resources to the public in the hope of finding real solutions to environmental problems.
- WWF – The World Wildlife Fund aims at protecting marine and wildlife around the world.
- The Orca Foundation – is part of a volunteer community dedicated to marine conservation in South Africa, and like many conservation projects depends on the willingness of others to contribute their time and dedication to furthering the volunteer and conservation ethics that go hand in hand for a better future.
- African Marine Waste Network – Serves the oceans and people of Africa through their network.
Further reading and resources:
UN’s environment research paper on single-use products –
Orb Media’s research on bottled water –
Evidence that waste is accumulating in the ocean –