You can’t typically see it from a boat or via satellite. But floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is a manmade formation, twice the size of the continental United States. And for the past 50 years, it’s been growing fast. A sub-surface garbage patch consisting of bits of decomposing plastic debris bobs through the water column drawn together by the ocean’s circling currents.
Fish and fowl mistake the tiny plastic bits for food. The toxins from this waste travel up the food chain as small fish are eaten by larger ones. The result: seabirds, including hundreds of thousands of albatross chicks, die each year. Over a third of north Pacific fish tested by scientists were found to have plastic in their stomachs. There are five of these ever-accumulating morasses in the world’s oceans, scientists say, and 90% of the floating debris is plastic waste.
These are problems that begin on shore, and there are some simple steps that can help each of us reduce our personal impact. By avoiding products that come in disposable packaging, we can cut this waste stream dramatically.
Here are five ways to get started:
1) Switch to a reusable water bottle.
Nearly three million tons of plastic are used worldwide on disposable water bottles each year. In the U.S., nearly 80% of these single-use containers fail to make it to the recycling bin. But there’s an easy fix: Start carrying your own with you. A stainless steel bottle, like the BPA-free, stainless steel Kleen Kanteen or Pura will pay for itself in no time and last forever. Adding an insulated sleeve lets your metal bottle do double duty, replacing those disposable coffee cups as well—important when Americans throw away 25 billion Styrofoam coffee cups each year.
2) Bring your own shopping bags.
Every year, we throw away between 500 billion and one trillion disposable plastic bags worldwide—more than one million bags every single minute. These single-serving ecological nightmares may take more than 1,000 years to break down, according to scientists. But they are also entirely avoidable. If advance planning isn’t your forte, ChicoBag makes tiny stuffable reusable bags that can be tucked into purses or pockets or stowed in other bags until you need them. Or check out EcoBags for any number of totes, bags and baskets to suit your style. If all else fails, many stores allow you to return the disposable plastic bags you’ve used so that they can be recycled rather than landfilled.
3) Look for unpackaged consumer goods.
When it comes to disposable packaging, some companies have heard the message loud and clear: We’re not interested. When that’s not an option, look for goods in cardboard or easily recycled glass instead of plastic. Opt for the paper egg carton and skip the Styrofoam and plastic. Who needs liquid soap in plastic bottles when bar soap and powdered laundry detergent come in cardboard? These simple choices aren’t just important because plastic takes so long to break down. The sad fact is that 93% of plastics in the U.S. aren’t destined to be recycled—instead, they’re landfill-bound.
4) Cook with fresh foods.
If you can avoid processed foods, often wrapped in several layers of disposable packaging, you’ll feel better, and not just because you’ve helped the environment. Your health will benefit, too
Double down by purchasing fresh foods in bulk, which can help you save between 30% and 60% versus prepackaged foods, according to Portland, Oregon’s Bulk Is Green Council. Not only do manufacturers need to buy the raw materials for that packaging, but they also spend enormous sums on advertising and design—and then pass those costs on to you.
5) If you can’t avoid packaging, recycle it!
As the well-worn mantra goes: reduce, reuse, recycle. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that roughly 75% of waste is recyclable but only a third actually makes it to the right bin. In other words: There’s plenty of room for improvement.
With a small amount of effort and planning, we can do away with much of our daily disposables. Roughly 75% of solid waste worldwide is residential. And nearly a third of the trash American households throw out each day comes from disposable containers and packaging.
Simply cutting down on our use of disposable packaging can dramatically slow the waste stream flowing from our households to the curbside, and ultimately to landfills and the world’s oceans.