Photograph by Chris Jordan, Director of "Albatross"

The Plastic Problem

It lasts for years, but not where it’s supposed to.

Recently, Starbucks announced an initiative to eliminate plastic straws globally by 2020. Although straws are made with recyclable material, their small size allows them to fall through spaces in conveyer belts at recycling facilities and hence be thrown away.

The problem is, straws have essentially shifted the focus away from the much bigger picture. Eliminating them from restaurants, coffee shops, and homes is a step towards progress. Here’s why it’s still not enough.

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Kendonganan Beach, Indonesia. Photo by Putu Sayoga.

“Given they are such a tiny fraction of the overall market, we cannot stop at straws. We need to rethink the entire plastics industry.”-Rob Opsomer of Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Straws are a small part of a much larger issue.

Between 1950 and 2015, over 8 billion metric tons of plastic had been created by man. A single metric ton is equivalent to 2,204.6 pounds, and if converted to lego pieces, the mass is enough to cover the earth’s surface 16 times.

Thus far, over 6 billion metric tons have already been thrown out. Straws are only a tiny part of that figure.

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Photograph by Justin Hoffman.

Single use products are the problem.

In the United States, only 9% of plastics are recycled. Although recycling can be a good alternative to throwing single use products away, it still takes tons of energy to complete the process. Not to mention, if recycled products still contain any food residue when they arrive at the plant, thousands of other recycled items can be sent to landfill due to contamination. The best solution is to decrease personal plastic usage overall.

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Photograph by Alex Mustard, Marine Conservation Society.

Compostable items only work when properly composted. They will not break down in landfills or recycling facilities. 

Compostable products seem like a great alternative to regular plastic cups. They’ve starting promoting Eco Products Compostable Cups on my own campus as a green initiative.

What most people don’t know is that these cups must go to a composting facility to properly break down.

The reason? The materials used in compostable products can contaminate recycled products, meaning that they are rejected and sent to the landfill. In a capped landfill, they are unable to compost because the facilities lack the oxygen and the microorganisms required to allow decomposition.

For reference: Green bins are for composting. Blue are for recycling.

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Photograph by Evan Schneider, United Nations.

What we’re facing. 

Lots of plastic going to landfills. While this alone is a big issue on its own, the large volume of trash making its way into the natural environment is worse.

An infamous example is the Pacific Garbage Patch. Located south of the Hawaiian islands, this giant slew of trash has been photodegraded into billions of tiny pieces. In fact, researchers estimate that 750,000 microplastic pieces are present per square kilometer of the patch.

These pieces are difficult if not impossible to remove and are killing over a million marine animals every year.

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NOAA beach clean up in Hawaii.

Some solutions. 

Simply – ditch the single use plastics whenever possible. Most stores and shops will give you a discount for bringing your own bags or mug (Target, Starbucks, etc.). Most reusable bags last over 200 times as long as plastic bags.

Be sure to recycle and compost when you do use plastics. Make sure you rinse any food residue off first.

Be educated about what can and can’t be recycled. Remember that all cities are different, and that what may be recycled in one place may not be accepted in another.

Participate in a clean up or pick up trash if you see it. Even throwing it away is a better option than leaving it to escape into the environment.


“The gyres are 40% of the world ocean — one third of the planet. But these areas are not part of any exclusive economic zone, they are not used for the shipment of goods, they are not harvested for marine resources, and their welfare is no one’s concern … I’m convinced we haven’t scraped the surface of the damage being done.” – Captain Charles J. Moore

All information was taken from memory, education, or from external sources listed in the article or below. Sources below also include valuable sites and information

The plastic plague: Can our oceans be saved from environmental ruin?

We suck at recycling straws—so maybe we should ban them

From Trash to Cash: Old Landfills Yield New Opportunities

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