Strawless SMEA, Part IV: 5 Myths of Our Plastic Pollution Problem

By Kelly Martin

As the world becomes increasingly aware of our massive ocean plastic problem, more and more people seem to be on board with ditching their plastic products. Plastic bag bans are becoming common around the world and campaigns like “Go Topless” and “Strawless Ocean” have been successful in discouraging the use of plastic tops and straws for our beverages. Despite this increased awareness, a lot of misconceptions remain surrounding the issue of plastic in our oceans. In honor of No Straw November, we’re here to break down some of the most common misconceptions about plastic straws and plastic waste.

Photo by Leah Kelley

1. “As long as I dispose of my straw properly, it won’t end up in the ocean”

Anyone with an internet connection has probably seen this video of researchers excruciatingly pulling a plastic straw out of a sea turtle’s nose. This graphic demonstration of the extent of our plastic problem has acted as a rallying cry all over the world as people move to decrease the use of plastic products, particularly plastic straws. But if I use a straw and make sure to dispose of it properly, there’s no way it will end up in a sea turtle’s nose, right? Wrong.

While it might seem like you can use a straw or other piece of plastic guilt-free as long as you don’t litter, due to “mismanaged waste” this is anything but true. Mismanaged waste, as defined in this 2015 study, includes both littering as the obvious source of plastic pollution and  the silent killer: waste that is disposed of correctly but finds its way to the ocean anyway. There are many  ways the plastic straw that you put in a garbage can could end up in the ocean. It could fall out of a garbage bin, fly out of the back of a dump truck, or blowout of a landfill for example. That same study estimated that anywhere from 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of mismanaged waste made its way into the ocean in 2010. So even though it is always important to dispose of your trash properly, the best way to ensure plastic won’t end up in the oceans is to stop using it.

Photo by Lynn Grevling

2. “If I just recycle my plastic waste, it won’t harm the environment”

You’ve most likely heard the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” at some point in your life, but have you ever thought about the order in which those actions are usually listed? There is a reason “recycle” comes last, as it should really only be used as a last resort. It is estimated that only 6.5% of the 33.6 million tons of plastic we use in the United States each year is recycled. However, those numbers aren’t just a result of humans not recycling enough; many types of plastic can’t be recycled, and it’s often not clear what’s recyclable and what’s not. If recyclable waste is contaminated with non-recyclable products, it could all end up getting sent to a landfill.

In response to these issues, many organizations like the Plastic Pollution Coalition are encouraging the addition of a fourth “R” to that famous saying: refuse. Before anything else, you should do your best to refuse plastic. Then whatever plastic products you can’t do without, you should try to reduce your usage, and if possible, reuse the plastic components. If none of those options are possible, recycling is the next best option, but it is certainly not the real solution to our plastic woes.

Photo by Kelly Martin

3. “At least plastic pollution in the ocean isn’t harming me”

It might seem like the ocean plastic problem is a distant issue that doesn’t impact humans, but there could be serious human health implications. When large pieces of plastic end up in the ocean, they don’t stay that way for long. With exposure to sun and saltwater over time, large pieces of plastic break down into smaller and smaller pieces, until they become what are known as “microplastics”. Also floating in the ocean are chemicals, such as pesticides, known as “persistent organic pollutants” or “POPs”. These POPs are repelled by water, so they attach to anything floating in the water—like microplastics. A recent study found that up to 80% of the plastic debris in the North Pacific Gyre had traces of some form of POP.

How does this get back to humans? Studies have found that to many fish, these microplastics can look deceivingly like their favorite food source: plankton. Once microplastics are consumed by smaller fish, those fish are consumed by larger fish, and so on up the food chain until that mahi-mahi filet on your plate is potentially contaminated with harmful chemicals. So next time you’re about to buy a bottled water, think about if that plastic is really worth potentially giving up your favorite seafood.

Photo by Roman Pohorecki

4. “If I’ve stopped using plastic bags, bottles, utensils, etc. then I’ve kicked my plastic addiction”

With increased awareness of our massive plastic pollution problem, many people are making changes in their daily lives to reduce plastic usage. Reusable water bottles, cloth grocery bags, mesh produce bags, and metal straws are some of the many products you can use to cut down on plastic in your life. If you’ve taken these steps already then you’re doing great, but these major sources of plastic waste are not the only items to be aware of.

Unfortunately, your favorite fleece sweatshirt could be a major source of microplastics in the ocean. A study by Patagonia found that fleece and other synthetic materials used to make clothing can shed hundreds of thousands of microfibers over their lifetime, most of which end up in the ocean as they are too small to get filtered out at water treatment plants. Microbeads found in many hygiene and cosmetic products are also a common source of plastic pollution. Fortunately, the United States has moved to ban microbeads in all products by 2019. Another source of plastic pollution has a funny name, but a not-so-funny impact on the environment: nurdles. Nurdles are tiny plastic beads that are melted down to form larger plastic products. Spills during transportation or mishandling during production can cause many of these plastic particles to end up in the ocean. So while making changes to reduce your plastic usage is a step in the right direction, learning more about these hidden sources of plastic can greatly reduce your impact.

5. “What’s the big deal, there’s not that much plastic in the ocean”

The oceans cover almost three-quarters of our planet, so how much plastic can really be out there? As it turns out, a whole lot. Studies estimate that an average of 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean every single year, and according to the World Economic Forum there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. It’s difficult to envision what millions of tons of plastic really looks like, so here are some comparisons to put it in perspective. If you consider the 8 million tons of plastic entering the ocean each year, that’s the equivalent of 5 plastic grocery bags full of plastic for every foot of shoreline worldwide (there are over 1 billion feet of coastline worldwide). Still having trouble wrapping your head around it? Then consider this: 8 million tons of plastic is the equivalent of dumping an entire garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute. These numbers can be intimidating, but hopefully they inspire a radical change in the way we view plastic products. Even a small change in your daily life, such as refusing a plastic straw, can make a big difference.