Plastic Waste: A Planetary Problem

Plastic is everywhere. It’s in bags and bottles, cups and computers, toothbrushes and toys. It is an indispensable material that makes countless products lighter, more affordable and easier to use.

But the abundance of plastic in today’s world is causing problems for the environment. In a new report, the United Nations estimates that plastic from the consumer goods industry alone results in “natural capital costs” (i.e., negative impacts on natural resources and the environment) of $75 billion (U.S.) per year. 

Among the major problems: Plastic waste is filling up the world’s landfills (and contributing to landfills’ production of greenhouse gases) at an astonishing rate. And when it ends up as litter, plastic waste contributes to wildlife poisoning, entanglement and death, not to mention unsightly vistas of trash-strewn roads, waterways and parks. 

The world’s oceans are filled with hundreds of millions of pounds of plastic waste. Even worse, recent studies show that much of the plastic debris in the oceans is being consumed by plankton-eating fish.

A key step toward addressing the plastic waste problem is simply to throw away less of it. This means choosing reusable materials whenever possible, and doing a better job recycling. Currently, the recycling rate for plastic is very low, despite the fact that recycled plastic can be turned into a wide variety of products, including park benches, decking, shoes and rugs, to name a few. 

In addition, industry has numerous options for reducing the use and improper disposal of plastics. The United Nations and organizations like the Ocean Recovery Alliance are encouraging industry to begin measuring and reporting how much plastic they produce and recover as a first step to reducing plastic pollution.  

Everybody can play a part in reducing the negative impact of plastic waste on the environment.  Here are a few things you can do:

  • If you work for an organization or a business that uses single-use plastic products, explore other options that will limit plastic waste. 
  • Choose reusable materials over plastic products. That includes using reusable shopping bags and skipping throwaway forks and spoons. (Use washable silverware instead.)
  • Remember to recycle your plastic properly.  Whenever possible, keep it out of your landfill-bound trash, and find out if your recycling facility accepts plastic bags (many do not).

Plastic is an essential material in many products. But it’s just as essential that we address the waste problem by making the right choices about using — and disposing of — plastic goods. To learn more waste reduction tips, visit the Make an Impact page.