People use straws, plastic bags, and fishing nets for minutes or hours, yet when they're discarded, these plastic products can wreak havoc on the environment for hundreds of years.
Humans currently go through plastic products at an alarming rate — at least 300 million tons of it per year. This yearly output poses a threat to the environment, especially the oceans, adding to the more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic that are already in them. Plastic harms marine life from coral reef to turtles and poses a threat to human health as it moves through the food chain.
Plastic pollution is a man-made problem, and it's one humans that may be able to fix if everyone does their part to reduce individual consumption, push for government regulation, and demand that businesses cut back on plastic production.
This year, cities, businesses, and citizens made serious strides to reduce single-use plastics, clean up land and ocean ecosystems, and repurpose plastic waste.
These are some of the highlights in the fight against plastic in 2018.
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1. US Cities Took Action to Ban Plastic Straws
Seattle became the first major US city to ban single-use plastic straws in July and several other cities across the country are following suit. For example, San Francisco took serious steps to ban plastic straws this year, and an ordinance is underway to make them illegal in the city by July 2019. New York City, Miami Beach, along with smaller cities in California and Hawaii also made strides in the fight against plastic, with legislation in the works.
While banning plastic straws is not a fix-all solution to the plastic crisis, it shows that cities and municipalities are actively using their regulatory power to protect the environment. Considering that Americans use up to 390 million plastic straws every day — enough to fill more than 100 school buses — banning them could have a significant impact on on our waste production.
These efforts in the US come as the UK also announced a new plan eliminate straws and other single-use plastics. So far, the country has had success implementing a tax, which has driven plastic bag sales down by 86%.
2. Airlines Announce They Will Ban Single-use Plastics
As cities across the US and around the world work on legislation to ban single-use plastics, airlines are also stepping up to the plate. Major airlines — Alaska, American, and Delta — all made pledges to reduce their plastic footprint.
Alaska went through 22 million single-use plastic straws and citrus picks last year, but will stop serving both items this summer after an inspiring plea from a 16-year old girl scout. As an alternative, the company will provide ocean-friendly straws upon request and will replace citrus picks with stir sticks made from birch and bamboo.
Determined to eliminate more than 70,000 pounds of plastic each year, American Airlines will no longer offer single-use straws or stirrers in its airport lounges and aboard planes.
Delta, the latest airline to join the anti-plastic movement, is phasing out plastic straws, utensils, stirrers, and wrapping. Taking such action could avert 300,000 pounds of plastic waste each year.
Alaska Airlines has just become the first American airline to ban single-use plastic straws, citrus picks, and stirring sticks on all flights and in its lounges. #breakfreefromplastic#plasticaintpretty#crushplastic— The Formary (@TheFormary) May 26, 2018
3. Chile Approves a Nationwide Ban on Plastic Bags
Chile became the first country in the Americas to ban plastic bags when the country's president Sebastian Piñerasigned the legislation into law on June 1. The plastic crisis has had a visible impact in Santiago, where people use 62.2 million single-use bags each year, while a trash island the size of Mexico forms along its coast. Chile is joining countries like Kenya and Morocco that previously eliminated plastic bags.
Read More: Chile Approves Total Ban on Plastic Bags
4. India Announces Plan to Ban All Single-use Plastics
India's Prime Minister announced a plan to ban all single-use plastics by 2022 in June, one of the most ambitious moves in the fight against plastic to date. With one of the fastest growing economies in the world and the second largest population, India's involvement in reducing single-use plastics is essential. Recycling is already an important part of the cultural norm in the country. Indians throw away a whopping 15,342 tonnes of plastic waste every day and 60% of it is recycled or reused, mostly in the informal sector. The remaining plastic is left to pollute the streets, damage soil, and harm animals. In junction with these community-based efforts to recycle plastic, formal waste management infrastructure, could be a game changer for reducing plastic pollution moving forward.
Since India's announcement in June, more countries around the world have vowed to cut back on single-use plastics. Jamaica is at the forefront of this effort. The small island country announced in September that it will ban styrofoam, plastic bags, and plastic straws beginning in January 2019.
5. Nonprofit Leads Effort to Clean Up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
A giant, U-shaped garbage collector set sail from San Francisco in September and a major effort to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a trash island that is three times the size of France and contains 80,000 tons of plastic — is now underway. The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch nonprofit organization, designed Ocean Cleanup System 001 to capture plastic while allowing sea life to swim safely underneath.
If it works as planned, the contraption could be a game-changer in the fight against plastic pollution. System 001 may only make a small dent in the massive trash island but when the group deploys a full fleet of 60 garbage collectors, it anticipates that 50% of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch could be removed every five years.
A recap of the last four weeks in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. pic.twitter.com/9RuHKYVzc6— The Ocean Cleanup (@TheOceanCleanup) November 21, 2018
6. Corporations Take Action on Plastic
McDonalds and Starbucks were among the corporations who stepped up this year to reduce their plastic footprints. McDonalds plans to remove all plastic straws from more than 1,300 locations in the UK and Ireland by 2019. Soon after, Starbucks announced it will be phasing out plastic straws at all its stores by 2020 — a move that could eliminate 1 billion straws from the global supply chain every year.
Following Ocean Cleanup's efforts in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, SodaStream, an Israel-based company that makes home carbonation machines and soda-making products, launched its own plastic-cleaning contraption into the ocean in October. The Holy Turtle — a 1,000-foot long floating contraption resembling a large pool noodle — was deployed off the coast of Roatan, Honduras to catch floating plastic in the Caribbean. The initiative was one of the first of its kind undertaken by a commercial company and SodaStream sets a powerful precedent for businesses taking action in the fight against plastic.
We're removing plastic straws in our stores globally by 2020—reducing more than 1 billion plastic straws per year from our stores.— Starbucks Coffee (@Starbucks) July 9, 2018
7. Communities Around the World Find Innovative Ways to Curb Plastic Pollution
Beach Cleaning Day saw record-breaking turnout in Norway this year. More than 45,000 people picked up litter in an inspiring show of support for the environment. Community engagement, especially at this scale, can have a major impact in reducing plastic pollution.
But for those living in poverty, cleaning up ocean plastic not only alleviates pollution, it can also create economic opportunities. Communities around the world are turning the problem of plastic waste into an opportunity for recycling and innovation. By using litter to create roads, fisherman are simultaneously tackling the need for local infrastructural and cleaning nearby water bodies. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, people have also found inventive ways to repurpose plastic, transforming discarded fishing nets into carpets.
In the Philippines and India, cleaning up ocean plastic is addressing the major problem of ghost gear — unattended plastic nets, lines, and traps used for fishing which make up 10% of the plastic in the ocean and is cause far more damage to underwater ecosystems than plastic straws. Community-based efforts to clean up and repurpose lost fishing nets, like the one undertaken by these communities must be met with policy that hold the fishing industry accountable for where their gear ends up.
In New Orleans, meanwhile, hundreds of kids attended the first ever ocean plastic bootcamp, which focused on youth leadership in the anti-plastic movement and eliminating single-use straws. The kids were equipped with the tools and knowledge to fight plastic pollution and be environmental heros in their day to day lives.