Top 5 causes of plastic pollution

Top 5 causes of plastic pollution

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Garbage Beach

Plastic pollution has been a growing problem for many years, but recently it has become a big news topic. You have probably seen ads for reusable straws and substitutes for plastic wrap and plastic bottles. You’ve read articles about islands of plastic in the ocean, and seen photos of turtles grown grotesquely out of shape because of rope or plastic rings and bags.

Plastic rings on turtle

There are many causes of plastic pollution. Many sources to be blamed for the terrible mess in the ocean and around the world. The 5 Gyres Institute spent 2 years conducting research to create a list of the top 20 causes of plastic pollution. If you’d like all the details, just read their 34-page report called the B.A.N. List 2.0

Yeah, I agree, that’s a pretty long report, but it has a lot of great information in it. They list the top 20 sources of plastic pollution as well as the materials they are made up of and even the top brands.

Here, I will create a shorter, more condensed list, based on the data collected by the 5 Gyres Institute, of the top 5 causes of plastic pollution.

Let’s do this countdown style.

#5 Plastic Bags – 9.4%

Plastic Shopping Bags

Plastics bags are a widely known cause of litter and pollution. But did you know that production of plastic bags consumes up to 8% of the world’s oil as well? That’s about 14 bags for a mile’s worth of gasoline.

In the US alone over 380 billion disposable bags are used each year. Globally, it is estimated to be 500 billion to 1 trillion bags.

In case you were wondering, 380 billion bags would equal something like 27 billion miles worth of fuel.

Plastic bags have a very simple solution. Reusable bags are very popular these days and can often be obtained for free. The hard part is remembering to use them. Took me a while to get in the habit, but I started keeping them in the car or carrying some with me to the store if I was on foot or bike.

Edit: one reader in the comments mentioned storing some bags in your most used purse/bag – great idea!!

When you forget your reusable bags, and wind up with plastic ones, make sure to save them for later recycling or at least reuse them so they can get more life than the average estimate of 14 minutes.

Other solutions include biodegradable plastic bags like the edible bags shown here:

And the compostable Ziploc bags pictured here:Compostable Ziploc

#4 Plastic Lids & Straws – 12.6%

Plastic straws and lids are used by millions of people every day. They are not often recyclable, so they wind up in trash cans. The real problem is that they don’t often stay in the trash. Due to their lightness, the wind blows these easily away and into the water system.

I know what you’re thinking: you tie your trash bags closed so the wind can’t get them.

But how long does it take for the plastic bags to tear open? Just the ride in the garbage truck could be enough for the bags to break open and spill their contents. Then the wind picks them up and takes them out into the world and water.

Trash from to-go cups

Lids and straws, particularly straws, are so commonplace that the use of them has become an ingrained habit for most of us. I have made an effort to stop all use of straws, but just the other day I was at a restaurant when the server put a straw down next to my glass of water. Without thinking, I picked it up, opened it and put it in my water.

I looked down and there it was! I barely even remember doing it, it was just an automatic response. I was definitely irritated with myself, but I also realize that mistakes happen. It was a good reminder to myself not to judge others too harshly for their own use of straws. It’s just too easy to use them when you were raised with them in nearly every drink.

Disposable straw pollutionThis is probably one of the harder habits to change. People love their straws. They are pervasive in our fast food culture.

My preferred alternative, atm, is the FinalStraw. It’s a reusable, stainless steel straw that collapses and fits into a keychain. It’s highly portable and it even comes with a cleaning tool.

My biggest concern with reusable straws is keeping them clean. So I love that this one comes with a squeegee for cleaning. Additionally, the straw has soft silicon at its ends, so you won’t chip your teeth on the metal. Perfect!

#3 Takeout Food Containers & Disposable Utensils – 12.9%

Polystyrene foam containersIn this category, I am including takeout containers, both foam, and plastic, as well as plastic utensils and plates. The 5 Gyres Institute classifies these all separately, but I find I often use them together. And since I usually can’t pick if a restaurant gives me foam or plastic, I don’t see any reason to quibble over the difference. From a day-to-day use standpoint, these go together.

So, what’s the big problem with disposable utensils, and food containers? Well, if they are plastic or polystyrene foam (aka Styrofoam) they have many of the same issues as straws and lids. They are lightweight and blow out of proper disposal containers and areas, into the waterways. They also have another issue, are made using oil and many synthetic chemicals. I’m guessing you’d rather not be eating along with your dinner-on-the-go.

BTW if you microwave your leftovers in these containers you can bet those chemicals will start leaching out (same with many of your standard reusable plastic containers). Worse yet, some chemicals could be released by heat or even just acidity of a food. That fresh cup of coffee in a foam mug isn’t sounding so hot now, is it?

Disposable Cups

While doing my research for this article, I happened upon a site that was defending the use of polystyrene, and I thought, “Fair enough, let’s give both sides some representation!” Unfortunately, they did not make any arguments that I found particularly compelling. They did point out that their own brand, Genpak, is not manufactured with the chemical BPA, which is a plus.

BPA has been public enemy #1 for many years now and it seems that a large portion of manufacturers that make plastic products no longer use this particular chemical. One of their other arguments is that while polystyrene is a small percentage of the plastics that are generally counted in pollution and landfill estimates. They argue that polystyrene is only 1% by weight of the plastics being counted. Considering how very lightweight foam containers are, that’s actually saying a lot!! Read the Genpak article yourself to make an informed decision.

Many cities in the US have already banned the use of polystyrene to some extent.

US Foam Ban Map

Thankfully, many food service providers have started using biodegradable containers, either paper or compostable plastics, rather than the previously popular polystyrene or Styrofoam containers.

So what about the plastic utensils? I mean other than the wind and pollution thing…

Well, it turns out that a lot of plastic cutlery is actually made from polystyrene. (I did not see that coming.) So it’s bad for all the same reasons as the foam. So, of course, are the plastic plates that we all like to use at picnics and parties.

Reasons to avoid using any of these products.

  • Plastics use precious fossil fuels in production.
  • Plastic/foam often contain chemicals that leach out into your food/beverage, or into the water supply.
  • Many plastics used for food consumption and most foams cannot be recycled.
  • Lightweight plastics and foams often escape waste receptacles and get into the water systems.
  • Fish and wildlife often consume bits of foam and get sick or die.
  • Plastics also contribute to air pollutionUtensils in the Caribbean

All of that sucks, so what can we do about it?

The best solution is to replace the disposable items with reusable ones. This can be easier said than done.

  • The easiest replacement to start with is a coffee mug, bring one with you wherever you go. Some places even offer a discount if you bring your own.
  • You can also bring your own containers to a restaurant for leftovers. For most people, this one might seem a little awkward, but if you’re truly committed it is not unreasonable.
  • I personally bring silverware to work and keep it at my desk to use when I need it. Not the good stuff mind you, but I have a couple of camping/travel sets that I keep at work and I wash them in the sink in the bathroom.

If you can’t muster the courage to bring your own reusable items with you, the next best option is compostable. The next time you plan a party, get compostable cutlery, plates, and cups. If there is a cafeteria at work, urge them to switch to compostable. Do the same at your favorite restaurant.

And think carefully before you take the disposable silverware offered with your takeout. Do you really need it? Can you use regular silverware when you get home? Can you eat with your fingers instead?

The decisions are yours to make.

#2 Food Wrappers – 18.6%junk food wrappers

By now, you might be sick of hearing about plastic being produced using fossil fuels. But, seriously, wouldn’t you rather use the petroleum to say, heat your home, or take a day trip to some beautiful, pristine landscape to enjoy the ambiance?

I couldn’t find any specific stats about the amount of oil dedicated each year to plastic food wrappers, but if you recall from earlier that plastic bags use an estimated 27 billion miles worth of fuel, and then think about the fact that plastic bags make up only 8% of the plastic waste, while food wrappers account for 18.6%… well that is more than double the potential fuel costs.

Plastic food wrappers can be made from many kinds of plastic, with different fillers, additives and chemicals. They tend to be lightweight as well and will fly away with the wind off to their watery resting place.

Unfortunately, they won’t actually die there, they’ll just break down into microscopic pieces and get eaten by the local wildlife.

What are the alternatives?

  • Buy in bulk and separate into smaller, reusable containers for smaller portions. (Psst…this will also save you money)
  • Buy products that come in alternative packaging such as paper, Tetra Pak or bioplastics.
  • Encourage your local grocer to offer more product that comes in environmentally friendly packaging.

And now, the #1 cause of plastic pollution.

Drum roll please …

#1 Bottles and Bottle Caps – 28.7%

The 5 Gyres Institute split the bottle caps from the bottles themselves. I am combining them here because they are used in concert with each other. I mean, do you ever throw away (or hopefully recycle) a bottle but not the cap? Probably not very often.

Bottled soft drinks, sports drinks, and water have become ubiquitous in our society. Much like straws, people are simply in the habit of buying 20oz bottles of whatever drink they prefer. I have ranted at length about bottled water here and here, so I won’t go into what a waste of money that is right now. (But it really is a huge waste of money.)

Instead, let’s consider the soft drink market and what options we have there.

First, we should compare 20 oz bottles to 2L

A 20oz Coke, found on CVS.com costs $2.09, or 10.4¢ per ounce. Meanwhile, a 2L bottle of Coke, found on the same page, costs just $2.27, or 3.4¢ per ounce. So the smaller bottle costs more than three times (3x) the amount per ounce as the larger size bottle.

After cost, we should think about plastic.

According to one source, a 20oz Coke bottle uses approximately 28g of plastic for the bottle and 1.8g for the cap.

From the same source (for sake of consistency), the 2L bottle uses about 54g of plastic for the bottle and 2.6 for the cap.

So the 2L uses roughly twice as much plastic as the smaller 20oz bottle but holds more than three times (3x) the amount of beverage.

So the cost savings and plastic savings are there to support buying in larger quantities. But that isn’t really the best possible solution.

Another solution would be to buy canned soft drinks instead of bottled. Aluminum is far more recyclable than plastic after all. But this is still not the best solution since many cans will still be packaged in plastic.

My last recommendation on this point at this point is that is, if you simply must have a soft drink, invest in something like a Soda Stream. These, or other similar tools, will let you make your drinks at home. They do still use plastic, yes, but you will reuse the plastic many times before it eventually makes its way into the system and, yes, probably the waterways.

For your health and pocketbook, I would recommend cutting soft drinks out of your diet, but that isn’t what this blog is about.

The ultimate solution to plastic bottle pollution is reusable glass or aluminum bottles. I have been using refillable bottles for years now and I absolutely love them!! You can even bring empty bottles into places like event and sporting venues or airports and then fill them up at the water fountain, rather than paying outrageous prices for bottled water or other drinks while you enjoy the show or get where you are going.

Reusable Bottles

Reduce your plastic consumption

I hope this blog has helped you to understand where all this plastic is coming from, and maybe even what you can do to make a positive impact on the situation.

What tips do you have for reducing plastic use? Post them in the comments below!

If you’d like to know more about what is going on in the oceans and how people are working to clean it up, check out my blog about plastic pollution in the ocean.

If you have any other questions or ideas, I’d love to hear them! Please leave them in the comments below.

Reduce Plastic Bottles Now

I am a writer, editor and avid reader. I also happen to be trying to save the world, one little step at a time. I look forward to providing quick and easy steps you can take to make your life a little greener!!

8 Replies to “Top 5 causes of plastic pollution”

  1. Hey Kat:

    Thanks for your comprehensive overview of the problem with plastic. I do appreciate the effort you are making to get the lot of us to get greener.

    Since I live in Hawaii, we’ve got a lot of concerns about the effect plastic pollution is having on the ocean and the lives of sea creatures.

    The effects of many educational campaigns and assorted citizen initiatives have been changing things slowly, slowly.

    Much of it is habit, as you say, and one does have to develop a lifestyle around living greener.

    A lot of it, as well, are the choices made by businesses that use plastic packaging. At least some of these businesses are getting greener as well…mostly because their customers are going green. Yay, us!

    (Don’t know what we can do about the Pacific gyre and the masses of plastic floating around out there….)

    1. Yay, us, indeed! One idea to help businesses go greener is to leave a card at restaurants asking them only to give straws when someone asks for them.

      There are a number of projects dedicated to cleaning up the ocean. 4ocean.com. But unless we stop dumping more into the oceans, they’ll never get the job done!

      Thanks for joining the conversation!!

  2. Thank you so much for making one rethink there day to day activities , I use to use reusable grocery bags before I bought my car I will be placing them in my car . I do believe they only way to slow this pollution down is to make it against the law to use anything but paper and glass , remember the good old days when you took your cola bottles back to the store for spare change, need to go back to the things that count . I do reuse my plastic bags for trash as that is what they are thank you for sharing a great cause.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Terri. 

      I think reusing a plastic bag for trash is a good way to get a little extra life out of it. ALso, I have read about machines that you can get a refund from by insterting your empty bottles, but I thingk they are only in use in Europe. Maybe we’ll get those here soon, but still better to just use glass, like you said!

  3. I work in retail and it amazes me the amount of plastic and polystyrene that products are packaged in. All of it goes straight to landfill and there is no one that takes it as recycling. Its used in everything and even the small plastic beads used in some types facial scrubs are a huge problem. Like you say theres a massive amount of energy being used to make these wasteful products.

    1. Ugh, yeah those little beads are terrible. They go right down that drain and get eaten by small animals and fish, who are then eaten by larger animals and fish and eventually we eat them. Gross. And when there are so many alternatives using natural ingredients like crushed shells or even ground seeds or coffee beans, most of which have their own added benefits, why even bother with the plastic!?

  4. Hi there,

    Thank you creating this great content about plastic pollution really great work much appreciated:)

    We definitely need to take better care of our precious planet.

    Really loved the video on edible bags. I never knew that something like that excisted, this is so good for taking better care of our special planet and its edible as well really amazing love it:)

    Thanks again for your time and effort:)

    1. It is fun to see some of the innovative solutions that people come up with! Thanks adding your thoughts to the conversation.

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