Planet or Plastic?

jocelyn GO Box News


Credit: National Geographic

Trash is having a moment. Specifically, trash made from plastic. National Geographic opened the cover feature in the June issue with the statement: “We made it. We depend on it. We’re drowning in it.” As it suggests, our relationship with plastic is complex. Developed in the mid-1880s the first plastics were made to replace ivory from elephant tusks. By the early 20th century, chemists discovered that they could use petroleum to produce plastics. Today, all of the plastics produced in the U.S. are made with byproducts of natural gas processing or from crude oil refineries.

Plastic has been touted as a miracle invention – it’s cheap to make and easy to use as a raw material and so its used to make a lot of stuff. Plastics have revolutionized modern medicine, it’s found in every plane and car, helps keep food fresher and delivers safe drinking water to folks with no other option. But the largest market for plastics today? Packaging. 161 million tons of plastic packaging was produced in 2015. And packaging has the shortest lifespan of any other plastic product – on average, only six months. Much plastic packaging has a super short useful life, for example, the ubiquitous plastic bag has a 15 minute working life.  And then what happens?


Nearly half of all the plastic that is thrown away is plastic packaging. Plastic packaging almost never gets recycled or incinerated. Instead, it’s trucked to the landfill and dumped into the pit where it will sit, exposed to the elements, for up to 500 years. Or it may blow away on the wind and end up floating in a river, lake or ocean. Regardless of where it ends up, plastic does not fully biodegrade but will slowly breakdown into smaller pieces, called microplastics. As it does, it leaks chemical pollutants into our soils, then into our groundwater and, eventually, our oceans. Both the chemical pollutants and microplastic particles have significantly detrimental impacts on our natural environment.

Recycling has long been the default effort to taking environmentally friendly action against plastic waste, but it’s not the solution to our growing problem – the stats suggest that most plastic waste never makes it into the recycling bin. On the other hand, lots of stuff that isn’t recyclable is often added the recycling bin. Known as “wishful recycling,” this actually contaminates the true recyclables and causes the whole batch to have to be trashed instead. This contamination is why China stopped purchasing our recyclables last year, throwing our recycling and waste industries into a tailspin. Recyclable waste which had been sold to China for a profit is now worth no more than garbage – and it’s likely that much of the stuff we place in our recycling bins are ending up in the same place that garbage goes.


So now what? Life is busy, but we want to do right by the planet. Awareness is step one (thanks for reading!). Step two is to choose an action item that you can commit to developing into a habit. Here are the “Six Things You Can Do (And Feel No Pain)” that National Geographic suggests as part of its Planet or Plastic campaign. If you’re a GO Box subscriber, you’re already making a huge difference by avoiding single use disposable plastic containers! If you haven’t yet joined the GO Box community, consider giving a monthly subscription a try as a step toward giving up plastic packaging without giving up delicious, freshly prepared takeout! Whatever action you take, it matters. As a fellow earthling, thanks for choosing planet.