Plastic-Free July is often touted as a month for individuals to prioritize reducing and refusing single-use plastic in their everyday lives, which is an admirable effort whether it’s July or January.
But have you ever tried to avoid plastic for even one day? It can be impossible to rid our daily routines of one of our planet’s greatest threats.
Imagine your morning. You head to the bathroom, where you use plastic-packaged shampoo, conditioner and face wash. Maybe you reach for your plastic-packaged beauty products. That’s all before breakfast, which might include your plastic bottle of “OJ” and hot tea (even your teabag is likely made of plastic).
Some companies are paving the way with innovative solutions like shampoo bars, toothpaste tablets, reusable food storage bags and more. However, the majority of the products Americans buy are still encased in plastic that we toss after only a few minutes, weeks or at most months of use — and that’s because the companies producing most of our products have spent the past few decades blaming the plastic pollution problem on the consumer as they increase their use of plastic packaging.
So, while individuals should refuse single-use plastic and find sustainable alternatives wherever possible, let’s make this Plastic-Free July about affecting change in other ways — including shifting the pressure to companies and policymakers.
First, educate yourself on the problem. Roughly 17.6 billion pounds of plastic enter the ocean every year — imagine a garbage truck full of plastic being dumped into the sea every minute — and that’s expected to double by 2025. Plastic has now been found everywhere, including in the most unexpected places: Arctic sea ice, the Mariana Trench, air in the remotest of mountains, rain in our national parks and our food, including honey, salt, water and beer.
The problem lies in the throwaway culture that the industry created in the 1950s with the introduction of disposable plastic products. Today, nearly 40 percent of the plastic produced annually is for single-use plastics and, unsurprisingly, that’s what we’re seeing on our beaches too. Plastic food wrappers, beverage bottles, bottle caps, grocery bags and straws consistently make the top 10 list of trash commonly found polluting our coastlines.
Given these facts, unnecessary single-use plastics are a logical starting point for change. Companies aren’t currently giving us the option to avoid plastic — but you, the consumer, deserve that choice.
The majority of companies have proven time and time again that they’re not interested in reducing the amount of plastic products they pump into the market. Instead, they’ve pointed to recycling as the panacea to the plastic pollution crisis, despite the fact that only 9 percent of the plastic waste ever generated has been recycled.
Policies regulating single-use plastic are long overdo. Thankfully, comprehensive federal legislation has been introduced in the U.S. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act is the first-ever congressional bill to stop plastic pollution at the source by reducing the production and use of single-use plastic, and it holds companies accountable for their plastic waste. Many U.S. cities, counties and states are also taking action, implementing bans on certain single-use plastic items, like bags or foam takeout food containers.
Despite what the plastics industry wants us to believe, consumers alone cannot reverse the plastic pollution crisis. To effectively turn the tide on this global threat, companies need to break free from plastic and provide us with plastic-free versions of the products we depend on each day. And it’s imperative that we continue to advance local, state and federal policies that ensure they do so. This Plastic-Free July, let’s make sure that message is heard.
Christy Leavitt is the plastics campaign director at Oceana, the largest international organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation.