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About Plastics: What I've Learned from My Assignment | By Sarah Klose

30 Apr 2024 10:55 PM | Laura Stigler (Administrator)

Sometimes a work assignment makes you reflect, and causes you to consider the bigger picture. Nature, people, animals, the food supply, the earth.

While working on a produce packaging assignment, I was asked to inquire about sustainability efforts. The companies that create fruit and vegetable packaging told me they’re using less plastic, or recycled plastic, or recyclable-friendly plastic. This is being driven by consumer/retailer demand and current/future environmental regulations.

As I conducted further research, I found myself overwhelmed by facts about plastics. Soon I was in the territory of Chicago Daily News columnist Sydney J. Harris, who wrote an occasional feature called, “Things I Learned En Route to Looking Up Other Things.” 

In the spirit of that recurring Sydney J. Harris column, here is what I learned:

  • 430 million tons of plastic are produced each year. 
  • One-third of it is single-use plastic.
  • Of the plastic that is produced, 9% is recycled, 19% is incinerated, and 72% is in landfills or the environment.
  • In the U.S., about 5% of plastic is recycled (partly due to infrastructure challenges).
  • Plastic that is not reused or recycled, breaks apart to form microplastics. 
  • Microplastics are plastic pieces less than 5 mm long - about the size of a pencil eraser.
  • Microplastics make their way into our fish, meat, tofu, fruit, vegetables, and get into our drinking water, blood and organs.
  • 22 million pounds of plastic debris enter the Great Lakes each year. 
  • Humans consume a credit card-sized amount of tiny plastics each week

On April 20, Earth Day, I realized it’s time to make personal changes. After all, this year’s theme is “Planet vs. Plastics,” and the goal is a 60% reduction in production of all plastics by 2040. While I don’t produce plastics, I do consume them. Why not consume less?

So I’m now buying peanut butter and salad dressing in glass jars (not plastic). I’m mixing frozen orange juice with water in a glass pitcher, like my mother once did. I’ll make my own iced tea (rather than buy huge plastic bottles of it), and switch to cat litter in cardboard containers (rather than big green plastic jugs). And although I long for berries in the green pulp cartons from my childhood, those plastic clamshells seem ubiquitous (except at summer farmers markets). 

This writing assignment definitely made me think about our planet. While I don’t plan to revert to “Little House on the Prairie” living, I’ll aim to buy paper, cardboard or glass packages — instead of plastic. Thanks to the facts I discovered, I am inspired to do so. #

-- Sarah Klose

Further reading:

MIT Technology Review, October 12, 2023. “Think that your plastic is being recycled? Think again.”

Chicago Tribune, April 28, 2024. “86% of Great Lakes litter is plastic, a 20-year study shows. And the plastic is 'just getting smaller and smaller.’“ (need subscription to read article)

Earth Day website

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