The Problem with Plastic

In Chapter Six of Laudato Si, Pope Francis talks about avoiding plastic:

Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic…

Many aspects of our lives are dependent on the use of plastic. Most of the food we purchase is wrapped in plastic. And our leftovers are often stored in plastic bags and containers. The cords we plug into the wall, and the things that attach to those cords are frequently plastic or made primarily of plastic. Our toothpaste tubes, ketchup bottles, sponges, cosmetics, baby bottles, shower curtains, mattresses, cups, power tools, garbage cans, laptops, and automobiles are usually plastic or made up of plastic parts. Most medical equipment, containers, and devices are primarily plastic. And let’s not forget that many synthetic fabrics are essentially plastic too.

It’s no mere coincidence that the word plastic also can mean “phony,” because the overuse of plastic crowds out natural fabrics and substances and comes with a significant price tag. Plastic exacts a heavy carbon footprint, especially for single-use plastics that are used once and then thrown away. 

Plastic is manufactured from oil and uses a large amount of energy in the process. Furthermore, plastic waste is a major ingredient in our landfills and our oceans. But the story doesn’t end there. That landfill plastic slowly breaks down, becomes microplastics, and enters our water tables and our oceans and the food systems via the tiny sea creatures who consume those microscopic plastic particles and then who are consumed by larger sea creatures and the fish that ends up in our diet.

But it’s not just microplastics that are wreaking havoc to ecosystems. Recently, an article from the Washington Post profiled a massive die off of hermit crabs on islands in the South Pacific caused by the crabs mistaking plastic trash for shells. And we’ve all read about birds being regularly strangled by plastic six-pack rings.

Plastic enters our bodies through the aforementioned microplastics, but also via utensils, bottles, cups, and containers we use to consume food and beverages. BPA plastic is surprisingly still quite prevalent in our food system, lining most of the cans in our grocery stores. 

Reducing the use of plastics has numerous advantages: less plastic means lower greenhouse gases, less environmental waste, less chance to entangle birds and other animals, less toxins in the food chain, and less toxins in our bodies and the bodies of our children. Yes, despite its convenience, our planet and the life on it would benefit from far less plastic. 

Next week, we will talk about how to reduce our exposure to plastics.

Working together, we can help take care of our common home.

Paul Litwin

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