Plastic was invented to make our lives better. But our dependence on it has created an environmental crisis. Can we reduce our use before it's too late?
Beep! Beep! Beep! The alarm on your cell phone shakes you from sleep. You stumble to the shower, dress, brush your teeth, and run a comb through your hair. There's just enough time to grab a cereal bar and a bottle of orange juice before the school bus rolls down your block. Throwing your binder, folders, and a bag of chips into your backpack, you race out the door.
You've been awake for barely an hour, but you've already used or touched plastic dozens of times. The material is a big part of our lives. It's in everything from electronics and food packaging to medical devices and airplanes. Most plastic is human-made, produced using oil and other fossil fuels.
What makes plastic so popular? Unlike natural materials such as wood and glass, plastic is lightweight. It's also cheap and durable.
But the very qualities that make plastic so useful to us also make it incredibly dangerous to the environment. Plastic doesn't just go away. Instead, it breaks down into very small pieces over time. And those pieces will stick around for hundreds or perhaps even thousands of years.
For decades, people have sipped from plastic straws and toted groceries in plastic bags without a second thought. And all that plastic--much of it used only once--has added up. Worldwide, we've produced a staggering 9.2 billion tons of plastic since the 1950s. (Think of it this way: One of the heaviest statues in the United States, the Statue of Liberty, weighs 225 tons.)
Where does all our discarded plastic go?
Only a small amount of it is ever recycled. Much of the rest ends up in the ocean, threatening the lives of the creatures that live there.
The problem is massive--and projected to get worse. "The amount of plastic produced is growing more and more rapidly," warns Ted Siegler, a global waste management expert. By 2050, it's estimated that we'll have created 13 billion tons of plastic waste.
That's why, around the globe, individuals, companies, and even entire countries are working to reduce their plastic usage. But will those efforts be enough?
The Rise of "Throwaway Living"
Synthetic, or human-made, plastic was invented in the early 1900s, but production started to soar during World War II (1939-1945). Natural materials were in short supply during the war, so people turned to plastic to help construct lightweight planes, parachutes, and supplies.
Because plastic was cheap and plentiful, manufacturers continued to use it after the war. Production really ramped up when companies began to make household goods--such as plates, cups, and utensils--with plastic. The items were marketed as disposable and a way to save precious time.
A 1955 Life magazine article tided "Throwaway Living" celebrated the plastic revolution. The piece shows a smiling family tossing plastic plates and utensils into the air. The article notes that those items would typically take hours to wash and dry after use but that now "no housewife need bother." People could make their lives easier by simply throwing out their family's plasticware after every meal.
In many ways, plastic has made our lives easier. More importantly, the material actually saves lives every day. Plastic is in car seat belts and airbags, in the helmets that firefighters and soldiers wear, and in the incubators that help keep premature babies alive.
Such products are designed to last for years. But about 40 percent of all plastic produced is meant to be used just once, then thrown away. Items like the sandwich bags that hold your lunch, the ketchup packets at your favorite fast-food restaurant, and the packaging of just about anything you buy online are driving up the amount of plastic waste we produce.
It's the plastic we use once and toss away, experts say, that is putting the environment in crisis.
Asia's Trash Problem
In your town, workers probably pick up garbage regularly and cart it off to landfills. But imagine if the trash in your neighborhood was never collected. All that garbage would pile up.
In some countries--particularly certain island nations in Asia--that's a fact of life. They don't have reliable trash collection or properly maintained landfills. Instead, people leave their garbage in heaps on the ground or dump it into local waterways, where it eventually is swept out to sea. Experts estimate that 9 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans each year.
To make matters worse, people in these largely poor Asian nations have started using more single-serve packets of things like condiments, detergent, and shampoo. Many of them can't afford to buy bigger sizes. All that nonrecyclable plastic packaging only adds to the problem.
In the Philippines, for example, some rivers are now so clogged with trash that people can hop across the water on piles of discarded plastic rather than crossing by bridge.
How Plastic Kills
When plastic waste ends up in the ocean, the results are often tragic. Earlier this year, rescuers found a sick pilot whale near the shore of southern Thailand. It couldn't swim. In fact, it could hardly breathe.
Later, as veterinarians tended to the animal, it vomited five plastic grocery bags. The whale died shortly after. Tests eventually revealed that it had more than 17 pounds of plastic in its stomach, including another 80 or so plastic bags.
That's just one example of how plastic can be deadly to animals. Nearly 700 ocean species--from zooplankton and fish to sea turtles and dolphins--have been harmed by plastic. That damage ranges from eating it to getting stuck in it. For example, some animals get trapped in plastic six-pack drink holders. Others, including many bird species, suffocate inside plastic grocery bags.
And, of course, many sea creatures--like the pilot whale--eat plastic. In the ocean, sunlight, waves, and heat often break down plastic into pieces tinier than a pinkie fingernail. Those bits, called microplastics, become coated with algae over time. That makes them smell like food to many animals.
Some sea creatures are fooled into thinking microplastics are real food. They stuff themselves with it, to the point that they don't have room in their stomachs for any actual food. They die from starvation as a result.
Eating plastic hurts animals in other ways too. The toxins in the plastic can seriously affect their behavior and digestion, and the ecosystem as a whole, says Matthew Savoca. He is a scientist who studies the effects of plastic on marine life.
"It affects not just the individual animals that eat plastic, but the animals that eat those animals," he says.
Putting Plastic in Its Place
Many people are trying to help solve the world's plastic crisis. In the United States, for example, plastic grocery bags are now banned or taxed in some cities, including Seattle and Washington, D.C. And there is a nationwide movement to encourage people to stop using so many plastic drinking straws. Some countries are taking even bolder steps (see "How Countries Are Cutting Down on Plastic, "p. 11).
Global companies including Starbucks and Hilton Hotels recently announced plans to reduce or eliminate their use of plastic straws. And earlier this year, Alaska Airlines switched from plastic stirrers to paper ones on its flights, thanks in part to one teen's letter (see sidebar, p. 9).
What's more, last December the U.S. and 192 other countries passed the United Nations Clean Seas agreement. The pact is a formal declaration of those countries' intent to stop polluting the oceans with plastic waste.
Experts say such steps are promising--as long as the efforts ultimately include funding and the manpower to help developing countries manage their plastic trash.
"We need to develop waste-collection systems around the world that are capable of managing the waste that is being generated," Siegler says. "That's really the key issue."
Individuals also have an important role to play (see "What You Can Do,"p. 10). Experts advise focusing on plastic meant for one-time use. Either reuse those items or avoid buying them in the first place, they say.
"When I was a kid, Ziploc bags were a single-use item," Savoca says. Now when he and his family use plastic bags, they treat them like Tupperware. "We wash them and reuse them and don't get rid of them until they're practically destroyed. If more people do things like that, it would make a difference."
"I want the next generation to grow up caring about nature."
As an aquarium volunteer, Shelby O'Neil, 17, learned firsthand how plastic can endanger marine life. So she did something about it.
I've always loved the ocean. In seventh grade, I started volunteering at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. I was really upset to learn that many sea animals eat plastic trash, thinking it's food.
I decided to do something to educate people about this problem. In 2017,1 founded Jr Ocean Guardians as part of my work with the Girl Scouts. We hold presentations at schools to teach kids about plastic waste.
I wanted to reach businesses too. I decided if I learned of a company that used a lot of plastic, I'd send it an email urging it to cut back. What's the worst that could happen if they don't respond? I thought.
One day, I saw a commercial for a health-care company. People in the ad were using plastic straws. I googled the contact info of the company and emailed its president. In my message, I told him how plastic can harm the environment. I asked him to consider using more sustainable options.
I was so excited when he wrote back! He said he had been thinking about reducing plastic waste. After reading my letter, he made sure the company cut its use of plastic straws, drink stirrers, and cup lids in half.
I kept going. Whenever I heard of businesses using plastic, I'd send an email. One of the biggest companies I emailed was Alaska Airlines. A company representative wrote back and told me the airline was switching from plastic to paper stirrers on all of its 1,200 daily flights.
I always tell people: Everyone can make a change. Look for small things you can do because they add up.
by Shelby O'Neil, as told to Nell Durfee
What You Can Do
Experts say the key to solving our plastic waste crisis is to simply use less of the stuff in the first place. Here are some easy ways to do that.
SAY NO TO STRAWS
Americans throw out 500 million plastic straws every day. Opt for paper or reusable metal straws--or skip them altogether.
PASS ON PLASTIC BAGS
Take reusable shopping bags with you to the store. You'll help cut down on the 1 trillion plastic bags that are used around the world each year.
Nearly 1 million plastic beverage bottles are sold every minute around the world. Sip from a reusable drinking bottle instead.
PAY ATTENTION TO PACKAGING
Encourage your parents to buy products such as bar soap and boxed laundry detergent instead of versions of those items that come in plastic bottles.
448 MILLION Tons of plastic produced globally in 2015
SOURCE: National Geographic
18% Percentage of plastic that is recycled around the world
SOURCE: National Geographic
How Countries Are Cutting Down on Plastic
Here are a few of the many countries taking big steps to reduce different types of plastic waste.
THE U.S. AND CANADA
By the end of this year, the U.S. and Canada will have banned cosmetics that include microbeads. (Those are tiny plastic beads that act as skin exfoliants.)
Earlier this year, Chile became the first South American nation to ban businesses from using plastic grocery bags. Violators could face fines of nearly $400.
In April, the nation announced plans to ban all one-time-use plastics, including cotton swabs and straws, as early as 2019.
Taiwan has declared that it's on track to eliminate all one-time-use plasticincluding utensils, cups, straws, and bags-by 2030.
In 2017, this country banned take-out food containers made of polystyrene foam. That is a type of plastic that produces toxic chemicals when burned with other trash.
1. Which country banned a type of take-out container?
2. What will be banned in the United States and Canada by the end of this year?
3. Which country was responsible for the most plastic in the ocean in 2010?
4. Which ocean borders most of Chile?
5. How much plastic ocean waste came from the Philippines in 2010?
6. Which labeled countries are south of the equator?
7. How much could businesses in Chile be fined for using plastic grocery bags?
8. Which labeled countries plan to ban plastic straws?
9. What does Taiwan plan to do by 2030?
10. Which country was responsible for twice as much plastic waste in the ocean in 2010 as Sri Lanka?
Where Most Ocean Plastic Comes From In 2010, half of the world's mismanaged plastic waste came from five nations. This graph shows how much waste from each of those nations ended up in the oceans. China 3.89 Indonesia 1.42 Philippines 0.83 Vietnam 0.80 Sri Lanka 0.71 SOURCE: Statista Amount of Plastic in the Ocean From Each Country in 2010 (in tons) Note: Table made from bar graph.
Featured Skill; Argument Writing
How Plastic Is Trashing the Planet
Plastic was invented to make our lives better. But our dependence on it has created an environmental crisis. Can we reduce our use before it's too late?
* Use this article to spark a discussion on the ways people affect the environment
* Incorporate this piece into a lesson about the current challenges facing the world's oceans
* Reinforce knowledge of continents and oceans with our map-reading activity.
* Include this article in a lesson on how young people can effect change
RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.6, RI.6-8.7, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.2, SL.6-8.5, W.6-8.1, W.6-8.2, W.6-8.7
1 STUDENT ENGAGEMENT
Write the word plastic on the board and ask students to share words that come to mind, especially adjectives describing the material. Ask: What types of objects are made out of plastic? How is the material useful? What could be some disadvantages of plastic?
2 PREVIEW VOCABULARY
Review the definitions of some of the challenging vocabulary words and phrases in the article, including discarded, durable, fossil fuels, synthetic, and toxins.
Read & Analyze
3 INDEPENDENT READING
Have students read the article on their own, writing down any comments or questions.
4 CLOSE-READING QUESTIONS
Have students write their answers to each question, or use these prompts to guide a discussion.
* EXPLICIT INFORMATION: How much plastic has been produced worldwide since the 1950s? How much was produced in 2015?
(People have produced 9.2 billion tons of plastic worldwide since the 1950s. In 2015, the world produced 448 million tons.)
* SUMMARIZING: How does most plastic waste end up in the ocean, according to the article?
(Some people leave plastic trash on the ground or dump it into local waterways, where it is eventually swept out to sea.)
CAUSE AND EFFECT: What is a main reason garbage is left on the ground or dumped into waterways in some countries?
(Certain countries do not have reliable trash collection or properly maintained landfills, so garbage piles up.)
* COMPARE AND CONTRAST: How does the view of plastic in the 1955 Life magazine article "Throwaway Living" compare with the view of plastic offered by this JS article?
(The Life magazine article celebrates plastic as a way to make people's lives easier. The JS article also talks about the ways plastic has improved people's lives, but it focuses more on the problems caused by plastic waste--including that it can take thousands of years to break down and that much of it ends up in oceans, where it threatens marine life.)
CENTRAL IDEA: What role do plastic items that are used once play in the global plastic waste problem?
(Plastic objects that are meant to be used only once--such as sandwich bags, grocery bags, and single-serve condiment packets--are a growing part of the plastic we throw away. Since those objects are typically used only one time, people tend to go through many of them. That increases the amount of plastic that ends up being discarded.)
CLOSE READING: What are the two main ways plastic can harm-and even kill-sea creatures?
(Sea creatures can get trapped or tangled in plastic waste. They can also end up eating plastic waste, which can make them sick or cause them to starve.)
AUTHOR'S PURPOSE: Why might the author have included the example of the pilot whale?
(Possible answers include: to emphasize how serious the problem of plastic waste is; to give an example of an animal that ate plastic waste and died; to show that even large sea creatures are affected by plastic waste.)
Extend & Assess
5 ARGUMENT WRITING
As a class, read the sidebar on p. 9 about teen activist Shelby O'Neil. Then assign the skills sheet Argument Writing: Your Letter Could Help Change the World! (p. T-10). Encourage students to type and send their finished letters.
6 PAIRED TEXT/CLASS DEBATE
Have students read "Should There Be a Fee for Plastic Bags?" in the archives at junior.scholastic .com. Then have them list the pros and cons of plastic bag fees and debate the topic as a class, citing evidence from both articles.
7 ASSESS COMPREHENSION
Find out how well students understood the article by assigning the skills sheet Test Prep: Know the NewsHow Plastic Is Trashing the Planet (p. T-9).
8 CITE TEXTUAL EVIDENCE
Have students work alone or with a partner to complete the skills sheet Citing Textual Evidence: The Plastic Problem (p. T-ll). Then go over the answers as a class.
9 WATCH A VIDEO
Show students the video "Trash Talk: Marine Debris" at junior.scholastic.com. Ask: How is watching a video about the problem different from reading an article about it?
10 RESEARCH/WRITING PROMPT
Have students research and write a report on an P ocean creature, such as a sea turtle or a type of seabird, that is affected by plastic waste. The report should include how the creature is affected and what, if anything, can be done to help it.
Lower Level Have students brainstorm additional ways people can use less plastic. Then have them create posters of their tips to inspire others to act accordingly.
Higher Level Have students research what another country is doing to reduce its plastic waste, then have them write a short essay about what they learned.
* Available online
* Trash Talk: Marine Debris
* Test Prep: Know the News--How Plastic Is Trashing the Planet (p. T-9)
* Argument Writing: Your Letter Could Help Change the World! (p. T-10)
* Citing Textual Evidence: The Plastic Problem (p. T-11)
* Quiz Wizard (p. T-16)
HOW COUNTRIES ARE CUTTING DOWN ON PLASTIC, P. 11
2. cosmetics that include microbeads
4. Pacific Ocean 5.0.83 tons
6. Chile, Zimbabwe
7. nearly $400
8. Taiwan, United Kingdom
9. eliminate all one-time-use plastic, including utensils, cups, straws, and bags
WRITE ABOUT IT!
What are some obstacles to reducing plastic pollution? Cite evidence from the text.
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
Caption: A father and son in Manila, Philippines, paddle through a river; full of plastic and other trash searching for bottles to sell.
Caption: In a 1955 photo from Life magazine, a family celebrates the convenience of single-use plastics.
Caption: Scientists studying the Pacific Ocean found all this plastic trash inside the stomach of a sea turtle, similar to the one pictured below.
Caption: A stork trapped in a plastic bag at a landfill in Spain. The photographer freed the bird after taking this picture.