The real impact of plastics on humans, animals, and the environment and how you can help

Read time: 9 min

If you try to come up with a list of single-use plastics, it’s not very difficult: Straws, pre-packaged foods, and shopping bags are just a few of the everyday plastic items destined to be thrown out after one use. Plenty of us toss plastics into the trash and recycling bins and think nothing of where products will end up because we’ve done our part.

…Right?

Well, it turns out that only about nine percent of all plastic waste is actually recycled, according to a 2017 study published in Science Advances. The cost to sort, clean, and recycle used plastic is more expensive than creating new plastic, an extensive NPR and PBS Frontline investigation found, and most companies have decided that it is more economically sound to put a majority of plastic into landfills and bury it. But as landfills are packed to the brim and plastics are produced at an exponential rate, we’re running out of places for it to go, and more and more ends up in the environment. “[Plastic pollution] is a big issue because it’s everywhere,” says Zuleyma S., a third-year student at the Metropolitan State University of Denver in Colorado. “It’s suffocating our environment little by little every single day.”

plastic pollution on beach | how to reduce single use plastic at home

Impact of plastics on the environment

We’ve established that plastics are harmful, but what exactly makes them bad? For starters, they’re created by burning fossil fuels (such as coal and natural gas). This results in greenhouse gases being released, which is directly linked to global warming and climate change, as numerous studies have shown. Even amid a global pandemic, the need to address climate change is great, as a 2020 study published in Environmental Sciences Europe indicated. Disposable masks, gloves, and cleaning supplies are being used more frequently to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, but this also means these single-use plastics are accumulating at a higher rate. 

The primary challenge with plastics is how they are disposed of. “If plastic waste leaks into the environment, it can impact ecosystem services [such as plants filtering air and water or food being gathered from the ocean] for up to 400 years,” says Dr. Kevin Dooley, a professor of supply chain management at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Instead of breaking down, plastics are weathered by sunlight and waves into microplastics (pieces less than five millimeters in length), according to a 2021 study in the Water Environment Research journal. The same study outlines how microplastics are small enough to be ingested by marine life, resulting in behavior changes and death caused by a buildup of microplastics in the system.

Plastic is responsible for millions of animal deaths each year, according to National Geographic. Most often, animals become tangled in plastic, leading to their deaths, or the indigestible plastic in their stomachs reduces the urge to eat, resulting in starvation. A 2016 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America even found that microplastic consumption impacted the reproductive habits of oysters, resulting in fewer offspring.

microplastics close up | how to reduce single use plastic at home

Effects of plastics on humans

But the cycle doesn’t stop there. As the food chain continues and humans fish for marine life to consume, microplastics make their way back to us; for example, a 2021 study published in Environmental International found the first evidence of microplastics within the human placenta. On a broader scale, pollution causes millions of premature deaths every year, according to a 2020 study in Annals of Global Health. While this takes all sorts of pollution into consideration, the study points out that governments and the general public don’t recognize the seriousness of ocean pollution specifically.

Researchers found that climate change tends to have a negative impact, both directly and indirectly, on mental health, according to a review of literature published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2021. This can be due to traumatic experiences related to climate change, such as surviving a natural disaster, or systems that impact mental health, such as poverty or infrastructure that prevents someone from having easy access to air conditioning during an intense heatwave.

What can you do to help?

It might seem overwhelming to think about the major impact everyday plastics have on the planet, but the good news is there are small steps you can take (starting today!) to make a difference. Begin by thinking about the single-use plastics you use on a daily basis. Are there alternatives that are healthier for the environment and also won’t break the bank?

Here are a few ideas to help you get started.

Use sustainable drinkware

reusable water bottle icon | how to reduce single use plastic at homePlastic water bottles and to-go drinks are one of the most common single-use plastics that we can eliminate. Purchasing a glass or metal water bottle and making use of water bottle refill stations or drinking out of the tap where it’s safe is an easy step toward minimizing waste. When visiting restaurants or fast-food locations, ask if they’ll let you use your own cup.

Bring your own utensils and bags

Reusable bag icon | how to reduce single use plastic at home

Phasing out plastic straws has been a hot topic for some time; while we’re at it, why not stop using all plastic cutlery? Before going out to eat or ordering takeout, grab a portable set of bamboo utensils (you can buy them online for about $10) and let the restaurant know you don’t need any plastic cutlery. Most sets include reusable straws, meaning you can do away with those as well.

Be sure to also bring your reusable tote bags instead of opting for plastic bags from stores. Oftentimes, you can get these free at school or community events, farmer’s markets, and other places that offer swag.

Minimize plastics in the bathroom

Toothbrush icon | how to reduce single use plastic at homeAlthough they’re not disposed of immediately after one use, products that are packaged in plastic like toothpaste, shampoo, and conditioner still fall into the single-use plastics category since they don’t have an additional purpose. Innovative companies like Etee have developed zero-waste toothpaste, body wash, and even cleaning products. Complete your environmentally friendly set with a bamboo toothbrush and reusable body scrubbers, and you can go through your entire morning routine knowing that you’re helping to keep plastics out of the environment!

Another option, specifically for people who are menstruating, is to replace pads and tampons with menstrual cups. These sanitary alternatives are reusable, making menstrual hygiene a breeze and plastic free. Keep in mind that menstrual cups might not work for everyone who menstruates; other alternatives include reusable or eco-friendly pads, applicator-free tampons, or menstrual underwear. If you have any questions, be sure to reach out to a medical professional.

Make use of reusable kitchen products

Kitchen brush cleaning pan icon | how to reduce single use plastic at home

Cleanliness efforts and a fear of cross contamination often keep people from using reusable products in the kitchen, but there are plenty of small changes you can make without risking mishandling food. Beeswax baggies and food wrap are excellent alternatives to plastic bags and cling wrap. A quick hand wash and air-dry in between uses means you’ll always have these alternatives on hand. Dish scrubbers made from coconut and timber, and dish soap that comes in biodegradable packaging are other great additions.

Advocate for policy change

Vote box icon | how to reduce single use plastic at homeSometimes the most important action we can take is voting for the best candidate for change. Ahead of elections, research candidates’ stances on climate change, environmental preservation, and clean energy. Use your vote to get people into office who agree with your perspective and ideas.

If you have the capacity and the passion, join campaign efforts or run for local government positions yourself. Student government might present the opportunity to implement green initiatives on campus, or perhaps there’s an environment preservation committee at work that could use your ideas.

You can also show financial and social support for organizations that are doing work to combat climate change, such as World Wildlife Fund or the #GenerationRestoration project through the United Nations Environment Programme. Staying in the know about environmental topics and spreading awareness is an excellent way to support causes without any financial burden.

Be kind to the planet, and to yourself

Earth icon with a heart | how to reduce single use plastic at home

Taking steps toward reducing your plastic waste is important, but keep in mind that we’ve built our society around easy access to plastic-based products, and so it’s OK if these changes take time. Start small in a way that feels accessible: “The easiest thing to do is start with one thing,” says Sara C., a first-year student at Central Wyoming College in Riverton. “Replace your K-Cups for a reusable one, bring a reusable bag [to the grocery store], buy a portable silicone straw for your keychain. Every swap is worth it!” The goal of reducing plastic waste isn’t to create another stressor for yourself but rather to breathe a little easier knowing you’re doing your part to protect the planet.

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Article sources

Kevin Dooley, PhD, professor of supply chain management, Arizona State University, Tempe.

Charlson, F., Ali, S., Benmarhnia, T., Pearl, M., et al. (2021). Climate change and mental health: A scoping review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(9), 4486. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18094486

Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R., & Law, K. L. (2017, July 09). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances, 3(7). https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1700782

Klingelhöfer, D., Müller, R., Braun, M., Brüggmann, D., et al. (2020). Climate change: Does international research fulfill global demands and necessities? Environmental Sciences Europe, 32(1), 137. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12302-020-00419-1 

Landrigan, P. J., Stegeman, J. J., Fleming, L. E., Allemand, D., et al. (2020). Human health and ocean pollution. Annals of Global Health, 86(1), 151. https://doi.org/10.5334/aogh.2831

Lv, L., Yan, X., Feng, L., Jiang, S., et al. (2021, January). Challenge for the detection of microplastics in the environment. Water Environment Research, 93(1), 5–15. https://doi.org/10.1002/wer.1281

Parker, L. (2019, June 7). The world’s plastic pollution crisis explained. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/plastic-pollution

Ragusa, A., Svelato, A., Santacroce, C., Catalano, P., et al. (2021, January). Plasticenta: First evidence of microplastics in human placenta. Environmental International, 146. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2020.106274

Sussarellu, R., Suquet, M., Thomas, Y., Lambert, C., et al. (2016, March). Oyster reproduction is affected by exposure to polystyrene microplastics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(9), 2430–2435. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1519019113 

United States Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Sources of greenhouse gas emissions. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions