Local choices, global impacts

Sustainable alternatives to daily plastic consumption

Pushes for sustainable alternatives are vital in the fight for sustainability in the era of anthropogenic climate change and increasing global inequality. Recycling and finding more sustainable options in our consumer practices are often touted as the solution to problems of plastic pollution in the oceans or contaminated waterways. But many of these solutions are short-sighted; a closer look into what actually happens to our recycled plastics beyond the bin will prove that the most sustainable choice when choosing plastics is none at all.

Images of plastic-covered beaches, small coastal communities entrenched in plastic waste and pollution and wildlife entangled in the waste of human practices often haunt the realm of environmental studies texts. Something that is crucial to understand, however, is that most nations faced with these issues firsthand do not produce the majority of it. 

Countries like United States that consume massive amounts of plastic per capita have a tendency to outsource many of the “dirty” steps involved in recycling processes and waste management as a whole. We are one of the highest global producers of plastic waste, with around 0.7 lbs of trash produced daily per person. Specific data shows that we produce around 40 million tons of plastic waste per year as a nation. While some of this gets recycled and reused, we as a country do not invest a proportional amount on domestic waste management, and therefore, much of our plastic goes overseas for recycling and processing. 

Prior to 2018, China received about 45% of the planet’s plastic waste to be recycled since 1992. However, the overwhelming amount of plastic caused inevitable mismanagement and displacement, with much ending up in landfills or in waterways. Now Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand are gearing up to do the same in order to prevent becoming more global dumping grounds. With these new bans in place, many Western waste management groups have scrambled to find alternatives, blaming these eastern countries for limiting the types of plastics they are accepting. However, these countries who have for so long born the brunt of this practice are standing up to unfair markets that give them dangerous work with little pay. 

In short, other countries are tired of cleaning up our mess. 

Journalist Zafirah Zein eloquently summarizes the issues at hand and offers in-depth analysis into this global issue in her article for Eco-Business, “In the world of sustainability, colonialism is not dead.” In short, Zein explains that the global north consists of the most unsustainable societies, but we make our consumerist problems those of the global south, especially in Asia. 

So the question remains: if even recycling has its flaws as an industry, how do we make sustainable lifestyle choices with the least impact? The answer, which does require habitual changes, lies in reducing plastic consumption at large. Individual choices in using single use plastics like cups, food and product packaging, etc. even if recycled, can contribute to international problems.

~James Duffy, Staff Writer~

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