Earth Day Awareness: Plastic Waste

Around the world, our appetite for one-time-use plastics is making a devastating impact on our natural world. Think you know what happens to that plastic razor, milk jug, bottle or bag tossed in the trash? 

Each year, in the United States alone, more than 31 million tons of plastic are thrown out. Two billion disposable razors and blades. 100 billion polyethylene bags. And Americans discard enough plastic utensils and bottles and paper to circle the planet 300 times.

So what happens to all the plastic tossed out in the garbage?

Well, some of it ends up in the landfill. There’s lots of different types of plastic, and they degrade at varying rates (if at all), depending on their chemical composition and other factors. According to the NOAA Marine Debris Program, present research suggests that most commonly used plastics don’t fully degrade, they just break down into smaller pieces.

A plastic cup? About 450 years will pass before it decomposes in the ground. The discarded plastic milk jug? Yeah, it’s gonna need a million years. Oh, and that handy plastic bag from the grocery store? It’ll take up to 1,000 years to decompose.

But not all discarded plastic even makes it to the landfill. There’s plastic littering our waters, beaches, parks, forests, and cities. And just because a biodegradable plastic might break down in a landfill or compost pile, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will decompose in the ocean.

Marine life can become snarled in plastic waste or mistake ocean litter for food. Balloons can suffocate an albatross. A sea turtle can swallow a plastic bag. The UK Daily Mail recently reported “In some areas of the Pacific, there are six times more plastic bits than plankton. Because the polluted fragments are so small and look like food, they are being gobbled up by small fish, which in turn are eaten by larger fish, which in turn are eaten by us. So plastic is ruining our beaches, choking the oceans and poisoning our food chain.”

After reading a UNEP report about the planet’s polluted oceans, explorer David de Rothchild found a new way to bring attention to this environmental problem and give nature a voice. He conceived the idea to build a boat made from plastic bottles and other recyclable materials. Could it fully function, cross the Pacific, and demonstrate potential solutions for our world’s waste?

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With the help of a team of experts, The Plastiki was born. Her hull was made from 12,500 reclaimed plastic soda bottles, providing about 68% buoyancy.

Plastiki Statistics:
Weight: About 12 tons
Average speed: 5 knots
Mast Height: 60 feet (about three palm trees tall)
Overall Length: 60 feet (the length of two giant squids)

Tune in TONIGHT at 8 pm ET/PT for the premiere of The 12,000 Bottle Boat on the National Geographic Channel to follow the Plastiki’s journey on an 8,000-mile voyage.

What can you do to help reduce plastic waste?

This Earth Day, make a pledge to help stop waste. Never litter – even the smallest things can negatively impact wildlife and our environment. Refuse new plastic bags, and reuse and recycle the ones you have at home. Support products that use less plastic in their packaging and that are made from recycled materials. Reduce or eliminate your use of plastic water bottles. Recycle as much as you can, and encourage your friends and family to do the same.

In 2009, only 7% of total plastic waste was recycled. Just one recycled plastic bottle can save enough energy to power a 60-watt light bulb for three full hours. Recycling plastic products saves energy, reduces the need for landfills, and conserves natural resources. Plus, recycled plastic products can be used to make all kinds of handy things, like trash cans, park benches, lawn chairs, garden edging, and playground equipment.

Learn more about recycling and its benefits.