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How Can We Reduce Plastic Waste?

plastic bags
(Image: Getty Images)

There’s a really good chance that in the last few hours you’ve encountered some single-use plastic. A grocery bag, maybe a straw, a water bottle? It’s everywhere, seemingly inescapable. You’ve probably also been hearing about bans on single-use plastic happening all over the place. Let’s take a moment to look into the continuing story of humans and plastic. How can we reduce plastic waste? 

Humanity creates something like 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags annually, enough to circle the globe  4,200 times if tied together end-to-end. Sadly, only about 1% of this single-use plastic gets recycled, leaving the rest to end up in our waterways causing many issues ranging from the ever-growing plastic patch in the Pacific to harming marine animals and ecosystems. It’s predicted that plastics in the ocean will outweigh fish by 2050. Plastics also take thousands of years to break down making this a short term and very longer-term problem. 

Some governments have decided to begin phasing out single-use plastics. For example,  The European Union just voted to ban single-use plastic bags by 2021. Two supermarkets in Australia have already seen results from a plastic bag ban. Within just three months of the ban there was an  80% decrease in plastic use consumption, saving nearly 1.5 billion bags from being used. American companies like Trader Joes and Kroger have decided to decrease how much plastic they use. Trader Joe’s wants to  entirely cut single-use plastic packaging while Kroger plans to  phase out single-use plastic bags by 2025

Overall these news stories on plastic bans have drawn wide support, but a few critics do point out that the production of bags like Kroger’s have a much lower climate change-related carbon footprint compared to organic cotton bags. However, carbon footprints and the plastic pollution of the oceans are different outcomes - but similarly, highlight how much we consume as a society.

The average American family uses close to 1,500 of plastic bags per year. Hawaii, California, and New York states have all began the process of phasing out their plastic bags. Meanwhile here in the Commonwealth, some estimates suggest the average Virginian uses about 300 nonreusable plastic bags a year.

Virginia has a proposal for the state senate, but this past January Virginia legislators ultimately killed a bill that would have placed a 5-cent tax on the use of single-use plastic bags. As our consumer base and consumer needs rise, the issue of plastic bags and reusable bag production will require a closer look if we want to prevent more waste from entering our water systems.

In the meantime there’s a growing number governments and businesses reducing their plastic output hoping that these bans will lead to a large reduction in plastic water waste, in fact, they think they’ve got it in the bag! 

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