Where Does All That Plastic Go?

Where Does All That Plastic Go?

July 08, 2019

Surfer and activist Alison Teal walking with her surfboard through mountains of rubbish on Thilafushi island in the Maldives.


Over 36,000 feet below sea level lies the deepest part of Earth’s ocean: the Mariana Trench. If Mt. Everest were placed on the ocean floor at the trench's lowest point, you would still have to dive over a mile below the ocean’s surface to reach its summit. Despite its remoteness, the Mariana Trench is no desolate wasteland: crustaceans, snailfish, and sea cucumbers all call the area home. Each time researchers plunge to these depths, they discover new species previously unknown to science.

Given what you’ve read so far, you might think the Mariana Trench is some kind of pristine paradise, far removed from humanity and all the awful things we’ve done to our environment. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The deep-sea diver Victor Vescovo observed a plastic bag and candy wrappers lying at the lowest part of the trench. Marine scientists have taken samples of crustaceans in the region and found that a full 100% of them had synthetic microplastics in their bodies. Other research has found that the sediments at this deep point contain very high concentrations of PCBs, compounds that were banned by the US government in the 1970s because of their extreme toxicity.

Even in the Mariana Trench, further from the ocean’s surface than any other point on Earth, the plastic produced by humans makes its presence known. All of Earth’s oceans, as well as vast territories of its land, suffer from a severe plastic pollution problem.


Okay, but how much plastic are we talking about?

Mass production of plastics began just six decades ago and has accelerated so rapidly that we have now produced 8.3 billion metric tons of it. Since plastic takes more than 400 years to degrade, most of it still exists in some form. Of the 8.3 billion metric tons produced, 6.3 billion have become plastic waste. Of that, only 9% has been recycled and 12% has been incinerated. The vast majority—79 percent—is accumulating in landfills or sloughing off in the natural environment as litter, which means that at some point much of it ends up in the oceans, the final sink. Many marine organisms can’t distinguish common plastic items from food. Plastic ensnares turtles and seabirds. Animals who eat plastic often starve because they can’t digest the plastic that fills their stomachs, which prevents them from eating real food, making them sick and malnourished.

To get a sense of how huge this problem is, take a look at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the notorious gyre of waste that bears the distinction of being the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world. It's located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and California, but here's what it would look like if it covered the Western United States (thankfully it doesn’t!):

Twice the size of Texas, it would stretch from San Francisco to Kansas, and from Phoenix to Boise! If that wasn’t bad enough, there are four other massive gyres, one in every major ocean. Marine scientists now say with confidence that every square mile of ocean on Earth contains plastics, and that if nothing changes, by 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic by weight than fish. The scale of the problem is indescribably huge.


The main culprit? 

Packaging and single-use items. More than half the Earth’s plastic pollution comes from packaging. Food, household products, toiletries, toys, clothes, appliances, electronics, almost every single item we buy comes wrapped in plastic. To really combat the issue, the huge corporations doing all this polluting have to be held to task. While the US and the EU have had some small success in getting them to reduce the amount of plastic they use in packaging, the situation is still extremely dire. In fact, 2018 saw corporations producing more than triple the amount of plastic than they did thirty years ago, and 91% of the plastic produced still isn’t recycled. Clearly, more has to be done to change this situation.


What can we do?

In the meantime, people are coming up with creative solutions to sell products without plastic packaging and, whenever possible, without packaging at all. Zero waste stores are popping up all over the world. There you will find items that are either loose or packaged with biodegradable materials. Customers bring their own reusable containers and fill them up with dried pastas, grains, legumes, natural soaps, and other products. Instead of waiting for big corporations to clean up their acts, these entrepreneurs are taking matters into their own hands and getting rid of the plastic themselves. Luckily someone is watching, recently a grocery store in Amsterdam called Ekoplaza has become the first supermarket in the world to do away with plastic packaging entirely– there, you will only find items packaged in compostable materials.

Since Friendsheep sells online, we can’t eliminate packaging entirely, but we can make it as eco-friendly as possible. Here are the four packaging promises we make to you: 

1. No plastic. You will never find plastic in our packaging. There is simply no sustainable way to produce or dispose of plastic. Because of this, it would violate our deeply-held principles if we used it.
2. Our boxes are eco-friendly. The boxes and mailers we use come from 100% post-consumer, 100% recyclable, and 100% compostable materials.
3. Our products are packaged with love. When you open up your package, you’ll find that your dryer balls arrive inside a hand-sewn, hand-printed, unbleached, organic cotton bag. Use this bag to store your dryer balls or repurpose it as a grocery bag for the bulk aisle at your supermarket. Most of our products come without packaging, and some may be wrapped in lokta paper, a sustainable tree-free paper made from a Nepalese laurel bush which is considered the most eco-friendly paper in the world.
4. We carbon-offset shipping and give back to the Earth. At Friendsheep we offset 100% of the carbon emissions from your delivery through CarbonFund.org, as well as every shipment from our factory in Nepal to our warehouse in the US. We love giving back to our Mother, which is why we don’t stop there. 20% of our proceeds are donated to animal rescues, social and environmental nonprofits. Through our partnership with the Eden Reforestation Projects, we plant one tree for every order placed, and through our membership with 1% for the Planet, one percent of all our gross sales are donated to environmental non-profits that protect our oceans and wildlife.


Feeling overwhelmed by plastic pollution?

We are too. If you want to help but feel like you can’t possibly make an impact alone, just know that there are tons of people who are in the same boat as you. There is no better time than now to check out PlasticFreeJuly.org, a global movement that helps people to be part of the solution to plastic pollution – so we can have cleaner streets, oceans, and beautiful communities. Millions have banded together to pledge their commitment to living life as plastic free as possible. Check out PFJ’s website and make this July the month you decide to make a change. 

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