According to the United Nations (UN), roughly 300 million tons of plastic waste is produced annually, which almost equates to the weight of the entire human population. The durability and flexibility of plastic makes it an ideal material for countless uses, but it also means that it is difficult to completely decompose, which poses risks to our environmental health. Single-use plastic is the most harmful because its purpose is short-lived, yet the process to break it down can take over 400 years, according to National Geographic.
Plastic waste can travel thousands of miles from its original location through rivers that carry it to the oceans—the UN states that about 8 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans annually. The Mekong River itself carries 33,431 tons of plastic to the ocean. Even more alarming is that half of the plastic waste that gathers in the oceans originates from five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. Not only does growing plastic usage increase pollution, but mismanagement of the waste and recycling practices can exacerbate the issue. For instance, in Vietnam, over 5.7 million kg of plastic are wasted every day, and 86% of it is mismanaged.
According to the UN, these 10 rivers are responsible for carry 90% of the world's plastic waste into the oceans. Image Source: https://www.unenvironment.org/interactive/beat-plastic-pollution/
As global consumption of plastic increases, it becomes more important to raise awareness for the dangerous effects that plastic and pollution cause. Campaigns like the Loài Plastic Exhibit in Ho Chi Minh City are working to provide knowledge to the younger generation through art that conveys the dangerous effects of plastic. Earth Day Network is an advocacy organization that coordinates global clean-up events where volunteers work in their communities to clear the trash that litters the area. Similarly, the Connecticut River Conservancy in the United States helps volunteers organize Source to Sea Cleanup outings to remove the trash that collects along the banks of the Connecticut River, preventing it from reaching the ocean. While the campaigns help prevent the spread of pollution, the source of the problem and prevention strategies must also be addressed.
An origami structure with common plastic items as body parts from the Loài Plastic Exhibit in HCMH, Vietnam. Image Source: https://www.loaiplastic.vn/
The best way to prevent plastic waste and pollution is to avoid using it, especially single-use plastic items. Some of the most commonly used plastic items are drink bottles and bottle caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, and drinking lids and straws.
One way to avoid using plastic is to simply say, “No”. For instance, if you are using a backpack and buy something from a store, tell the clerk that you can just put your items in your backpack rather than using a plastic bag. Another way to say, “No” is when offered a drinking straw, you can simply drink from the glass without needing a straw. If you have a drink in a to-go cup, you can lift the lid away to drink from the cup or use neither a lid nor a straw. You can also avoid using too much plastic by eating homecooked meals, rather than ordering delivery. If you do order from a delivery service, use the utensils you have at home and be sure to notify the store that you do not need any plastic utensils or straws.
A second way to avoid using plastic is by using alternatives, such as tote bags for grocery shopping, reusable straws made of bamboo or stainless steel, and reusable bottles and cups. For all the moments when using plastic is unavoidable, try to make the most use out of it. For example, if you get a plastic take-out container, clean and reuse it to store future leftovers. Even when drinking bubble tea, you can save the straw and reuse it for future drinks.
Another impactful way to reduce plastic usage is to raise awareness for the dangers of plastic and advocate against single-use plastic in your community. Urge local store owners to use paper bags and straws instead, or use items made of other biodegradable material, like compostable bags. Get inspiration from local and global organizations that may be hosting clean-up events (or lead your own!) and encourage your friends and family members to join.
Suggestions for how to reduce and replace plastic use. Image source: https://biobagworld.com.au/reduce-plastic-pollution/how-to-reduce-your-plastic-use/
Scarlett Cheung - Foodbank VietNam