Unless you are a frequent visitor to landfills or sail the world's oceans, you aren't likely to encounter the mountains of plastic on land or islands of it floating in the sea.
But if you are observant in everyday life, when you visit the supermarket, fast food restaurants and discount stores filled with packaged consumer items, you may begin to appreciate the world's ever-increasing use of disposable plastic.
The problem with plastic is how to dispose of it. Since it is not biodegradable, it basically lasts forever, clogging the world's waste disposal system.
It's not just plastic bottles and food containers that are the problem. 5 Gyres, a non-profit environmental group focused on plastic pollution, is trying to bring attention to the problems posed by tiny plastic grains, known as microbeads and used in a large number of cosmetics and personal care products.
The group says these microbeads eventually make their way to our waterways and wildlife, and eventually are ingested by humans through the food chain, toothpastes or other body products that contain microbeads.
"Poorly designed products escape consumer hands and waste management systems," said Anna Cummins, co-founder of 5 Gyres. "Plastic fragments become hazardous waste in the environment.”
5 Gyres is partnering with Whole Foods Market in the North Atlantic region to conduct an innovative #Ban the Bead campaign. Rainbow Light, a nutritional supplement manufacturer, is sponsoring a 5 Gyres sea expedition, starting in June, to conduct research on marine plastic pollution.
“We engage with companies like Rainbow Light that are championing design solutions to the problem of plastic pollution,” Cummins said. “Their EcoGuard bottles are an excellent example of the impact conscious companies can make to keep harmful plastics out of the waste stream.”
Concerns about plastic pollution have gained momentum since February, when a marine study calculated that between 4.8 million and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the oceans from land each year. That was 3 times the amount anyone thought.
The problem has mobilized efforts from a variety of sources, some of them surprising. Bloomberg News reports a Dutch teenager last year secured $2 million in funding to build an ocean clean-up machine to pick up with floating plastic debris and funnel it to specific collection points. But it's literally a drop in the ocean.
The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says it is working with international leaders and organizations such as the UN Environment Program to help establish international guidelines for curbing plastic pollution.
What you can do
In the meantime, the group says consumers can help by cutting disposable plastics out of daily routines. It suggests bringing your own bag to the store, choosing reusable items wherever possible, and purchasing plastic with recycled content.
Recycling is another method of cutting back on the mushrooming growth in plastic.
“Each piece of plastic recycled is one less piece of waste that could end up in our oceans,” the group says.
Finally, it says being aware of how you are contributing to the problem and taking steps to reduce your use of plastic can also help.