Several years ago, Sonya Shah dumped the garbage out of her trash can and dug through the contents. She found plastic food containers, shampoo bottles and other items mixed among food scraps and kitty litter. It was Plastic Free July, the monthlong global campaign to reduce plastic waste, and part of her taking action was to audit the plastic in her trash. While she and her husband were environmentally aware, they were not plastic free.
“We don’t eat meat, we take our cloth bags to the store and we were raised by parents that didn’t have a lot of money, so we don’t have the practice in our minds of buying things we don’t use,” said Shah, 48, of Atlanta. “We thought we were doing a lot, then we realized we weren’t really scratching the surface.”
Shah began looking for ways to reduce the single-use plastic — items like straws, shopping bags and plastic cutlery that are meant to be used once and thrown away or recycled — in her life. She tried castile soap, shredded avocado pits and vinegar in an effort to use shampoo that didn’t come in plastic bottles. She already toted a reusable coffee cup and shopping bags but stopped giving herself a pass if she forgot them. She went almost two years without eating berries or grapes because she couldn’t find any that didn’t come in plastic packaging.
Her efforts helped reduce the amount of trash she and her husband produced each week to the size of a plastic grocery bag.
“The things that have been most difficult to eliminate are probably the things I don’t need to be using,” Shah said.
About 400 million tons of plastic is produced worldwide each year, and about half of it is single-use. In Georgia, residents throw away about 1 million tons of plastic each year.
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Chemicals used in plastic can be absorbed by human bodies. Plastic in landfills can leach chemicals into groundwater. Plastic debris lands in the ocean, injuring or killing marine life; and burning plastic waste can release toxic pollutants.
The plastic problem keeps growing — only about 9% of the plastic waste generated in the U.S. gets recycled — and experts said the fix will require everyone to do their part, from the engineers who have turned waste into biodegradable plastic to consumers making a conscious choice to reduce the amount of plastic they buy and use.
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Cities and states are increasingly issuing bans or fees on single-use plastics, while major companies widely known in the metro area like Starbucks and Kroger have announced plans to phase out some of them. Other companies are pioneering new uses for plastic waste or creating alternatives. Earlier this year, Super Bowl volunteers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium wore uniform jackets made from plastic water bottles by Unifi, a manufacturing company that turns recycled plastic into fiber.
In metro Atlanta, Fulton County has considered banning single-use plastics at county buildings while a number of local restaurants, including popular seafood eatery Six Feet Under, have stopped providing plastic straws to customers.
"Plastic is a valuable material, but when we started designing things out of it with intended obsolescence, this was a big mistake," said Dianna Cohen, CEO of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. Cohen, who has a background in visual art, once used plastic bags as material for her artwork. She would later decide that while recycling and reuse had its place, prevention was key.
“I put things in the recycling bin and I say a little prayer, but the truth is, for our own health, it is best to buy things unpackaged,” she said. She replaced her Tupperware with glass containers. She tossed rubber cooking utensils and bought stainless steel and wood. She carries an insulated cup and a food-grade stainless steel bottle everywhere she goes, along with a set of bamboo utensils and a stainless steel spork. When she orders carry-out, she goes to restaurants that will put her food in a Mason jar she provides.
Why problem is growing
The life cycle of plastic, a synthetic material made from organic polymers, begins with the extraction of fossil fuels. From the moment it is extracted through its manufacture, production and final degradation in a landfill, plastic is toxic, Cohen said.
Chemists created polyethylene in the 1930s, which led to a boom in polymer-based products like Tupperware and Saran Wrap. Plastic is one of the world’s most versatile materials, used in everything from medical IV bags to automobile parts. But our dependence on single-use plastics transformed a valuable and durable material into one of the world’s biggest environmental concerns.
Global output of plastic waste rose more in a single decade beginning in the early 2000s than it had in the previous 40 years, according to UN Environment. By 2015, Americans were generating 34.5 million tons of plastic waste per year. Much of the nation's discarded plastic ends up in foreign countries with poor waste management systems where uncaptured plastic turns into pollution.
This year, 34 states are considering over 200 pieces of legislation to address plastic pollution, according to the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, including bans or fees on a range of single-use plastics.
Georgia is not one of those states.
The state also has not published a Solid Waste Management Report since 2011. The result is limited data that could help inform solutions, said Will Sagar, executive director of the Southeast Recycling Development Council.
Impact on Georgia
By 2025, there will be an estimated 155 million metric tons of plastic in the ocean, according to research from University of Georgia professor Jenna Jambeck. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the mass of plastic in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California that is twice the size of Texas, is the largest and most well-documented example, but there are smaller-scale problems right in Georgia.
Marine researchers from UGA found microplastic in water samples taken from Georgia’s coast during a survey in 2017 while visible plastic debris — shopping bags, plastic bottles — can be spotted in local waterways that feed the South River and the Chattahoochee.
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The amount of trash washing into Jackson Lake from the South River is so bad the South River Watershed Alliance (SRWA) joined community organizations to invest in a $368,000 Bandalong Litter Trap system that floats in waterways and captures litter before it flows farther downstream.
DeKalb County committed to maintaining the litter trap and ultimately contributed funds to help residents make the purchase. In late June, the county was reviewing bids for the system, said Jackie Echols, board president of SRWA. “No one wants to claim trash, but you have to take ownership of your trash. I think that message is finally getting around to folks,” Echols said.
Bringing about change
For six years, Hannah Testa, 16, of Cumming has lobbied against single-use plastics. Last month, she spoke in support of the proposed ban on single-use plastics in Fulton County government buildings. "There aren't a lot of buildings, but it is a great step forward," said Testa.
Testa had hoped Georgia legislators would consider plastic bag bans or fees as early as 2016, but when she raised the issue in meetings, they advised her to focus on increasing awareness about plastic pollution before taking on any bans. Testa, who created Plastic Pollution Awareness Day with Sen. Michael Williams, said she sees good things happening in Georgia.
This summer, she plans to meet with a county commissioner in Forsyth to ask the county to consider a single-use plastic ban like the one under consideration in Fulton. And she is always encouraged by the businesses in her community, like Mellow Mushroom, which recently switched from plastic straws to paper in response to community requests.
“You don’t always see the impact you make when it comes to plastic pollution,” Testa said, noting that more consumers need to trust their power to bring change.
More than 1 trillion plastic bags are discarded worldwide each year, and their ubiquity has made them a target for plastic reform. Kroger (and other stores) send plastic bags and packaging returned by shoppers to a recycler that uses them to make composite lumber products, said Felix Turner, spokesman for Kroger. Last year, the company said it would stop providing single-use bags at registers by 2025.
Kroger also announced an exclusive grocery retail partnership with Loop, a milkman-style service that allows customers to purchase brand-name items such as Pantene shampoo and Haagen-Dazs in long-lasting (at least 100 uses) reusable packaging that is shipped back for a refill of the product or a return of the deposit. Atlanta-based UPS partnered with Loop to create packaging design for the Loop tote as well as the pickup and delivery services for Loop customers.
Other major Atlanta-based companies have also pledged to reduce plastic consumption. Delta Air Lines will begin phasing out plastic straws and stirrers in flight later this month. They have already removed the plastic wrapping on amenity kits. Coca-Cola launched an initiative to make packaging 100% recyclable worldwide by 2025 and use at least 50% recycled material in packaging by 2030. The company will also collect and recycle a bottle or can for each one sold by 2030.
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Nationwide, companies are creating alternatives to plastic materials or finding new ways to use plastic waste. Loliware is a startup that creates seaweed-based biodegradable straws while Ecovative uses mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, to create an alternative material that can replace plastic in products such as footwear and retail packaging.
Shah believes we are in the midst of a cultural shift, one in which everyone — government, corporations and individuals — thinks more consciously about what we consume and discard. She said she draws inspiration for her zero waste lifestyle from a connection to the past.
“For me, it is a strategy of the ancestors. It is how you survived the Great Depression, the wars, slavery and colonization. Unless you come from nobility, that is the way of all people,” Shah said. “I know everyone is capable of doing something.”
TYPES OF PLASTIC
Not all plastic is recyclable. Only 9% of plastic waste in the U.S. is recycled, and the bulk of it comes from two plastic classifications. Understanding those numbers from 1-7 inside the chasing arrows, which you can find on the containers, can help you decide which plastics to buy and how to recycle them.
#1 — PET (polyethylene terephthalate): This is intended for single use and should not be reused as it encourages bacteria growth and can leach chemicals. About 30% of PET bottles in the U.S. are recycled as new PET bottles and polyester fiber.
#2 — HDPE (high-density polyethylene): This stiff plastic is considered relatively safe and easy to recycle, but only about 30% of HDPE used in the U.S. is recycled into picnic tables, plastic lumber and park benches.
#3 — PVC (polyvinyl chloride): A soft, flexible plastic that leaches many toxins throughout the life cycle. It can be reused, but less than 1% is recycled.
#4 – LDPE (low-density polyethylene): Less toxic than some other plastics, LDPE is increasingly being recycled as plastic lumber, landscaping boards, garbage can liners and floor tiles.
#5 – PP (polypropylene): Lightweight and heat-resistant, this plastic is used to protect against moisture, grease and chemicals. Only about 3% is recycled, but this is growing.
#6 – PS (polystyrene): Lightweight and easily shaped, this plastic may leach styrene, a possible human carcinogen, into food products, particularly when heated in a microwave. Though the technology exists, polystyrene has a low recycling rate and accounts for about 35% of landfill material in the U.S.
#7 – Other (BPA, polycarbonate and Lexan): As the catchall for all other plastics, this classification has limited protocols for recycling. It includes BPA (bisphenol A), a known endocrine disruptor, as well as plastics with “PLA” near the symbol, which is a compostable plastic made from bio-based polymers.