It seems that everyone agrees that our biggest global environmental challenge is climate change. What is our second largest global environmental challenge?

Well, most experts believe plastics, yes plastics, particularly single-use plastic containers. Plastic production has exploded since World War II. Global production of plastic was approximately 450 million tons in 2015 and is expected to double by the end of 2020. It has been estimated that more than 8 million tons of plastic escape into our oceans annually and that amount increases every year.

Plastics have revolutionized medicine, helped accelerate space exploration and helped us make cars and airplanes lighter and improve fuel economy. These are several very beneficial uses of plastic.

Some 80% of all plastics produced in the last 70 years have been thrown away, either in landfills or the general environment. Recycling of plastic was nearly zero in 1980; today we are doing much better with around 18% being recycled. But we can and should do much better. What most of us don’t recognize is that plastics don’t break down for hundreds of years. Yes, they break up into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics and even smaller pieces that are problematic.

Microplastics have been found in the air we breathe, the water we drink and in some of the foods we eat. Microplastics are inadvertently being eaten by most bird species. Plastic pollution has been found on Mount Everest and in the deepest trenches of our oceans. It is estimated that there are more than 300 billion pieces of plastic in the Arctic Ocean. More than 30 countries have joined the United Nations’ CleanSeas program, including Canada, France, Japan, Russia and China. But not the U.S. Why not join?

It is hard to adequately address such a huge problem but there are things we can do. Take single-use plastic shopping bags, for example. The estimated useful life of a plastic shopping bag is only 24 minutes! America makes 100 billion-plus shopping bags per year yet only 1% are recycled.

Do we really need single-use plastic bags? Several states have, or are in the process of, regulating their use. China has announced that it will ban them after 2022.

Single-use plastic containers are a major convenience, yet they have created major problems for the environment. While it is unrealistic to expect us to eliminate their use, what we can do is to make sure that we recycle all single-use plastic containers and reduce our use of plastic shopping bags. Ideally, we should follow China’s lead and phase out the use of these bags.

The writers are co-chairs of the Environment Roundtable of the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad.

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