Recycling has grown quite popular in my lifetime, but from my two years of work with the Plastic Pollution Coalition, I know that recycling plastic really isn't the answer at all.
Plastic is quite obviously not an organic substance, and by that I mean it must be synthesized in a lab. Because it is not an organic compound, it cannot biodegrade, or break down into other compounds. This means that no matter how long it exists, it can only become smaller pieces of plastic. This is why plastic lasts for so long in landfills. Secondly, its main component is petroleum. That's right -- the gasoline that is causing global warming is also the main component of the plastics that seem to be everywhere.
Recycling doesn't help much, either. Plastic cannot be recycled back into what it originally was. This process is called downcycling. For example, the plastic bottle that you put in the recycling bin cannot be "reincarnated" as another food-grade plastic item. Recycling is also a very expensive process. It costs an average of $4,000 to recycle plastic into a product worth about $30. A large portion of plastic that is "recycled" actually gets sent to China and India, where workers burn it, sending plastic particulate into the air, which is even worse than it sounds. This is not to discount recycling as an idea, but our current infrastructure is not set up to recycle effectively.
Not only this, but plastic is literally poisoning our bodies. There are a few "ingredients" to plastic, such as bisphenol-A and phthalates, which leak out of the plastic and into whatever liquid or food item that is touching it. These chemicals have been shown to cause various problems -- mainly cancer and birth defects. With these facts in mind, I find it nearly impossible to use disposable plastic in my daily life.
Now that I have shocked you with these tidbits of info, it would be a great idea to learn more about the issue. Video talks, facts and product suggestions can be found on the Plastic Pollution Coalition website, along with links to other organizations with similar focuses. Even with the treasure trove of information available, I'll leave you with a short list of ways you can begin to change your habits.
Bring your own water bottle. Get a stainless steel bottle and bring it with you wherever you go. You may miss the "convenience" of buying a new bottle wherever you go, but in the long run, having your own bottle is the better option. A simple fix would be buying a drink in a glass bottle and reusing that bottle as long as you can. If you lose or break it, it isn't as big of a problem as if you were using a nice stainless steel bottle you purchased.
Bring your own silverware. My school uses predominantly corn-based, "biodegradable" (this is largely a false claim as it must be heated to about 160 degrees for a number of days to even begin to break down) silverware on campus, but that isn't really the answer, either. The best solution is using reusable bamboo silverware. Bamboo is naturally antibacterial, and is very easy to clean. There are plenty of options when it comes to utensils, if you just look for them. I currently use "To-Go Ware" bamboo cutlery. You could even bring old silverware from home with you wherever you go if you aren't interested in buying anything new.
Bring your own straw. It is difficult to avoid having a straw in your drink at a restaurant nowadays. I have been using stainless steel straws for years now, and half the time when I ask a waiter for no straw in my drink, I get one anyways. Stainless steel straws are inexpensive and long-lasting. Just remember to say "No straw please!" when you order your drink, and don't forget your steel straw at the restaurant or accidentally throw it away!
Bring your own bag. This one is a biggie, but also very well publicized. I'm sure many teenagers who have an interest in fashion have seen the "I am not a plastic bag!" totes of 2007. Americans as a whole use about 1 billion plastic bags a year, which is about 300,000 tons of plastic! As widespread as this advice is, we still need to work on following it. Many counties are working towards plastic bag bans. If you are at all interested, it would be a great idea to research efforts in your area. Bag bans can always use more support.
I know that cutting back on all plastic is nearly impossible now, but by starting with these tips and pushing companies to explore other options instead of plastic, one day it won't be such a challenge.