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Living in a Plastic World

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Grab-and-go, 24-hour quick marts, fast food on the fly, snap open a beverage to quench your thirst in seconds.

We Americans love the quick and easy.

But supporting our culture of convenience is a pervasive material that, while seemingly harmless in our car's cup holders and incredibly helpful in facilitating these accelerated transactions, actually does so much damage to our planet.

Plastic. We just can't escape it.

And before I sound too preachy, let me say I'm not trying to imply I have overcome our society's unending reliance on plastic.

I'm typing this column on a laptop composed mostly of plastic materials. The roast providing a much-needed dose of caffeine as I write about this issue came from a cup and coffeemaker both containing plastic components. The pen I'm using to make edits to this piece is plastic. The phone next to me is made from plastic. I've probably twisted the cap off of hundreds of plastic drink bottles so that I too could quench my thirst. Half of my child's toys are made from plastic, as is his plate, his sippy cup, water bottle, and of course, his diapers. My Dr. Bronner's shaving gel, my Burt's Bees aftershave, and my Tom's of Maine toothpaste -- all plastic containers (albeit from recycled materials). Like all of you, I am surrounded by plastic.

And sometimes you just forget to bring those canvas bags to the grocery store. So it goes, unfortunately.

But it is not an issue to be taken lightly anymore. The environmental impact of plastic wreaks havoc on our world's oceans, marine life and even our own health.

Our plastic bags, bottled beverages and an assortment of other plastic-made containers and toys manage to find their way to our oceans -- flowing into storm drains, rivers, streams, blown off of beaches as well as ships that still dump tons of plastic into the sea in violation of international laws. For decades, our oceans have been -- and sadly continue to be -- a plastic waste dump.

For a quick reality check, go to Google Images and type in: "plastic birds."

The pictures make my heart ache. The search turns up photo after photo of dead birds' bellies loaded with the detritus of civilization: caps, lighters, toothbrushes, rubber bands, hair ties. In West Seattle, Wash., in 2010, a team of researchers put together a list of human-made materials discovered in the stomach of a deceased, stranded gray whale. They found duct tape, a golf ball, surgical gloves, sweat pants and more than 20 plastic bags.

This is troubling because our dependence on plastic is worsening, exacerbating a hugely catastrophic environmental issue that we often don't think about when we tell the clerk at the grocery store we don't care if they use plastic for our eggs and bread. There are thousands of silent deaths in nature that we don't ponder when we grab that plastic water bottle at the convenience store. Nor do we think about the coral reefs that have been garishly decorated by our trash when we ask for that super-sized soft drink in a huge plastic cup... with a plastic straw.

Every day our society unwittingly contributes to the demise of our oceans and marine life. Scientists are not exactly sure how much plastic pours into the sea, probably because of the sheer volume and pervasiveness of plastic. Defining a reliable statistic would be a mind-numbing and heart-wrenching endeavor.

What we do know is that in 1960, plastics made up less than one percent of U.S. municipal solid waste (generally from households and small businesses), according to EPA data. Fast-forward to 2012 when we tossed 32 million tons of plastic in the garbage, almost 13 percent of municipal solid waste.

While recycling efforts have come a long way since the sixties, only nine percent of total plastic waste generated in 2012 was actually recycled. Look at what ends up on the street. And that's only in the U.S.

It takes decades for the plastics to begin to break down. Even then, they turn from the shapes with which we are familiar into billions of smaller pieces that stubbornly persist in our oceans for hundreds of years, drifting throughout the sea and scuttling along the ocean floor where they will remain as historical relics of our way of life, surely challenging the test of time.

"Plastic is a material that the Earth cannot digest," according to the Plastic Pollution Coalition.

We've even come up with names for places where plastic accumulates en masse at sea, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, aka the Pacific Trash Vortex. This gyre of marine trash reaches from California to Japan.

Our own health is also at risk. Plastic is made of several synthetic compounds, like Bisphenol A, which can seep into food and drink over time after repeated washing of plastic containers, exposure to heat from microwaves, and even during storage. Many scientists view BPA as an endocrine-disrupting compound, demanding further inquiry to understand its total human health impact, according to a 2010 study that synthesized a large body of scientific research. Several recent studies have linked BPA to cancer.

But, a massive reduction in plastic waste can only happen today if there is political will -- and courage -- to take it on.

A few governments have acted, passing laws banning plastic bag bans and requiring bag fees. There is pending legislation in New York City that would require charging consumers 10 cents per plastic bag. Seven years after a proposal to ban plastic bags in Chicago failed, aldermen are revisiting the issue. Recently in Texas, Dallas City Council passed an ordinance that will require retailers to charge customers five cents per plastic bag.

In Los Angeles, "the perfect holiday gift this year might have been a reusable grocery bag," according to the Los Angeles Times. Large grocery stores can no longer dole out free plastic bags. And California lawmakers have proposed a statewide ban on plastic bags.

In many cities and towns throughout the country, however, these initiatives are not on the radar or are facing heavy opposition, like in Portland, Maine, where a contingent of businesses and trade groups have joined together to push back against proposed bag fee legislation.

Perhaps frustrated by a lack of action to ban plastic bags in my home city of Denver, ninth-graders at a local high school have decided to circumvent City Hall, where legislation has languished. They are trying to get a plastic bag ban measure on the ballot.

Some would argue that this boils down to personal responsibility, that we don't need the "nanny state" to crack down on us with another law forbidding our freedom of choice. Then again, we can all make better choices to help stymie the problem, bringing canvas bags to the grocery store and using alternative materials. We all need to do our part.

But our society is still so swamped in plastic products that we need tough laws to compel immediate change, especially for such a large-scale issue with very harmful human health implications.

Solutions are within reach. Just ask those ninth-graders in Denver, who evidently know very well that the ocean is not meant to be our plastic garbage dump.

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