The inconvenient consequences of a culture of convenience

Huge expanse of plastic waste with sunsetSingle-use plastics — such as cups with straws, takeout containers and water bottles — are so common in our culture of convenience that we often don’t give them a second thought. But their momentary utility is misleading: These items stick around a really long time. Because of the way plastic is designed, “its afterlife is much longer than its useful lifespan,” said Rolf Halden, director of the Biodesign Institute's Center for Environmental Health Engineering at Arizona State University. Plastic that we use for just a moment “has the potential to pollute for decades, centuries or millennia.” Most plastic does not biodegrade, but instead breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces known as microplastics that are no more than 5 millimeters in diameter. Single-use plastics and their resulting microplastics cause harm in a network of ways — some that scientists are just beginning to recognize and understand. Though plastic production didn’t ramp up until the 1950s, this material has already pervaded our lands, seas and bodies. A recent peer-reviewed study estimates that people have produced a total of 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, and only 9 percent has ever been recycled. The rest has been incinerated, landfilled or littered. Plastic pollution resulting from mismanagement can be obvious, like a plastic coffee cup rolling down the sidewalk in the breeze. It can also be unexpected, like microplastics in our drinking supply. Plastics crowds our lands and waters, creating complex and cascading problems — some related to human health. Read the full story, featuring several Arizona State University sustainability scientists, on ASU Now.