If you’re congratulating yourself for finally becoming the type of environmentalist who carries reusable tote bags and straws, it’s time for a wake-up call: The plastic items we toss daily without a second thought — such as coffee cups, plastic water bottles and bags and the packaging of processed foods — are killing our oceans. And if current trends continue, there will be more plastic than fish (by weight) in the ocean by the year 2050.
While the convenience factor of plastic is difficult to resist, most of the single-serve beverage packaging, plastic shopping bags and to-go containers from your favorite restaurants can’t be (or isn’t) recycled. Instead of biodegrading, these items end up in our water supply, and eventually, the ocean, where sunlight and tides break them down into microplastics. Fish eat these particles, which means we do, too. Scientific American recently reported that ingested microplastic particles can physically damage organs and leach hazardous chemicals that can “compromise immune function and stymie growth and reproduction.” In other words: Ingesting microplastics can make us sick.
Enter #BreakFreeFromPlastic and the nearly 1,500 organizations worldwide that currently participate in the movement. Their collective mission is to fight plastic pollution on a global level. And not just in our oceans and water supply. “A lot of our groups are working on corporate campaigns and on mobilizing grassroots communities against the same companies which climate activists have been going after for decades,” said Shilpi Chhotray, senior communications officer at #BreakFreeFromPlastic.
Where did plastic come from, anyway? Over 50 years ago, plastics entered our world and literally changed the way Americans live. In 1869, a New York firm offered to award $10,000 to the first person who could create a synthetic polymer as a substitute for ivory, a material that was in short supply and threatening the billiard ball business — not to mention decimating elephant populations, who were being slaughtered for their tusks. Today, 300 million tons of plastic are produced annually, and 12 million tons of plastic waste is dumped into the sea every year.
Thanks to the power of advertising, we’ve been purchasing single-use plastic products with reckless abandon since the 1950s. Since then, a staggering nine billion tons of plastic have been produced, but only around 9% gets recycled. “A lot of it is attributed to our culture of convenience,” said Chhotray. “Plastic packaging is not easily recycled: Most of it has been landfilled, incinerated or shipped overseas, and we have been creating a disproportionate amount of waste that’s ending up in developing areas of the world.”
And our appetite for plastic isn’t going away: According to a report from the Center for International Environmental Law, low natural gas prices in the United States have made the material cheap and abundant. By 2025, production for materials required to make plastic, such as ethylene and propylene, is expected to increase 33-36%.
While most of our plastic ends up in southeast Asia — traditionally a dumping ground for much of our waste — a goal of the #BreakFreeFromPlastic movement is to tackle our pollution crisis with a holistic approach. “#BreakFreeFromPlastic is not just about the environment: We’re very much about social justice and equity, and that’s where our movement is so unique,” Chhotray said. “It’s about the grassroots communities and the faces on the front lines of that crisis, and giving them a voice.”
#BreakFreeFromPlastic’s U.S.-based movement mobilizes small NGOs and disenfranchised populations to spur grassroots action, and works to hold big oil companies — such as Exxon, Dow and DuPont — accountable for the environmental and health issues caused by their manufacturing practices. “We’re connecting the dots between environmental justice, climate change, human health, and plastic pollution,” Chhotray said.
And it seems that #BreakFreeFromPlastic is gaining traction: While some cities have already banned plastic bags, and several others require a fee for using them, at least 95 bills were introduced this year alone related to reducing the use of plastic bags.
The good news: It’s easy to get involved on an individual level. To that end, the movement is encouraging 31 days of action this month, ranging from ways you can kick your tote-bag schlepping up a notch to smaller (but ultimately more impactful) actions that have the potential to create real change. Finding out about plastic bag laws in your local community and encouraging schools to go plastic-free are two ways to start; participating in Lonely Whale’s #HydrateLike campaign is another.
Encouraging average consumers to #BreakFreeFromPlastic can inspire individual momentum, but Chhotray hopes it can also lead to lasting and collective change by the organizations that manufacture it in the first place. “We’re so inundated with plastic right now, no amount of beach cleanups will help,” said Chhotray.
Last year, #BreakFreeFromPlastic mobilized organizations and committed individuals to hold the largest producers of plastics in the U.S. — namely, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestle — accountable for the environmental impact created by the items they produce and sell. A 2018 global brand audit found that 75% percent of all beach, street and park cleanups contained products made by Coca-Cola; those three companies are responsible for 14% of branded plastic pollution produced worldwide. And petrochemical companies might be the most guilty of all, since Exxon Mobil introduced plastic bags to the U.S. in the first place, in a weird premonition of their eventual ubiquity. “These oil industries were banking on this happening,” said Chhotray. “They knew exactly what they were doing back in the ’70s.”
Inspired, angry … or both? Volunteer for a brand audit in your local community, advocate for plastic-free July on social media using the hashtag #BreakFreeFromPlastic or sign up for action alerts via email.