The city of San Francisco recently moved to ban the sale of plastic bottles on city-owned properties. Environmentalists hope measures such as these will expand to other locations to reduce the U.S. addiction to single-use items.
Plastic waste destroys wildlife habitats and leads to the untimely death of countless animals. Plastic requires a long time to biodegrade, meaning discarded bottles clog landfills and enters the water system.
While recycling plastic reduces waste, relatively few of these bottles make it to the sorting facility. Governments are only just beginning to wake up to the enormity of the plastic problem.
Human beings purchase a million plastic bottles every minute of every day. Less than a quarter of these bottles gets recycled in the US.
The environmental impact of plastic bottles begins in the production stage and ends with serious consequences to animal and human health.
It takes more water to produce a plastic bottle than the amount packaged inside. Additionally, the production of bottles requires the use of petroleum, a non-renewable fossil fuel. Factories which produce such bottles release tremendous amounts of pollution into the air.
Chemicals in plastic itself can harm human health as well as factory pollution. BPA, a chemical which affects human hormones, gets released when plastic heats up, such as when exposed to sunlight.
The combination of factory particulates and released chemicals leads to increased reports of serious health issues, even in areas like California with relatively strong healthcare landscapes.
Plastic wreaks havoc with sea life too. Animals mistakenly consume the plastic debris polluting the ocean which then lodges in their digestive tract, causing painful death. Smaller organisms sometimes enter the bottles and find themselves unable to escape.
Pathogens from discarded bottles also decimate ocean life. Coral reefs exposed to high levels of plastic pollution fall prey to disease far more quickly than those unexposed to the substances.
Plastic waste can take nearly 500 years to biodegrade, meaning the bottle someone casually tosses out may still plague human animal life for centuries.
Considering how many bottles people go through annually, failure to stop the spread of this pollution could render the world's oceans into giant plastic pools. Already garbage patches have grown to enormous sizes in the Pacific.
Many public locations such as gas stations and convenience stores offer only trash cans, not recycling bins. This means road trippers who stop to dump their trash add to the growing plastic problem even if they recycle religiously at home.
The 'San Fran Measure'
In 2014, the city of San Francisco incorporated the first plastic bottle ban, though it prohibited far less than the current rules.
The new regulations prohibit the sale of plastic bottles at events held on city-owned property. Additionally, government agencies may not purchase bottled water.
Private businesses such as grocery stores and mini markets may continue to sell bottled water in the city. To date, little data exists on how the regulations have reduced overall plastic bottle use.
However, any measures to reduce plastic consumption makes a difference, and other cities have now begun enacting similar bans none too soon.
The city hopes that more consumers make the switch back to drinking regular tap water in lieu of pricey bottled stuff. The city has the advantage of possessing high quality tap water, making this goal reasonable.
Other cities, most notably Flint, MI, may have difficulty enacting similar bans until public infrastructure repair makes tap water safer for consumption.
Measures to expand recycling efforts likewise help decrease plastic pollution. But many environmentalists argue that only bans like the one enacted by San Francisco will make a meaningful difference in slowing the destruction.
Given current production rates, few individual actions could make the impact prohibiting plastic bottles in the first place can potentially make.
That isn't to say individuals are absolved from doing their part. Those who purchase reusable bottles instead of buying new ones do make a difference. But they can go a step further with their environmental stewardship by urging local officials to enact similar bans in their hometowns.
If human beings hope to halt the destruction of planet Earth, everyone must adopt practices that ease consumer demand for the products that harm the environment.
Banning plastic bottles will not eliminate the trash currently choking the air, land and oceans, but prohibitions can reduce the number of such items produced in the first place. Waving goodbye to disposable plastic bottles will mean many people will have to change their habits to those more friendly toward the world we share.
Kate Harveston is a vegan health and sustainability writer and the editor of women's wellness blog, So Well, So Woman.