During Lent, we often give up something as a type of fasting — physical or spiritual. The idea is to purge ourselves of something that might stand in the way of our relationship with God and others. That can mean giving up meat on days besides Fridays or forgoing a favorite food or treat. It might mean less TV and more prayer.
This Lent, you might also consider giving up something else: plastic.
Now, it would be impossible to give up all plastic. Our cars have plastic parts; our phones have plastic cases; our “money” is plastic; our food is kept in plastic and even prepared in plastic.
However, plastic fills our world, overflowing landfills and polluting oceans. While some is recycled and some burned, most plastic remains in the trash. Environmental Protection Agency figures show that only about 9 percent of plastics are recycled in the U.S. Even recycled plastic is not easily converted. Plastic can only be recycled a few times — unlike aluminum, which can be recycled countless times — and is only recycled once or twice. And different plastics have different melting temperatures, different chemical contaminants and even different colors that affect recyclability.
Plastic was not common before the 1960s, with the first plastic invented in 1907. Yet, today, nearly all plastic created since 1960 still exists — 8.3 billion metric tons — most of it in the trash.
So where does all that plastic go?
Until January 2018, much of it went to China, which was the world’s largest recycler of plastic. China took in 70 percent of the world’s plastic and used it to produce thousands of items for export. But then China chose to ban most plastic imports to protect its own environment. Countries like the U.S. scrambled to find somewhere else to take plastic waste. Most of it was diverted to Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand. According to a Greenpeace study, Malaysia received more than 100 tons of plastic waste from the United States in just six months last year.
However, a lot of the plastic that was once exported now stays in our own landfills, which are rapidly filling up. In December, the New York Times reported that landfills in Oregon, Idaho, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii no longer accept plastics.
And, sadly, much of the plastic now ends up in the ocean. This increases the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a debris field twice the size of Texas that swirls around the ocean between California and Hawaii. It is the largest of five such garbage patches moving with the currents of the world’s oceans. Eventually, these plastics break down into micro-beads, but not before they kill off wildlife and block oxygen from sea water.
Yet most Americans don’t realize this impact.
So what to do? Certainly recycle more. But also try fasting from plastic.
Any effort will help. For example, did you know that, according to the Earth Policy Institute, each of us uses at least one plastic shopping bag each day? Worldwide, 2 million single-use plastic bags — like food packing — are used every two minutes.
You might try trading plastic shopping bags for reusable bags of cloth or canvas. Even nylon bags — a form of plastic — will break down in 30-40 years, unlike plastic bags that can take up to 100 years to biodegrade.
Zipper lunch baggies — which are single-use — can be replaced by similarly priced, waxed paper baggies.
Last September, California banned plastic straws in restaurants unless customers ask for them. Estimates of straw usage in the U.S. vary from 100 million up to 500 million annually. Consider using paper straws, or reusable straws made of stainless steel or bamboo.
What other plastics can you give up this Lent? Challenge yourself. You — and the oceans, landfills and the environment in general — will benefit.