[OPINION] Single-Use Plastics: A Damaging Convenience


Anvika Hegde

Olive Ridley Sea Turtles are one of the smallest turtles, reaching about 100 pounds in weight and 2 feet in shell length. While they prefer solitude and open ocean, every year between June and December they come ashore to tropical beaches for nesting. Researchers who came to observe these turtles on December 2015 at Playa Ostional were horrified to see one turtle squirming with a white plastic object stuck in its nose. The below video of the researchers attempting to remove what turned out to be a plastic fork went viral. It was a painful and heartbreaking sight. You may think when you reach for the plastic cutlery, one plastic spoon or fork doesn’t make a difference, right? Well, so do 7 billion other people. According to National Geographic, 18 billion pounds of plastic end up in the sea annually. But the shocking fact is that it’s only the tip of the iceberg. There is a lot of plastic in our lives, and I wanted to understand its impact.      

     Let us follow the life cycle of a plastic fork. To start, this fork is made using raw materials from non-renewable resources such as oil and energy from fossil fuels that cause pollution. The fork is next packaged into a cardboard box (made from paper which comes from trees). Then, the fork is shipped to a store, in a fossil fuel burning vehicle, where someone buys it and drives it back home burning more fossil fuels. The fork is then used only once before being likely thrown away in the garbage, and taken to the landfill, or dumped into the oceans. This is because most single-use plastic cutlery can’t really be recycled. Even ones that can be are generally not recycled because it’s not economically viable. Plastic causes a lot of damage such as polluting the oceans, damaging marine animals and even birds, and leaching toxins that eventually make their way to our food. Right now, about 90% of the trash found in the ocean is plastic. There is speculation that plastic pollution is responsible for the dead spots in several places throughout the world, including the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean.

We need to do something about this problem before it becomes a runaway train. We have to reduce our plastic footprint. As individuals and as a community we can do several things that can collectively make a big difference. For instance, bring metal water bottles filled with water instead of purchasing plastic water bottles, bring reusable bags when you go shopping in the supermarket, stop or reduce using plastic straws, and stop or reduce eating pre-packaged food. Here at MMS, we can have a significant impact by switching from plastic cutlery to metal cutlery in the cafeteria. However, is shifting to metal cutlery in the cafeteria really cost-effective and feasible?        

     In the long-run, this switch is beneficial. Two middle schools in Minnetonka, in fact, have already made this switch. The school system consisted of two thousand students, staff and visitors. In the first year, the school saved approximately $3,000 by buying reusable utensils and bowls instead of plastic spoons and bowls. The annual per-student cost for food-ware dropped from $6.89 to $4.83. This also resulted in the prevention of approximately 6,000 pounds of solid plastic waste in the first year. Instead of buying 700,000 plastic utensils that year, the school purchased 12,000 reusable metal utensils. The usage of metal utensils resulted in a 77% reduction in greenhouse gases and water consumption over disposable plastic utensils. Over 3 years of use, the school anticipated saving $23,000. The school managed to do this without hiring additional staff. Switching to reusable utensils is good for the environment and saves money.  If these middle schools can do it, MMS can do it too!      

 So, how are we going to do this? We should study other schools and institutions (like the Minnetonka schools) who have made similar efforts to come up with a plan for MMS. We need to figure out the funds required and make plans to raise money. We can raise money by setting up fundraisers with Peer Leader Groups, potentially getting donations from local businesses, or grants from local and national environmental agencies (the Minnetonka schools received a grant from Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to switch from disposable to reusable food-ware). We also need to set up a new process in the cafeteria to use and wash metal cutlery. The staff will need some additional training to handle the process and help students adapt to this new process. While it may not seem easy, it is definitely doable as others have demonstrated.      

     We are privileged to be at the top of the food chain but also have the responsibility to take care of the planet. New York, Seattle, California, Hawai, and 32 countries have already banned various forms of single-use plastics as this is an increasing realization that our usage of single-use plastics is unsustainable. As a responsible community and individuals, we in MMS should do what we can. This Earth Day, let us pledge to do one small thing better yet change one little habit that will reduce our plastic footprint. Let’s give back to the Earth that gives us so much.