In the United States, over 185 billion plastic straws are used every year.
Americans use an average of 365 plastic bags per person per year.
Every year, 49 billion plastic utensils are used and tossed in the United States.
Single-use plastic items, such as those mentioned above, are items used once for a short time and discarded. Unfortunately, these items are wreaking havoc on our health and the environment from the extraction of the resources used to make the items, to the manufacturing process, as well as the disposal. It is well-documented that single-use plastic waste is choking our oceans, littering our beaches and communities, and harming wildlife. Plastic breaks down into tiny particles and these pieces are literally raining on us, being ingested by us, and invading the food chain. Also, the chemicals in plastic items are leaching into foods we eat. Pollution from burning dirty fossil fuels to make the plastic is contributing to climate change. And the list of impacts of single-use plastic waste goes on and on.
But how does single-use plastic waste get into the environment, specifically beaches and the ocean? Think about your day: what items do you use once and quickly discard? Our manufacturing and addiction to single-use living comes at great costs. Waste, trash, and litter find their way into our waterways from many sources and are harmful to animals that mistake it for food, and/or become entangled. It often starts on land as litter and is either windblown or carried by stormwater into waterways, which ultimately flows into the sea, and washes onto beaches. Further, landfills are filling-up with single-use plastics and presenting disposal challenges.
While single-use waste and its impacts are a human-created problem, fortunately, it is a problem that can be solved by humans with better, more informed behavior and choices and meaningful actions. In recent years, cleanups and advertising campaigns have educated people, plastic alternatives have been identified, and ordinances and laws have been established to address plastic pollution and its impacts.
In New Jersey, twice each year, thousands of volunteers of all ages participate in Clean Ocean Action’s Beach Sweeps, up and down the coast to learn about and remove shoreline litter. Since launching the region’s first beach cleanup program in 1985, 147,860 volunteers have removed 7,424,453 million pieces of refuse from New Jersey’s beaches and waterways. The goal of the Beach Sweeps is to engage people to protect marine life by removing harmful debris, collecting data to create evidence that can be used to enact policies to reduce sources, and become self-aware about pollution issues. The data from Clean Ocean Action’s Beach Sweeps program tell only part of the story.
Over the years, Beach Sweeps data has resulted in state and federal litter-reduction laws. Consider this fact – in 2019 alone, 35,124 plastic straws/stirrers, 9,724 plastic shopping bags, and 1,920 foam plastic food containers were collected by Beach Sweeps volunteers in NJ. For years, Clean Ocean Action and many organizations across the state worked to pass local ordinances and a statewide law to reduce the number of these and other single-use plastic items.
If the litter and wildlife impacts are not enough to convince you to eliminate or reduce single-use items in your daily routine, consider that researchers have found that chemicals used in the manufacturing of plastic items have been linked to health problems, such as metabolic disorders (including obesity) and reduced fertility. When plastic items are exposed to heat, the leaching of these chemicals into the foods we eat and drink occurs faster and to a greater degree. According to Beyond Plastics, plastics and food packaging contain chemical contaminants produced during manufacturing along with many additives to make them inflammable, more flexible, grease-resistant, or sterile. Many of these additives are toxic, leak from products during use, and can be released during recycling and from recycled products.
With all these impacts in mind, organizations, citizens, and officials worked on passing legislation to address and reduce single-use waste products at the statewide level. On November 4, 2020, Governor Murphy signed New Jersey’s Single-Use Waste Reduction Law (S.864/A.1978), widely regarded as the strongest single-use waste reduction measure in the nation. The law is designed to reduce single-use waste by banning specific items.
Here is how the law will affect you:
Banning Plastic & Paper Carryout Bags (Effective May 2022)
Prohibits stores from providing single-use plastic carryout bags to customers
Prohibits grocery stores over 2,500 sq. ft. from providing single-use paper carryout bags to customers
Limiting Plastic Straws (Effective November 2021)
Prohibits all food service establishments from providing single-use plastic straws unless the customer requests one
Foam Plastic (polystyrene) (Effective May 2022)
Prohibits polystyrene foam (Styrofoam) food ware for all businesses that sell and provide food products
Fortunately, many sources of single-use plastic waste are known, and you can (and soon must) be part of the solution for some of the problematic plastic items. With some slight changes in behavior, together, we will reduce single-use plastic waste and litter and lessen our impact on the environment. Here are some ways you can reduce single-use waste:
Reduce, reuse, refuse, and recycle.
Educate friends and family about the benefits of using environmentally friendly products, from cleaners to packaging and printing.
Avoid items in single-use waste packaging. Use reusable containers for food and beverages.
Gather your cloth reusable shopping bags to use at stores. Put them in the car after use for the next trip to the store!
Participate in Clean Ocean Action’s 37thAnnual Fall Beach Sweeps on October 23, 2021, from 9am-12:30pm. For registration and site information, go to CleanOceanAction.org.
Clean Ocean Action (COA) is a broad-based coalition of active boating, business, community, conservation, diving, environmental, fishing, religious, service, student, surfing, and women’s groups. These “Ocean Wavemakers” work to clean up and protect the waters of the New York Bight. The groups came together in 1984 to investigate sources, effects, and solutions of ocean pollution. Clean Ocean Action’s goal is to improve the degraded water quality of the marine waters off the New Jersey/New York coast.” Clean Ocean Action uses research, education, and citizen action to unite and empower people to protect the ocean. Clean Ocean Action’s main headquarters is located in Long Branch, NJ.
Kari Martin is currently Advocacy Campaign Manager for Clean Ocean Action. Kari originally joined the COA staff in 2000 as a college intern. In 2001, she was hired full time to focus on outreach and education, and later grew the position to become Policy Outreach and Communications Director. Kari left her position in 2009 to raise a family and joined COA’s Board of Trustees from 2015-2019. Kari left the Board and rejoined the COA staff in 2019 to focus once again on education. After one year, Kari turned once again to grassroots organizing and advocacy. Kari now develops advocacy and outreach campaigns on ocean pollution issues. She received her Master of Science degree from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and received her undergraduate degree from Alfred University.