Plastic Problems: How much plastic a family of 5 uses in a week

Have you ever wondered just how much plastic you encounter in your daily life? 

For this story, we had a family of five hold on to every piece of plastic they touched for one week to get a sense of just how much plastic we use. 

But why does it matter? Doesn’t it just get recycled? Therein lies the problem, because, the thing that makes plastic so great, also makes it one of our worst, and most difficult environmental challenges.

The beginning of Plastic 

About a hundred years ago scientists got together and messed with some molecules and came up with polymers, the building blocks of "plastic". 

The idea back then was to create a product that was stronger, lighter and more durable than the natural materials of that time.

Well, those scientists did a bang-up job. This "new" product quickly became the product for a world that was, also quickly becoming industrialized, modernized and, populated. The use of this very unnatural material grew, and grew, and grew. And what to do with all of it, soon became a big problem. Because those scientists so long ago, came up with a product so good it does not break down and much of is not recycled. 

Which brings us back to our family of five, a microcosm of a world, whose population just surpassed 8 billion people. With many of them using plastics daily. 

"It’s probably fair to say that we did not give enough thought to what happens to plastics at the end of their life," said Marc Hillmyer Director of the National Science Foundation for Sustainable Polymers. "In fact, in the early days it was a research mission to develop materials that were resistant to degradation to replace natural materials and we were quite successful at that, but now in the fullness of time it’s quite clear that the persistence of those materials has led to environmental and ecological damage." 

Hillmyer heads a program at the University of Minnesota focused on making plastics environmentally friendly. 

Essentially, it’s his job to figure out ways to undo some of what his predecessors once did when they invented plastic 100 years ago.

Solutions to the Plastic Problem 

"We engage graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and undergraduate researchers to work on projects that try to move plastics from their current kind of unsustainable linear economy of one that’s more circular. So bio-based origins all the way through to end of life strategies that make sense," Hillmyer said

In other words, they’re trying to make plastic less plastic, so it eventually has somewhere to go.

Think of the solution to this as a plastic plate with 1/3 of the plate eaten up by recycling, 1/3 reuse, and 1/3 consumer conscience purchasing. With the focus for many, squarely on the latter. 

Environmentalists believe the real long-term solution to limiting plastics in our world is addressing the issue at its source: where we purchase the products in our daily lives.

Places like TARE Market, in Northeast Minneapolis where every possible effort has been made to limit plastics that come and go from store. 

Run by an owner who had a "plastics epiphany" over her plastic toothbrush buried in a landfill.

"And I thought about how many plastic toothbrushes I had used over the course of my lifetime and my family, and then my city block and I thought -- that is a lot of plastic toothbrushes.  So if I could do one thing, if I could make one swap to a more environmentally friendly option to displace all that plastic," TARE Market owner amber Haukedahl told fox 9. 

At TARE Market, with items like bamboo toothbrushes, patrons are making conscience choices to avoid the trappings of plastic bags, wrappers, bottles and other personal items. 

Some cost more, some cost less, but all, require new small efforts to help solve the very big problem of too much plastic just sitting around.

Have you ever done any math in terms of what a business like this, or we could break it down to individuals who shop in a business like this. How much less plastic they may use in a given lifetime or 

"Over 2000 toothbrushes were purchased here which those are bamboo, so they’re compostable versus a plastic toothbrush. So you can really start to see when people start living this way how quickly it makes a difference and how quickly we start to avoid seeing plastic enter the recycling facility," Haukedalh said. 

For some context on just how massive the problem of plastic pollution is currently, more than 90% of the world's plastic ends up in landfills, or scattered about on the earth's surface or waterways