The United Nations Environment Program had another meeting June 5 on implementing solutions to rapidly rising plastic garbage pollution in lakes, rivers and oceans worldwide. Plastic was first produced in 1950 from oil and has risen to 460 million tons per year by 2019, with higher amounts in high-income countries. Europe has banned production of single-use plastics, requiring alternative materials for food service and packaging that are recyclable, reusable and minimize environmental effects in their disposal.

As a student of anthropology and 43-year neighbor of thrifty New Englanders, I am aware of how much effort historically by all cultures went into making pottery, baskets or wooden vessels to hold food and water. I take my own containers to the fish market, drug store and grocery store; recycle and compost; yet still accumulate one bag of plastic trash weekly plus more recyclables and compost. Most grocery store food comes in plastic, and you only need so many washed and reusable plastic bags. Us customers could expect less convenience, be willing to take our own containers to fill at the store and lobby our grocers to give us bulk bins of nuts, dried fruit, grains and dry beans.

Addressing plastic pollution and marine litter requires a new way of thinking that looks at the entire lifecycle of plastics in a process called lifecycle analysis. Both Colombia and the European Parliament evaluated paper and organic-based alternatives to single-use plastics in their movements towards a circular economy. By 2019, this research prompted a ban on oxo-degradable plastic, plastic fishing line and single-use plastics. These deceptively labeled plastics, used in shopping bags and agricultural film, don’t decompose but break into pieces. To support this transitional plan, Parliament advanced a European communication campaign, supported industry innovations and designed eco-labelling for paper-based products.

America also must move from downstream approaches to reducing plastic pollution after use to upstream design and manufacturing — for example, banning microplastics and single-use plastic food or bag containers. In the ’50s and ’60s, American products from appliances to toys were made of wood and metal that lasted for decades. Now, with America’s huge emphasis on cheapest rather than quality products, most children’s toys are made of plastic, and most store products are covered in excessive plastic. Countries and states building circular economies, as Maine is initiating with our extended producer-responsibility law, can also evaluate and restrict materials that can’t be repaired, reused or recycled. This is absolutely necessary with most Maine town landfills full and closed, incineration almost the only disposal method available and only two toxic-waste landfills open in the state.

A lifecycle analysis evaluates effects on climate, ecosystems, toxicity, jobs and economy caused by plastic products, goods, services and their alternatives. Alternatives to single-use plastic, including cardboard, paper or cotton bags, can be evaluated and adopted when they minimize end-of-life pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and environmental effects of extraction, production and distribution.

Here are some effective ways to reduce your plastic use. Natural fibers like wool, cotton, hemp or bamboo don’t shed plastic fibers like polyester, nylon, rayon or acrylic yarn and fabrics. New parents can buy cloth diapers or use a diaper service to avoid baby diapers that are made entirely of plastic, saving both money and landfill space. You can carry a metal or plastic water bottle without BPE with you to work and meetings to avoid buying water in plastic containers that depletes area groundwater. Switch to non-liquid soaps, shampoos and detergents to reduce bulky, hard plastic containers. My family is substituting laundry detergent sheets and using dishwasher powders in cardboard boxes. Bar soap is less wasteful for hand washing and comes in paper wrappers.

Thank you for considering making changes to become a better Earth steward and help create a local circular economy.

Nancy Chandler studied Animal Behavior and Anthropology at Stanford University, then received her master’s in biology education in her home state of North Carolina at U.N.C. Chapel Hill. She is passionate about teaching energy conservation and hopes to get you thinking about how to use energy use efficiently to save both money and reduce greenhouse warming gases.

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