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Opinion: Nothing we use for a few minutes should harm our environment for hundreds of years

Our planet is about to be flooded with plastic if we don’t do something to turn the tap off.

A "bag monster" showed her support for banning disposable trash bags and other one-time-use plastics. She joined a group of zero-waste advocates who on Feb. 28, 2019, delivered a petition signed by 20,000 Coloradans urging state lawmakers to act. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

We’re using and producing more plastics than ever. In fact, Coloradans throw away an estimated 1,155,000 tons of plastics every year — over 6.3 million pounds per day. 

Just think about that cup that you hurriedly drank your morning coffee from and then threw away. It may be out of your hands, but it will remain on our planet for hundreds of years. 

Hannah Collazo

This probably isn’t a surprise as we all see this pollution on a daily basis floating in the Platte River or suspended in the trees at your kid’s playground. But what you don’t see is how we got here. 

The reality is the petrochemical industry is scrambling to find the next product to make from fossil fuels. The plastics industry, which is effectively a subsidiary of the oil and gas sector, is expected to double its plastic manufacturing capacity from 2016 to 2024. 

Our planet is about to be flooded with plastic if we don’t do something to turn the tap off.

There is one step we can take right now to prevent more fossil-fuel-based foam from entering our water sources, polluting our parks, and threatening Colorado’s wildlife.

We can reduce our use of unnecessary plastics like plastic bags and polystyrene and let Colorado communities make their own decisions about single-use plastic, and House Bill 1162 — the Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, a bill currently being considered in the Colorado legislature —  would do just that. The measure has passed the state House and is now before the Senate.

Polystyrene, commonly referred to as Styrofoam, breaks apart easily into tiny particles called microplastics, and, literally, persists in the environment for hundreds of years. In fact, every bit of polystyrene ever made is still out there. Beyond that, it’s a proven carcinogen and toxin that increases risks for leukemia and other cancers. 

Yet despite decades of trying to recycle foam, less than 3% is recycled. In fact, Styrofoam and plastic bags are two of the most problematic materials for recycling facilities, one of many reasons why states and countries are increasingly banning these products. 

The industry likes to tout that you can recycle foam to-go containers, which isn’t true. The city of Denver’s helpful online tool that helps people decide if they can recycle something or not explicitly tells you to “put this item in your trash container for disposal” when you search Styrofoam. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

The unvarnished truth is that the only way to stop foam from entering our environment is to stop using it.

A commonly used talking point that those who oppose restricting the use of polystyrene is that if we don’t use foam, other options aren’t really any better for the environment.

I dare people to dream bigger. The assumption that we need to replace foam or plastic bags with another disposable alternative is really short-sighted. 

My grandmother and I disagree on a variety of issues, but something we find common ground on is reducing our waste. She likes to remind me that, long before it was cool, she was bringing a canvas bag to pack her groceries at the market. We don’t need to imagine a world free from single-use plastics because previous generations lived it.

Addressing the plastic pollution crisis is also about using less overall — rather than just switching to different disposable materials. That said, I’m not suggesting avoiding your favorite takeout food place. We just all need to make some modifications. 

For restaurants, they’ll need to transition to alternative packaging that’s more recyclable, reusable, more compostable, and emit less greenhouse gas emissions from their production to their disposal.

There is no perfect material, but we have to start somewhere. Paper bags are resource-intensive on the front end, but they are easier to recycle. But replacing plastic bags with paper is not the end game. 

Instituting plastic bag restrictions and fees is proven to actually reduce overall bag use, not just get people to use paper bags instead of plastic. The goal is to move people to use bags that are not single-use.

For example, the city of Aspen phased out plastic bags and implemented a fee on paper bags. In a study after the ban, the city found that 45% of shoppers used no bag and 40% used reusable bags. 

This shows a bag restriction and fees helps nudge consumers toward a greater overall pollution-free approach to shopping. This is important because, ultimately, any product that is single-use is not consistent with the world we want to create.

Our climate, health, water and air are all reasons enough to phase out our reliance on unnecessary and often harmful plastics, but we must think about this issue even more broadly.

This is about stewardship and conservation. Both are values that most Coloradans hold dear, and using something for five minutes that will pollute our planet for hundreds of years is antithetical to those important ethical values.


Hannah Collazo is the state director of Environment Colorado, an advocacy group focused on protecting our land, water and open spaces.


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