Refuse is the New “R” Word When it Comes to Plastic Pollution

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

A 2015 study found that the threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is “global, pervasive, and increasing.” As Lorraine Chow reported for Truthout in September 2018, the researchers estimated that ninety percent of seabirds have ingested some form of plastic, which birds mistake for food. If plastic consumption continues at its current rate, the study’s authors predicted that, by 2050, 99 percent of seabirds will have plastic in their guts.

In a separate 2015 study, also reported by Chow, researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of Georgia, and the Sea Education Association calculated that nine billion tons of plastic have been made, distributed and disposed in fewer than seventy years.

As Chow wrote, plastic pollution in oceans has gained some public attention due to a video of marine biologists in Costa Rica prying a plastic straw from the nose of a sea turtle. Everyday people dispose of some 175 million plastic straws, but they are only a fraction of the plastic that makes its way to the sea.

Plastic bottles are consumed by the millions and only nine percent of them ultimately get recycled, which means the other 91% end up in landfills or the environment, where they can take as long as 450-years to decompose.

Numerous campaigns have sought to encourage recycling, emphasizing how easy it is (“Use the blue recycling bin.”) However, as Mary Mazzoni reported for Truthout in October, 2018, the massive scope of plastic pollution requires a “multi-pronged approach” that includes not only recycling, but also source reduction and reuse.

David Biderman, the executive director of  the Solid Waste Association of North America, explained that, on average, ten to fifteen percent of the material sent to US recycling centers is not recyclable, and it eventually makes its way to local landfills. This includes plastic bags from stores, garden hoses, and many lightweight plastics, to name a few. At the same time, single-use plastics are being produced at an alarming rate. In brief, there is no easy way to get rid of plastics.

Robert Reed, a spokesperson for Recology, a San Francisco-based recycling and compost collection company, cautioned against counting on the recycling market as a single solution.  “The consistent advice from environmentalists,” Reed said,  “is ‘refuse’ single-use plastics. Refuse plastic straws. Carry a metal water bottle and refuse plastic water bottles … Refuse is the new R word.”


Lorraine Chow, “Ninety-Nine Percent of Seabirds Will Have Plastic in Their Guts within Decades,” Truthout, September 25, 2018,

Mary Mazzoni, “The Complex and Frustrating Reality of Recycling Plastic,” Truthout, October 17, 2018,

Student Researcher: Erin Hogan (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Wendy St. John (Sonoma State University)