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Plastic makes our lives easier—but it’s also hurting the environment.

Your toothbrush. A bottle of juice. Your headphones or favorite pen. The wrapper on a cereal bar. You probably use or touch plastic dozens of times each day.

You’re not alone. For years, people have sipped from plastic straws and carried groceries in plastic bags without a second thought. But nearly every bit of the plastic we use gets thrown away. In fact, in the time it takes to read this sentence, Americans will have tossed more than 20,000 pounds of plastic. All that waste is causing major problems for the planet.

That’s why people, companies, and even whole cities around the U.S. are working to reduce plastic usage. But will those efforts be enough?

Your toothbrush. A bottle of juice. Your headphones or favorite pen. The wrapper on a cereal bar. You probably use or touch plastic dozens of times each day.

You’re not alone. For years, people have sipped from plastic straws and carried groceries in plastic bags without a second thought. But nearly every bit of the plastic we use gets thrown away. In fact, in the time it takes to read this sentence, Americans will have tossed more than 20,000 pounds of plastic. All that waste is causing major problems for the planet.

That’s why people, companies, and even whole cities around the U.S. are working to reduce plastic usage. But will those efforts be enough?

DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP Creative/Getty Images (plastic waste lake)

A GLOBAL PROBLEM: Plastic waste covers a lake in Bulgaria, a country in Europe, in 2009.

Making Life Easier

Plastic as we know it was invented in the early 1900s. But for most Americans, it didn’t become a big part of everyday life until the 1950s, when companies began to make household goods with plastic. Disposable plates, cups, utensils, and other items were advertised as a way to save time. Rather than washing dishes, people could simply throw them out after every meal.

Over time, plastic became a low-cost, durable replacement for other materials. Plastic bottles don’t shatter like glass ones, and plastic bags are sturdier than those made of paper.

Today, at least 40 percent of all plastic produced is meant to be used just once, then thrown away. Experts say it’s this single-use plastic that’s creating a crisis, especially in the sea.

Plastic as we know it was invented in the early 1900s. But it didn’t become a big part of everyday life for Americans until the 1950s. That’s when companies began to make household goods with plastic. Disposable plates, cups, utensils, and other items were advertised as a way to save time. People didn’t have to wash the dishes. They could simply throw them out after every meal.

Over time, plastic became a low-cost, durable replacement for other materials. Plastic bottles don’t shatter like glass ones. Plastic bags are sturdier than those made of paper.

Today, at least 40 percent of all plastic produced is meant to be used just once, then thrown away. Experts say it’s this single-use plastic that’s creating a crisis, especially in the sea. 

Oceans of Plastic

What happens to all the plastic we throw away? Only about 9 percent of it gets recycled. Most of the rest ends up in landfills, where it’s buried under layers of dirt. Experts can only guess how long that plastic takes to decompose, or break down. It may take centuries.

But a lot of plastic trash never makes it to landfills. Instead, it becomes litter on the street. Rain and wind carry plastic bags, bottles, and other debris into storm drains or rivers that flow to the ocean.

When plastic waste ends up in the ocean, the results can be tragic. Last year, a dead sperm whale washed ashore in Spain. Scientists found that it had eaten 64 pounds of plastic trash, including plastic bags, fishing nets, and even a plastic drum.

It’s not just big pieces of plastic that can be dangerous, though. In the ocean, sunlight and waves often break down plastic into much smaller pieces, called microplastics. Even these tiny bits of plastic contain chemicals that can harm the seabirds, turtles, and fish that accidentally swallow them. This can have an impact on the whole food chain.

“It affects not just the individual animals that eat plastic but the animals that eat those animals,” says Matthew Savoca. He is a scientist who studies the effects of plastic on marine life.

What happens to all the plastic we throw away? Only about 9 percent of it gets recycled. Most of the rest ends up in landfills. It gets buried under layers of dirt. Experts can only guess how long that plastic takes to decompose, or break down. It may take centuries.

But a lot of plastic trash never makes it to landfills. Instead, it becomes litter on the street. Rain and wind carry plastic bags, bottles, and other debris into storm drains or rivers that flow to the ocean.

When plastic waste ends up in the ocean, the results can be tragic. Last year, a dead sperm whale washed ashore in Spain. Scientists found that it had eaten 64 pounds of plastic trash. That included plastic bags, fishing nets, and even a plastic drum.

It’s not just big pieces of plastic that can be dangerous, though. In the ocean, sunlight and waves often break down plastic into much smaller pieces. They are called microplastics. Even these tiny bits of plastic contain chemicals. Those chemicals can harm the seabirds, turtles, and fish that accidentally swallow them. This can have an impact on the whole food chain.

“It affects not just the individual animals that eat plastic but the animals that eat those animals,” says Matthew Savoca. He is a scientist who studies the effects of plastic on marine life.

Paulo Oliveira/Alamy Stock Photo

A hermit crab with a plastic bottle top in place of its shell

Pitching In

What happens to all the plastic we throw away? Only about 9 percent of it gets recycled. Most of the rest ends up in landfills, where it’s buried under layers of dirt. Experts can only guess how long that plastic takes to decompose, or break down. It may take centuries.

But a lot of plastic trash never makes it to landfills. Instead, it becomes litter on the street. Rain and wind carry plastic bags, bottles, and other debris into storm drains or rivers that flow to the ocean.

When plastic waste ends up in the ocean, the results can be tragic. Last year, a dead sperm whale washed ashore in Spain. Scientists found that it had eaten 64 pounds of plastic trash, including plastic bags, fishing nets, and even a plastic drum.

It’s not just big pieces of plastic that can be dangerous, though. In the ocean, sunlight and waves often break down plastic into much smaller pieces, called microplastics. Even these tiny bits of plastic contain chemicals that can harm the seabirds, turtles, and fish that accidentally swallow them. This can have an impact on the whole food chain.

“It affects not just the individual animals that eat plastic but the animals that eat those animals,” says Matthew Savoca. He is a scientist who studies the effects of plastic on marine life.

What happens to all the plastic we throw away? Only about 9 percent of it gets recycled. Most of the rest ends up in landfills. It gets buried under layers of dirt. Experts can only guess how long that plastic takes to decompose, or break down. It may take centuries.

But a lot of plastic trash never makes it to landfills. Instead, it becomes litter on the street. Rain and wind carry plastic bags, bottles, and other debris into storm drains or rivers that flow to the ocean.

When plastic waste ends up in the ocean, the results can be tragic. Last year, a dead sperm whale washed ashore in Spain. Scientists found that it had eaten 64 pounds of plastic trash. That included plastic bags, fishing nets, and even a plastic drum.

It’s not just big pieces of plastic that can be dangerous, though. In the ocean, sunlight and waves often break down plastic into much smaller pieces. They are called microplastics. Even these tiny bits of plastic contain chemicals. Those chemicals can harm the seabirds, turtles, and fish that accidentally swallow them. This can have an impact on the whole food chain.

“It affects not just the individual animals that eat plastic but the animals that eat those animals,” says Matthew Savoca. He is a scientist who studies the effects of plastic on marine life.

Communities and businesses across the country are trying to tackle the plastic problem. Plastic grocery bags are banned in dozens of cities, from Seattle, Washington, to Bar Harbor, Maine. Plus, businesses such as Hilton hotels and SeaWorld theme parks are no longer giving out single-use plastic straws.

But it doesn’t take an entire city or a big company to make a difference. Experts say we can all do our part by reducing the amount of plastic we use. That starts with the little decisions we make every day.

“Do I really need that straw, that plastic bag, that plastic coffee lid at Starbucks?” says Savoca. “It’s about people rethinking the way they use these single-use items. The real change is in our behavior.”

Communities and businesses across the country are trying to tackle the plastic problem. Plastic grocery bags are banned in dozens of cities, from Seattle, Washington, to Bar Harbor, Maine. Plus, businesses such as Hilton hotels and SeaWorld theme parks are no longer giving out single-use plastic straws.

But it doesn’t take an entire city or a big company to make a difference. Experts say we can all do our part by reducing the amount of plastic we use. That starts with the little decisions we make every day.

“Do I really need that straw, that plastic bag, that plastic coffee lid at Starbucks?” says Savoca. “It’s about people rethinking the way they use these single-use items. The real change is in our behavior.”

1. Why do you think the author begins the article by listing items?

2. Explain how plastic waste ends up in the ocean.

3. What does Matthew Savoca mean when he says “the real change is in our behavior”?

4. Study the photos on pages 2 and 3. What do you notice? How do they help you understand the article?

1. Why do you think the author begins the article by listing items?

2. Explain how plastic waste ends up in the ocean.

3. What does Matthew Savoca mean when he says “the real change is in our behavior”?

4. Study the photos on pages 2 and 3. What do you notice? How do they help you understand the article?

Close-Reading Questions

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