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

Your toothbrush. Your headphones. A bottle of juice or a cereal bar wrapper. You may not realize it, but 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. But nearly all 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 big problems for the planet.

That’s why people around the U.S. are working to reduce plastic usage. But will their efforts be enough?

Your toothbrush. Your headphones. A bottle of juice or a cereal bar wrapper. You probably use or touch plastic dozens of times each day. But you may not realize it.

You’re not alone. For years, people have sipped from plastic straws and carried groceries in plastic bags. But nearly all 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 big problems for the planet.

That’s why people around the U.S. are working to reduce plastic usage. But will their efforts be enough?

DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP Creative/Getty Images

A GLOBAL PROBLEM: Plastic waste in 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. That’s when companies began to make household goods with plastic. Disposable plates, cups, and other items were advertised as a way to save time. Instead of 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 paper bags.

Today, at least 40 percent of all plastic produced is single-use. That means it’s used only once and then thrown away. Experts say single-use plastic is creating the biggest problems, 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 most Americans until the 1950s. That’s when companies began to make household goods with plastic. Disposable plates, cups, and other items were advertised as a way to save time. People didn’t have to wash 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 paper bags.

Today, at least 40 percent of all plastic produced is single-use. That means it’s used only once. Then it’s thrown away. Experts say single-use plastic is creating the biggest problems, especially in the sea. 

Paulo Oliveira/Alamy Stock Photo

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

Oceans of Plastic

What happens to the plastic we throw away? Only about 9 percent of it gets recycled. Most of the rest ends up in landfills, buried under layers of dirt. Experts think this plastic may take centuries to decompose, or break down.

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

When plastic waste ends up in the ocean, the results can be deadly. Last year, a dead sperm whale washed ashore in Spain. Scientists found that the whale had eaten 64 pounds of plastic, 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 break down plastic into much smaller pieces. These tiny bits are called microplastics. They contain chemicals that can harm seabirds, turtles, and fish that swallow them.

What happens to 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 think this plastic may take centuries to decompose, or break down.

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

When plastic waste ends up in the ocean, the results can be deadly. Last year, a dead sperm whale washed ashore in Spain. Scientists found that the whale had eaten 64 pounds of plastic. 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 break down plastic into much smaller pieces. These tiny bits are called microplastics. They contain chemicals. Those chemicals can harm seabirds, turtles, and fish that swallow them. 

Pitching In

Communities and businesses across the country are trying to tackle the plastic problem. Plastic grocery bags are banned in dozens of cities. Plus, many 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. They suggest we start by thinking more about the little decisions we make every day. So ask yourself: Do you really need that straw or plastic bag?

Communities and businesses across the country are trying to tackle the plastic problem. Plastic grocery bags are banned in dozens of cities. Plus, many businesses, such as Hilton hotels and SeaWorld theme parks, stopped 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. We can reduce the amount of plastic we use. They suggest we start by thinking more about the little decisions we make every day. So ask yourself: Do you really need that straw or plastic bag?

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

2. What is the purpose of the section “Making Life Easier”?

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

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. What is the purpose of the section “Making Life Easier”?

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

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

Close-Reading Questions

Click the Google Quiz button below to share these Close-Reading Questions with your class.

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