An Ethical Problem of Plastic Pollution

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The internet provides easy access to problems all over the world. This instant access poses ethical questions about the responsibility individuals have with respect to the environment. One topic that always sparks debate is plastic pollution. Plastic pollution is the accumulation of plastic objects in the environment that harmfully affect both human and animal populations. If plastic is harmful, why is it even made? For starters, plastic is cheap to make, inexpensive to purchase, and convenient to use.

Plastic also has thousands of uses – from food packaging to durable vehicle parts to home insulation. Food stays fresher for longer when stored in plastic containers, decreasing the need for added preservatives to the food. Plastic packaging also protects the food and the consumer from contamination and germs while displayed and handled. The use of plastic in vehicles accounts for ten percent of its weight, and nearly fifty percent of its volume. The use of plastic sheeting in homes offers added insulation by decreasing drafts in the colder months (Perfect Plastic, 2015).

So plastic is not harmful after all? Not so fast. The issue with plastic, primarily disposable plastic, is that its durability makes it slow to decompose. This results in tons of plastic debris polluting land and water. So, if humans have a moral obligation to protect the environment and preserve it for future generations, who is to blame for plastic pollution? By blaming those who produce it, it removes the moral obligation of consumers to properly discard it. Even though plastic is harsh for the environment, plastic pollution is caused by people. Let’s look at the problem using the three dimensions of ethical theory and determine the best solution for plastic pollution.

First, we look at plastic pollution from the view of deontological ethics, or actions.  Deontological ethics is the branch of ethics in which people define what is morally right or wrong by the actions themselves, rather than referring to the consequences of those actions, or the character of the person who performs them (Wicks, Freeman, Werhane, & Martin, 2010). The theory of deontology provides direction for action by standards of right and wrong, determining whether our behaviors are acceptable or not. When we apply this theory to the problem with plastic pollution, lets first ask if the use of disposable plastic is right or wrong. Many consumers purchase single-use plastics out of convenience. It is much easier to use disposable silverware and cups than it is to carry dirty dishes around all day. If the use of disposable plastic itself is not wrong, let’s examine what happens when humans are done with it.

A walk along the local beach, or anywhere for that matter, shows that the environment is polluted by human action. Humans often choose to discard their trash on the ground instead of walking it over to the nearest receptacle. Of all the trash that litters the environment, plastic is by far the biggest offender. It can take hundreds of years for a single piece of plastic to decompose. Plastic bags take between ten and one thousand years to decompose, and plastic bottles can take 450 years or more (LeBlanc, 2016). This is one of many reasons plastic is harmful to marine life. The internet and local news channels have drawn more attention to the harmful effects of plastic with stories of marine life washing up to shore with stomachs full of plastic and straws in their noses.

No wonder there is a call to ban the make and use of plastic altogether. However, even if every human discarded their trash appropriately, plastic would still consume space in landfills and take just as long to decompose. Perhaps the solution is obvious – recycle. However, recycling is expensive. Plastic is made from petroleum. As the price of oil rises and falls, so does the cost of making new plastic. Sorting, cleaning, and preparing used plastic to recycle into new plastics is an expensive process. This method also uses a lot of water, energy, and effort, all of which are costly. While oil prices are low, it is more cost effective for companies to simply make new plastic from petroleum.

Now, let’s look at plastic pollution from the theory of virtue ethics or agents.  This branch of ethics emphasizes the character of a person. When thinking of character ethics, one often thinks of an individual’s strength of character, how they stick to their convictions and values even if it comes at a cost. This theory does not suggest that a person who uses disposable plastic has no character. There is more to morality than doing what is right (Holmes, 2007). If an individual only throws away their trash because someone else is watching, then they are only doing what is right for a pat on the back rather than moral reasons. Having strong moral principles is a sign of integrity, a characteristic of good character. How are global companies impacting the human right to live in a world free of plastic pollution? Plastic is both useful and needed – from food packaging to durable vehicle parts to home insulation – but the pollution is unintentional. Plastic is not formed to pollute the environment and oceans, it is intended to service humans and their various needs.

Suggesting that companies are responsible for plastics pollution waives the moral obligation for humans to fulfill their duty of preserving the environment. Should they, however, be responsible for producing greener options like bioplastics? Bioplastics are derived from renewable energy sources like plants and decompose much faster than synthetic plastic. While companies market these plastics as an eco-friendly alternative, they often need a higher temperature of an industrial compost facility to breakdown (Cho, 2018). The result is frustrated consumers throwing them away to the landfill.

Given the properties of plastic and the knowledge that it can take several thousand years to break down in a landfill and the high cost of purchasing bioplastics, let’s look at recycling. Recycling plastic prevents the pollution of landfills and water but is an expensive process. Recycling programs have migrated from smaller bins (which consumers had to sort their own waste) to large containers to toss all recyclables in. With this, well-intentioned consumers are mixing recyclables with non-recyclables, making the process for sorting and cleaning time consuming and expensive (Kramer, 2016).

Finally, let’s look at teleological ethics, or ends. This theory of ethics focuses on the moral importance of reaching goals and the need to achieve them. In this branch of ethics, the worth of the actions is determined by the outcome it generates. For example, if the outcome is positive, the act is considered good or right. If the outcome is negative, then the act is considered bad or wrong. Agents need to be sure the goals set are morally defensible, and the actions generate favorable consequences, otherwise, it will be hard to justify the outcome.

Individuals who throw their trash away instead of littering prevent pollution of the environment and harming marine life by sending their trash to the landfill instead. This outcome is both positive and negative. On a positive note, there would be less trash on the ground and less pollution in the water, but the landfill would be overflowing with non-biodegradable waste. Instead of purchasing disposable plastics, consumers can instead use metal or bamboo utensils, refillable tumblers, and reusable bags. The use of reusable products would eliminate the amount of waste going to the landfill. The actions are positive, so the result is considered good.

A government ban on the manufacturing and use of disposable plastic seems ideal until we consider how plastic is used in the foodservice industry. Plastic containers allow foods to stay fresh longer and prevents contamination when food is displayed and handled. A ban on disposable plastic would create an epidemic of illness, trading one problem for another. The action, while commendable, would result in negative consequences. The use of bioplastics sounds like a great alternative to using synthetic plastic, except the average consumer is not well-informed on the proper disposal. Many assume that a bioplastic cup will eventually decompose in a landfill and continue throwing them in the trash. In reality, they should be composted. However, there is often limited access to industrial composting facilities in residential areas. Throwing them in a landfill will do nothing to solve the litter or throw away problem. This is another example of a commendable action that would not generate a positive outcome that is desired.

Solving any problem requires the consideration of all three dimensions of ethical theory and the effects they have on the outcome. The solution to solving the problem of plastic pollution lies mostly in virtue ethics or actions. The reality is that on the go consumers will continue to gravitate towards the convenience of disposable plastic and banning its use ignores the larger issue of pollution. A recent “Ban the Straw” campaign has taken off in America, with many high-profile corporations proudly declaring they will stop using straws to help clean up the environment. While well intentioned, this is an easy way for people to feel good about something and pat themselves on the back while ignoring the fact that straws make a minimal impact on the pollution of plastics. It is, however, a start, and in order to accomplish the end goal, we must start somewhere.

If producers and companies are responsible for the damage plastic causes to our environment, let’s make them accountable for educating consumers on the different categories of bioplastic and how to dispose of each one. Consumers should be educated in sorting recyclable plastics and home composting versus industrial composting. In addition to education, there needs to be greater access to recycling and composting facilities. Limited access to these facilities results in bioplastics ending up in landfills, where lack of oxygen causes the release of other harmful chemicals into the soil (Cho, 2018). This will only increase the amount of environmental pollution.

Simply put, it starts with individual choices. Plastic pollution is caused by people. Those throw trash to the ground instead of walking it over to a receptacle or those who walk by a piece of trash on the ground and choose not to pick it up only contribute to the problem. Placing blame the manufacturers only distracts from the larger issue and also does not contribute to the solution of ending plastic pollution. The solution is a collective effort of consumers and corporations working together.

Even though scripture is not clear about why God created the universe, we cannot assume that it was done merely for human benefit. It has fundamental value; therefore, we should protect and preserve our environment before we enter the kingdom of God. We must understand that we cannot be selfish with our resources, that we will leave this world to future generations who deserve a clean and cared for environment. While the problem appears larger than we are, there are things we can do today to have an immediate impact on plastic pollution. For starters, it is important to reduce litter by discarding trash in the receptacle instead of the ground and remove trash from the local parks and beaches when visiting.

Most of the ocean pollution results in litter being swept in from coastlines or carried to rivers and lakes from the street when the wind blows. Picking up trash is an excellent place to start. Secondly, consumers should take note of how disposable plastic items they are using daily and replace with reusable items. Carrying a reusable water bottle and bringing your own bags to the store becomes a habit when done enough times and greatly reduces the number of single-use items going to the landfill. Next, every home should recycle. It seems obvious, yet very little plastic is recycled. Finally, when plastic is necessary, consumers should consider purchasing bioplastics versus synthetic.

Though individuals can make a difference through their own habits, global corporations have a much bigger platform and ought to migrate towards greener alternatives. It is important to communicate a pledge to sustainability both internally and externally. By communicating internally, it becomes ingrained into the company’s culture and employees can help support those efforts. External communication to suppliers and providers sets the expectation for the way you do business and influences the business community to commit as well. Require suppliers to embrace sustainability practices and purchase locally from providers who are environmentally responsible.

Furthermore, consumers have started looking for this kind of commitment from the companies they buy from. Implementing a recycling program and sharing how-to videos on the company website communicates a shared commitment to the environment. Renewable resources not nearly as cost-effective as synthetic plastics and a company cannot bankrupt itself simply because sustainability is the right thing to do. Preserving the environment is a collective effort and that requires both consumers and corporations to hold each other accountable.

Finally, consumers should have greater access to recycling centers and industrial compost centers. It is unrealistic to expect consumers to recycle if they do not access to the resources they need. Perhaps companies ought to implement a program in which they pay consumers for turning in recyclable plastics. This would encourage more consumer involvement and strengthen the relationship between the business and its customer.

Migrating towards a zero waste culture requires education. Many households would benefit from a better understanding of what can be recycled and what can be composted. It is important to know what is recyclable to prevent contamination and reduce the extra efforts needed to sort the good from the bad. Knowing what a compost pile needs to stay healthy and odor free is important to prevent contaminating the soil and water supply and offending the neighbors. The most important thing to remember is that there is always something an individual can contribute to the solution of ending plastic pollution. If purchasing reusable items or bioplastics is not a cost-effective option, there are still ways to help. Remember, everyone can reduce litter and remove waste.


  1. Holmes, A. F. (2007). Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions (2nd ed.). Westmont: InterVarsity Press.
  2. Hill, A. (2018). Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace (3rd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press.
  3. Wicks, A. C., Freeman, R. E., Werhane, P. H., & Martin, K. E. (2010). Business ethics: A Managerial Approach. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.
  4. Kramer, S. (2016, April 05). The one thing that makes recycling plastic work is falling apart. Retrieved February 17, 2019, from https://www.businessinsider.com/low-oil-prices-hurt-plastics-recycling-2016-4
  5. Perfect Plastic: How Plastic Improves Our Lives. (2015, June 26). Retrieved February 03, 2019, from http://www.pepctplastics.com/resources/connecticut-plastics-learning-center/perfect-plastic-how-plastic-improves-our-lives/
  6. LeBlanc, R. (16, December 16). How Long Will it Take that Bag of Trash to Decompose in a Landfill? Retrieved February 17, 2019, from https://www.thebalancesmb.com/how-long-does-it-take-garbage-to-decompose-2878033
  7. Cho, R. (2018, November 20). The Truth About Bioplastics. Retrieved February 20, 2019, from https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2017/12/13/the-truth-about-bioplastics/

Cite this paper

An Ethical Problem of Plastic Pollution. (2021, Apr 14). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/an-ethical-problem-of-plastic-pollution/



What are ethics issues?
Ethics issues are situations where there is a conflict between what is morally right and wrong. These issues often arise in areas such as business, politics, and healthcare, and require careful consideration and decision-making to ensure ethical principles are upheld.
What are the problems of plastic pollution?
The problems of plastic pollution include the release of chemicals into the environment and the impact on wildlife.
What are three problems caused by plastic?
1) Plastic is a major contributor to pollution, and it takes centuries to decompose. 2) Plastic is also a major source of ocean pollution, as it often ends up in the ocean via littering and other means. 3) Plastic can also be harmful to wildlife, as animals can mistake it for food and ingest it.
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