Our use of plastic is killing the planet. Getting rid of it has become the new recycling. Remember there is no waste in nature, everything is recycled.
We’ve all seen the pictures of marine life tragically suffering from long living plastic objects that have found their way into the seas. But did you know that if you consume an “average amount” of seafood you will ingest around 11,000 plastic particles per year? Most of us have micro-beads of plastic in our bodies from the food we eat – with unknown health consequences.
Going plastic-free is not as easy as recycling, says Melissa Wang, senior scientist at Greenpeace UK. “We can’t simply recycle our way out of the problem. The plastic value chain is very complicated. We need solutions throughout. If we don’t reduce production and source, the problem will only get worse.”
Business is a key part of the solution. Joe Franses, vice-president for sustainability at Coca-Cola European Partners, acknowledges that “much of our packaging ends up where it should not. We have a responsibility to fix the problem. We have to change our business model.”
But we’re not all beverage manufacturers. Most of us are consumers, and if we continue to purchase objects involving plastic we are sending the wrong signal.
Sure, if you are a manufacturer of products containing plastic or use plastic packaging, you need to transition away from it and meanwhile inform customers whether the packaging and content are recyclable and where it can be recycled. You should also be working with policymakers to tighten targets and regulation.
The Senate committee’s current recommendations to ban single-use plastics by 2023 and implement a national deposit container scheme are a good idea but a long way off.
Another idea simply to burn waste now we can longer send it to China (never a good idea in the first place) will merely create a long-term market for the stuff and therefore an incentive to keep producing it.
Not all plastic is bad, sort of and remember there is no waste in nature – everything is recycled
Not all plastic is bad: plastics are polymers made by the petrochemical industry. But they can be made from plant materials, in which case they can decompose, but the rate of decomposition is complicated, especially in landfill where there is no oxygen present and they can still last for a very long time (maybe longer than you). So it’s best to avoid it altogether.
Your primary directive is not to create waste in the first place. After all, there is no waste in nature –everything gets endlessly recycled.
So, bearing that in mind, here are your top ten tips for reducing plastic to zero:
Households and companies
1. Declare a plastic-free workspace or home and get everybody on board. If people don’t understand why they should, shock and awe them with a video like this and this. Engage employees through workshops, green teams, events, rewards and pledges!
2. Target packaging and single-use plastic first: this is the biggest part of the problem since that’s what forms most of the plastic pollution – mostly packaging and bags. It’s hard to completely cut out food packaging, but fresh food is better for you and can be bought without PET plastic wrapping at selected grocery stores.
3. Avoid plastic cups and bottles: we managed for centuries with a glass and ceramic. If you need water on the go, fill a glass bottle from the tap. Ensure any food and beverage suppliers you use are phasing out single-use plastic packaging and products.
4. Use the Earth Day Network’s handy Plastic Pollution Calculator to discover how many plastic items you consume yearly.
5. Buy substitutes or nothing at all: question whether you need a product or can do without it. For example, carry your own reusable mugs and stainless steel straw. What about those convenient plastic bags, cotton buds and baby wipes? Plastic free alternatives exist.
6. Buy plastic free products: If you can’t do this locally, there are many online stores where you can buy anything from compostable bin liners to bamboo toothbrushes.
7. Have separate waste bins for different materials for recycling and repurposing. Make sure they are clearly labelled and positioned in locations that make using them a no-brainer. Eliminate general waste bins.
8. Run competitions. If you have multiple offices or sites, set waste reduction challenges to see which sites achieves the best results and recognise the achievers.
9. Manage your supply chain: ensure suppliers you procure from are tackling the problem too. Major retailers, brands and plastic packaging suppliers are signing up to ambitious targets to eliminate unnecessary and problematic plastic and to use recycled plastic in their packaging where possible while ensuring all plastic packaging is practically recyclable.
10. Talk to your waste management company: they can help you identify potential opportunities that are being missed. Even better, they can come up with innovative solutions to specific issues your organisation face. If recycling is uneconomic, explore finding an alternative use for the waste material, or even one that creates a market for recyclable plastics by designing new products. Ultimately, a new business proposition with a feel-good factor has to be one of the pathways out of this mess.
Coming off plastic completely might be even harder than giving up smoking, but it’s even more beneficial – not just for your own life, but all life on Earth.
David Thorpe is the author of The One Planet Life.