Plastic is fantastic, right? Ever since humanity discovered how to make just about anything from plastic, it slowly but surely began to fill all aspects of our lives. Carrier bags, toothbrushes, disposable razors, coffee cups, cling film, disposable cutlery, plastic plates… you name it, there’s a plastic version available. And it’s usually the cheaper and more convenient option. But for a long time, we’ve been missing the bigger picture.
The ‘bigger picture’, so to speak, is now very hard to ignore, because it’s everywhere we look. The internet has enabled us to see the interconnectivity of issues all around the globe, so an image of a Coca-Cola bottle top removed from the stomach of a dead sea bird in a remote island in the Pacific makes it onto our Facebook, and all of a sudden the gravity of the situation hits home. Plastic isn’t fantastic, and the change needs to be drastic.
The plastic polluting our oceans, cities and countryside and filling our landfill sites is a huge issue, as is the carbon footprint of so much plastic production. Recycling obviously doesn’t avoid the initial resource use of production, nor does it do much to help the wider issue when a very low percentage of plastic products out there are actually made from recycled plastic, and most plastics cannot be recycled into the same product. For example, a plastic water bottle can not be recycled into another plastic water bottle, so at best it will be used to make, say, clothing. And plastic-based clothing (such as polyester) is a huge issue in itself, as when we wash it small fibres can make their way into our water supplies, the ocean, and into the food chain of humans and other species. Not fantastic.
The environmental impact of our (short-term) convenient, single-use plastics is catastrophic, and not only affects an innumerable number of other animals species, but is even making its way back into our food supply (largely through eating marine animals, and drinking micro-plastic polluted water), having an impact on human health. Further to this, many plastics we use are directly damaging to our health, often containing toxic chemicals that leach into out food and drink, such as BPA. Even those that claim to be BPA free can contain other harmful chemicals. So again, plastic is far from fantastic.
Marine life (including fish and birds alike) can mistake many plastics and micro plastics for food, eventually breaking it down (if ir doesn’t kill them) into toxic micro-particles, which are subsequently consumed by plankton and fish, thus entering the human food chain. It’s another strong argument not to eat fish, but I have other blog posts to address that issue.
A 2015 study estimated that 90% of the world’s seabirds and 25% of fish contain plastic in their stomachs. If we don’t make drastic change, by 2050 we can expect to see more plastic in our oceans than fish (by weight). So the question is, what can we do about it?
Well, I’m glad you asked. The most immediate change we can make, it to start being more mindful about single-use plastics, and cutting them out of out lives. This sometimes requires a bit of planning ahead, but once you make it a habit to grab your cotton tote bag and reusable coffee cup, it will come as easily as grabbing your keys or mobile phone as you leave the house. Not to mention it’s great to be able to express yourself through your shopping bag and coffee cup, rather than sporting a boring Starbucks cup and Tesco carrier bag as you walk through town!
So, my first advice: get yourself a couple of funky cotton or hemp tote bags (you can find organic and fair-trade ones too, if you fancy) and a nice metal, glass or bamboo reusable coffee cup. Keeping these with you when you’re out and about, in you backpack, handbag or car boot, is a sure way to avoid a lot of disposable plastics like carrier bags and coffee cups. That’s step one, done and dusted.
Step two: Say no! Would you like a straw? No thanks. Carrier bag? No thanks. Plastic fork? No thanks. This one requires a bit more practice, as most of the time a shop attendant or barista won’t ask you if you want a straw, lid, bag or fork, so you’ve kind of got to jump in there first and let them know you don’t want it from the start. Not only can you avoid a lot of single-use plastics this way, but every time you make this request it also raises awareness about the fact that more and more people are avoiding these things, leading to larger-scale changes like businesses fully cutting out plastic straws for all customers.
Of course, if you do need a straw or fork I don’t expect to deprive you of that! You can now find a whole array of zero waste essentials, including very strong glass straws and metal straws, and reusable cutlery kits that you can carry with you everywhere. Or, if you’re like me, you can just keep some standard metal cutlery from home in your backpack, and save your pennies for coffee and travel!
If you ever strike up conversation with any baristas or business owners about these things, you can always suggest they look into alternatives like paper straws and biodegradable plastics for packaging and cutlery. This is a great step for businesses, but individually we can still do better by not using these items and using our own reusables. This is because they still have a carbon footprint for production, transportation, and though they are biodegradable it still takes some time and requires certain conditions for them to degrade.
Step three: free the fruit! You may have noticed that bananas, oranges, avocados and apples all have something in common… they’re perfectly packaged by nature! Supermarket packaging of fruits and vegetables has become something almost beyond belief in recent years, with mangoes cradled in plastic trays and suffocated in a non-recyclable plastic bag, while their loose counterparts sit in beside them perfectly happily. So here is step three: take the loose ones! Doing this we not only avoid all that plastic packaging, but we also send a message to supermarkets that we simply don’t want it! The law of Supply and Demand is our friend in this zero waste, less plastic, low impact game. Of course, if you can take your tote bags to your local greengrocer’s and get loose veggies whilst also supporting independent business, even better!
For a lot of loose fruits, and especially for things like mushrooms and pay-by-weight grains, our ally is the produce bag! You can get nylon, or even organic cotton, produce bags to save using the little plastic bags at supermarket for the loose produce.
Step four: keep going! If you’ve cut out plastic bags, disposable coffee cups, plastic straws and cutlery, then you’re already avoiding a significant amount of single-use plastics and setting a great example for others to follow. Once you get into the flow of this, start looking at other things you can be doing. This can be replacing cling film with reusable food wraps, for the ladies: replacing disposable tampons and pads with biodegradable alternatives, or better yet getting a menstrual cup or washable pads, opting for clothing made from natural fibres,
If you want to take things a step further, not only reducing your impact but also helping to counteract the impact of others, there are plenty more things you can do. Whether it’s casual litter picking as you walk down the street, going to beach cleans, incorporating some litter picking into your jog through the park or your hike in the countryside… all these things help! And it feels good to be a positive influence in the world.
I hope this introduction to a low impact, less plastic lifestyle has been useful, and I thank you for taking the time visit this blog!