What to do with all this plastic?

Plastic Ocean diagram

Last week I talked about how big a problem we have with plastic.  Now that you have spent the week looking around and realising how much plastic we have in our lives, I will discuss some of the simple changes you can achieve that will make a big difference in the world, and your health. First though, I wanted to mention what inspired me to write these articles about plastic.

I have a friend and colleague who undertook a plastic free March challenge.  Her and her husband and 3 young children tried not to bring anything plastic into their home or use any disposable plastic for the whole month.  She posted about their successes and struggles throughout the month.  It was great to see such an encouraging conversation get started with so many people interested in reducing their plastic use.  Although I have known that plastic is an issue, her challenge and the ensuing conversations made me so much more aware of some of the things I buy and has inspired me to try to reduce the amount of plastic I use.  You can check out her website if you would like to read more about some of the lessons she learned from their challenge.

I mentioned the 6Rs last week. Rethink, Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.  First, we as a society need to Rethink our plastic and other garbage use.  Do bananas really need to be wrapped in plastic at the grocery store? Are there better ways to make certain products?  Does water need to come in a tiny plastic bottle? Do we need so much stuff? We need to start by questioning the way we currently do things.

Next we need to Refuse.  Refuse to buy things that you don’t need.  Everything produces waste.  I recently learned that each individual piece of clothing at the department store comes wrapped in plastic that a worker then takes off to hang the article on the rack.  Do you really need the $5 t-shirt?  Maybe you do, and that’s ok.  But I just want you to take a moment to think before you buy.

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There are many steps you can take to Reduce and Reuse. Start with taking your own plastic shopping bags. Most of the plastic found in the ocean is broken up single-use plastic bags. Coles and Woolworths (grocery stores in Australia) have already pledged to remove single-use plastic shopping bags from stores. They will both be selling reusable plastic bags for those who forget their own.  Most grocery stores in Canada charge you to use single-use plastic bags. But what about the plastic produce bags? These are even difficult to reuse for much. Although they can be recycled in Australia at a redcycle bin, the best idea is to bring your own reusable one.  I own the onya produce bags and they are fantastic. The other big thing to remember is to bring your reusable shopping bags with you to the shopping centre when you are buying clothes or gifts.  I really like envirosax bags because they roll up and fit in my purse easily.  I also keep one in the car for unscheduled shopping trips.

Take a reusable drink bottle with you … everywhere. Bundanoon was the first town in the world to ban the sale of single-use water bottles, with other cities and universities following.  San Francisco has banned the sale of water bottles on city property. Most popular areas have filtered drinking water stations for filling up your bottle. My mother recently made fun of me asking how many water bottles does one family need.  Well, we are 5 people now and we take them with us everywhere we go so sometimes they get temporarily misplaced.  Having a few extras around is helpful. Reusable water bottles come in all shapes and sizes these days so there is no excuse not to have one or three.

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Use reusable straws. Plastic drinking straws also make up a lot of the plastic found in landfill and the ocean.  There are many options for reusable ones.  I like silicone ones as they don’t break, are easy to clean, and feel the most like a plastic straw with the added benefit that they go back to shape after being bitten by small teeth.  You can also buy glass, metal and bamboo straws. I even saw pasta straws the other day!  If your kids love straws, take a couple in your handbag when you head out to dinner so you don’t have to use the plastic single-use straws at the restaurant.

Do you work in an office and get takeaway? Take your own container with you to bring back to the office. This is becoming more common with some restaurant offering a discount if you bring your own container.

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Buy in bulk. Find your local bulk store and head there with your reusable bags.  Many products can be bought online in bulk and delivered to your door.

Other ways that you can Reuse is to wash plastic party plates.  They are advertised as being disposable, but that’s definitely not good for landfill.  I bought a stack for a party years ago and just toss them in the dishwasher when we’re done. If you use ziplock bags, make sure you wash them when you are done and reuse them.  This is such a common practise you can even buy dryer stands on Amazon.

Recycling is still important.  Make sure you rinse your plastic before putting it into the recycling bin.  And as mentioned, any soft plastic can go into a redcycle bin. Equally as important though is buying recycled products.  I mentioned last week that Replas is a company the recycles soft plastic. The concept of recycling only works if people buy the recycled products. Also remember to buy recycled printer cartridges, batteries and paper.  We also need to encourage local councils to put recycling bins in all our local parks and public spaces.

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The last R is for Rot. Any food scraps should be composted.  There are many composting options these days including ones that will fit on apartment balconies. Sutherland Council offers free workshops on composting, worm farming and Bokashi. Toronto, Canada picks up your compost from the curb like garbage. This is great because large scale composting can breakdown almost everything including meat and diapers, which don’t break down in backyard compost bins.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of plastic in our lives.  Just start small with one or two of these suggestions. If we all do a little bit, it will make a big difference.  For more inspiration on how to decrease your use of plastic, check out the film The Clean Bin Project or join a Facebook group such as A Survival Guide for the Plastic World. If you have any ideas you would like to share, please comment on this article.

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We have a problem with plastic … and it is BIG!

Plastic bottles in lake

Every minute, one garbage truck of plastic enters our oceans.  Most of this comes from debris on our streets, beaches and highways that float down storm drains.  This consists of plastic bags, bottles, straws, balloons and food wrappers as well as fishing gear and nets.  Some of this plastic washes up on our beaches while some of it gets consumed by marine life or fed to their offspring.  Over 100 million marine animals are killed each year due to plastic in the ocean. Sea turtles commonly eat plastic bags and other items causing blockages in their guts, ulceration, perforation and death.  When seabirds eat plastic it remains in their stomach causing them to eat less actual food and slowly starve.

Platic bag under water

The plastic that doesn’t get eaten or washed up on the beach stays in the ocean where it collects and slowly starts to break down into microplastics (less than 5mm diameter). There is currently a mass in the Pacific Ocean of plastic 3 times the size of France, or over 2500 km, often called the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’.  There is also another similar one called the ‘North Atlantic Garbage Patch’.  This is not a big pile of plastic bottles and straws that we can take pictures of from space or easily cleanup. It is spread out more like garbage soup with small bits of plastic floating just under the surface.

But how does this effect my health you ask.  As plastic breaks down, chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) leach into the water.  Plastics also absorb chemicals such as PCBs and DDT from the surrounding water.  The concentration of PCBs in plastic in the ocean has been found to be up to 1 million times higher than the surrounding water.  Aquatic organisms that live near the surface consume these microplastics and chemicals.  These chemicals bioaccumulate, meaning the concentration grows the more the fish eats.  Then a bigger fish eats them (along with many of their chemical saturated friends) and the chemical concentration just continues to grow.  We then consume these fish, chemicals and all. PCBs from fish consumption can cause circulatory, nervous, immune, endocrine and digestive system problems.  A study in California found a quarter of the fish at markets contained plastic in their guts. This is a BIG problem, and it is only getting bigger.

Gone are the days when you could feel good about yourself for recycling.  China used to take most of the world’s recycling, but they are now refusing all but the cleanest recycling from countries.  This is leaving Australia with a million tons of metal, paper and plastic that it would have sent to China, but now has to deal with on home soil. Some councils have already put some recycling into landfill. Canada also used to export most of its recycling to China with some cities there now saying that recyclables may end up in the dump as well. Others are trying to meet the new purity standards set by China, which includes no glass mixed with plastic, and no food stains on paper.  This will mean that only the cleanest recyclables will be sent to China, and the remaining will be sent to landfill.

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There are some local Australian recycling companies.  Replas takes the soft plastic recycling from the REDcycle program and turns it into over 200 products including bollards, signage, outdoor furniture, decking and more.  Don’t feel so good about returning your plastic shopping bags to your local grocery store just yet.  The only thing that makes this a viable option, is if people buy the recycled products they make.

 

Although plastic slowly breaks down, it will never go away.  The EPA (USA) says that every bit of plastic ever made still exists. We can’t keep going like this, we need to use less plastic!

So now you know about the problem – plastic isn’t going away and we can’t rely on recycling all of it. In my next article I’ll discuss some steps that you can take to make a difference by using the 6 Rs (yes six!) – Rethink, Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.  I hear you thinking – just one of us reducing our plastic isn’t going to change anything, but if we all do our best, we can make a big difference.