Plastic has revolutionized our lives. It is an incredibly useful and cheap material that has seemingly limitless uses. Now everything we buy seems to be wrapped in single use plastic. But it is not without its costs. Of the roughly 300 million tonnes of plastic produced worldwide each year, about half becomes rubbish within a year. Less than 10% is ever recycled. The remaining plastic ends up in landfill or the ocean, where it takes over 400 years to fully degrade. And degrade is something of a misnomer when it comes to plastic. Plastic never fully degrades. It only breaks down into smaller and smaller microscopic pieces known as microplastics. These microplastics and the toxic chemicals they contain enter the food chain when marine life and wildlife consume them. The chemicals then make their way through every level of the food chain, back to humans. Marine life and wildlife routinely become entangled in plastic, choke on it, fill their stomachs with it, and starve to death. Scientists estimate that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. Single use plastics are some of the worst offenders including straws, plastic shopping bags, drink bottles and plastic packaging. It’s a problem, and the problem is getting worse.
So what is the solution? Here in Perth, we have recently had a ban come into effect on single use plastic shopping bags, the kind you get for free at the checkout. It forces consumers to bring their own reusable shopping bags every time they go shopping, or purchase a thicker reusable plastic bag or a cotton bag at the checkout. A ban on single use plastic bags has already been in place in most Australian states for many years and many other countries around the world have either banned single use plastic bags, or imposed a levy on their use. Awesome right? It’s under control. The government is taking care of us, we can go back to our lives. Well, it’s not quite as simple as that.
Take your canvas bags?
Reusable bags are a lot more energy intensive to make. They also use a lot more resources and water and generate a lot more greenhouse gas emissions than their single use plastic counterparts. To equal the environmental impact of one single use plastic bag, a polypropylene bag needs to be reused 104 times. That’s right, every week for two years. That’s a big commitment. Reusable cotton bags fare the worst out of all the alternatives, as cotton requires land to grow, water, fertilisers, and its transport costs are expensive to the environment. Despite being made from a natural material, paper bags have a larger ecological footprint than plastic bags. But because these products are biodegradable, they don’t pollute our oceans and kill marine and wildlife at the end of their lifespan. Confused? Me too.
In large part, the environmental impact of a bag is likely to be a function of it’s weight – heavier bags use more energy to transport and consume more materials in their production. Counterintuitively, it seems that, on balance, despite being made of plastic, reusable polypropylene bags have the lowest environmental impact due to their light weight, and the comparatively low energy requirements for their production. They also can be recycled, although the likelihood of a bag being recycled appropriately is quite low. Some supermarkets have recycling bins for reusable bags out the front. They will still need to be used 104 times to break even with a single use plastic bag. Brands such as Chicobags are made from recycled plastic bottles and although they’re not degradable they can be returned to the manufacturer at the end of their life to be recycled again. They claim to require only 30 uses to break even with the environmental impact of a single use plastic bag.
To equal the environmental impact of one single use plastic bag, a polypropylene bag needs to be reused 104 times.
Not so simple right? Even with the best of intentions, if you forget your shopping bag once every two years and buy a new one you’ll find it very difficult to break even with the environmental impact of single use plastic bags. It’s likely that innovation will rise to fill the void in the market with cheaper and ecologically sustainable alternatives but that may take some time. We think that the single use plastic bag ban has done a great job of creating awareness around waste. It highlights that all of our actions, however small, have an effect and brings the issue to the forefront of our consciousness every time we go to the checkout. It also places the cost on the consumer and ultimately their votes will drive the creation of cheap, ecologically sustainable alternatives.
So if it’s hard to make a difference with reusable bags at the moment, where can you make a difference? If you’re like me, you’ll be beginning to notice how many of the items we buy are wrapped in plastic. Most of this single use plastic, after struggling to get into it for what seems like an eternity, will go straight into the bin. Estimates vary, but many suggest that of the products we put in our recycling bins, only a small percentage is actually recycled.
Until the start of 2018, China was buying the bulk of Australia’s recyclable materials. transforming it into products and, in most cases, selling it back to us. Then China stopped accepting our waste and because Australia doesn’t have the infrastructure to recycle it’s own materials onshore, most of it has since been stockpiling in warehouses. A suitable infrastructure and market for recycled materials in Australia would create jobs, bring down the price of recyclable materials and create demand for recycled products which would increase the efficiency of our recycling operations, ultimately, reducing waste and the amount of plastic ending up in landfill.
Of the products we put in our recycling bins, only a small percentage is actually recycled.
Unilever, an international company that owns over 400 brands, have just announced a commitment to all of their packaging coming from at least 25% locally sourced recycled materials.
The CEO of Unilever put it nicely when he said: “We are proud to be taking this step forward, but no business can create a circular economy in isolation. Creating a local market and demand for all types of recycled plastic is critical and heavy lifting is needed from all players involved.”
Until such a market occurs, a lot of our recycling will continue to end up in landfill where it does not decompose. Further innovation and industry is required to optimise our environmental impact, and that usually means making the most environmentally sustainable solution also the most profitable. That means, again, voting with your dollars.
Opting for foods that come with less packaging means more fruit and veg, less processed food and less additives. A small change that benefits everyone.
How though? Great question. Wherever possible, avoid single use plastic. Bananas in a plastic bag? Choose loose bananas instead. Let your groceries live loose in the bottom of your shopping bag. All other things being equal, choose cardboard over single use plastic as it will biodegrade. Wherever possible, choose the alternative with the least packaging or with recycled and recyclable packaging. These are easy changes to make and don’t require you to alter your lifestyle, and they will usually save you money.
Refuse Single Use Plastic Water Bottles, Coffee Cups, Cutlery, Takeaway Containers and Straws.
Carry your own water bottle and refill it. Bring your own reusable coffee cup and ask your barista to fill it. Keep your own cutlery and takeaway containers in your car or bag for when you do get takeaway, so that you can say no to single use plastic cutlery. Or dine in. And do you really need a straw? If so, you can always carry your own reusable metal straw.
When you find yourself away from home and hungry is when you will want to buy a snack. And most options are going to come in some form of packaging. A sandwich in a single use plastic container, a drink in a single use plastic bottle, dessert with a single use plastic spoon, all in a single use plastic bag. Waste that will hang around for hundreds of years for a meal that you will eat in five minutes.
A little bit of planning and forethought can make a difference though. Plan a weekly shopping trip, ideally on the same day every week. Swing by the shops on the way home so that you don’t have to drive out of your way. Rather than making two or three trips to the shops, you can make one a week and reduce wasted fuel, time and money.
Think of meals you’d like to make throughout the week and have a shopping list that you add to as you go. Cook recipes in bulk that you can freeze and reheat for lunches and dinners. You’ll save a lot of money and likely make healthier choices by preparing almost all your own food. And when you do decide to eat out, it will be more of a treat rather than a habit.
Buy bulk wherever possible. If you know you use a lot of something, stock up to reduce the amount of packaging and waste. Buying in bulk will reduce the amount of packaging you use and also save money.
Change it up in the Bathroom
Many of the worst offenders both for household waste and pollution come from bathroom and cleaning products. See our article here for a discussion of nasty chemicals in everyday cleaning and bathroom products. One non-toxic alternative to all those nasty chemicals is liquid castile soap. It’s made from all natural ingredients and it’s incredibly versatile. You can use it in place of just about all your household cleaning and bathroom products. Check out this guide to all your cleaning needs. Dr Bronner’s is the most famous brand but you can also buy more concentrated forms, and if you buy in bulk and concentrated, less waste! It’s fairly easy to make your own if you have the time and inclination. You will definitely save money on all those expensive branded products, and it’s easy to add your own scents or essential oils if you need a bit more variety.
Other alternatives include using soap nuts for your laundry. These natural little nuts come packaging-free and leave no waste, they’re a great alternative to laundry powder and detergents and work great.
Ground Down? Have a Scrub.
Your local café may be giving away their coffee grounds. You can always ask. Or use your own if you’re partial to a cup at home. These are a great exfoliant and a much cheaper (free) alternative to trendy products like Franks Body Scrub (coffee grounds are also good for composting and fertilizer). You can add coconut oil and essential oils to your liking. Since they were going to the bin anyway, it’s a great way to reduce waste and give your skin a treat.
Choose Companies with Environmentally Sustainable Business Models
If you’re not into using Castile Soap for everything or you just feel like treating yourself, don’t sweat it. You probably deserve it! Companies like Lush are doing everything they can to reduce single use packaging waste. They have everything from shampoos and conditioners, makeup and moisturisers. Read about their packaging ethos here.
Lush have innovated a more environmentally healthy alternative paired with a great product and people love them for it! Remember voting with your dollars?
It’s the Little Things
Small single use plastic items that you don’t give too much thought to can be replaced fairly painlessly. Replace your cling wrap with washable and reusable fabric wraps or beeswax wraps. Or reusable containers.
Think before you use a bin liner. Do you really need it? If you have a compost bin for all your food scraps and all your recycling goes in the recycling bin, it doesn’t leave much for your regular bin. You can leave the bin liner out completely and give the bin a quick wipe if it needs it. Creative placement of some newspaper might serve a suitable alternative.
Without single use plastic bags you may be wondering what you can use to pick up your (very prolific) pet’s droppings. There are fully bio-degradable bags for that. Yes, it costs slightly more than reusing your free grocery bag, but it’s better than your animal’s poop sitting in landfill for over 400 years. Wouldn’t you rather that it returns into the earth where it belongs? And given the (almost) Australia-wide ban on single use plastic bags, and the spreading ban on single use plastics worldwide, you may not have a choice but to buy bags.
The best of these will bio-degrade in landfill while others have to be composted properly to degrade completely. Others are flushable, but of questionable efficacy.
Lots of people have great and innovative ideas for how to reduce their waste. Follow blogs like @intentionalism and #zerowaste to keep the motivation and inspiration high for your changes and keeping your footprint small. They’re full of good ideas to make your journey easier and pretty pictures of waste free living to keep you moving forward. Here’s a list of 10 of the best.
Take it Easy
Hopefully it’s obvious from the article by now that you don’t need to scrimp on quality, deprive yourself, drastically change your lifestyle or become an activist and chain yourself to a piece of machinery to reduce the amount of waste you create. Small changes are going to make a difference, and most of these changes are the choices we make as consumers. Some of these changes will have no effect on you, others a slight adjustment. It’s important not to be too rigid with yourself. Start where you’re at and take small steps forward. Every small improvement is an improvement. When you only have to take your bins out once a month or less, you’ll be inspired to keep going. Don’t worry about perfect. Do what you can. If you fall off the wagon or sneak a coffee in a takeaway cup, keep on going. You’re doing better than nothing.
Let us know in the comments section if there’s anything you do to reduce waste that we’ve missed!