It’s almost everywhere you look – and it’s undeniably destroying our planet.
Over the past half a century, plastic has infiltrated modern life to such an extent that our oceans may have more of the stuff than fish by 2050.
Once hailed as an innovation, it’s now clear that plastic is very bad news. Non-renewable fossil fuels are needed for production, belching out greenhouse gases in the process. Once tossed – often after mere minutes of use – plastic then takes hundreds of years to break down, emitting toxic methane gas as it gradually breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. The end point is too often our waterways and an estimated one million seabirds and 100,000 mammals are killed every year by marine rubbish, much of it plastics.
Recycling helps, but a far more powerful solution is reducing and even eliminating single-use plastics altogether. That’s actually easier than one might think – read on for a life with less plastic.
Say no to single-use plastics
Refuse to use plastic bags, for a start. Australians go through 13 million new bags each day and around 50m of them end up in landfill each year – enough to cover Melbourne’s CBD, according to Clean Up Australia.
Be cautious with so-called “green bags” though; those commonly sold at Coles and Woolworths are made of polypropylene, a type of plastic. Instead, opt for calico, canvas, jute or hessian. Or join the Boomerang Bags movement, from Queensland’s Burleigh Heads, which encourages volunteers to make fabric bags from recycled materials.
Skip other single-use plastics too, such as coffee cups, takeaway containers, water bottles and straws – even the Queen last month banned the latter two across her royal estates.
A little pre-purchase prep makes saying no easier. Online stores including Brisbane’s Biome and Sydney’s Onya stock reusable alternatives, such as stainless steel water bottles, reusable coffee cups, bamboo toothbrushes, mesh produce bags and material food covers. Consider buying in bulk – The Source Bulk Foods has stores around the country and is Australia’s biggest bulk food retailer.
“A reusable coffee cup only needs to be used 15 times to break even on its life cycle, including cleaning. Every use after that is a bonus for the planet,” says Biome founder Tracey Bailey. “The cumulative use of reusable products makes it easy for individuals to have a long-term environmental impact. Within 12 months, the Biome community saved the waste of over 6m single-use plastic items.”
If plastics can’t be avoided, look to recycle as much as possible. Soft, scrunchable plastics, for example, are too often turfed, but can actually be collected at home then dropped at REDcycle bins in major supermarkets.
Avoid microplastics and reduce microfibre shedding
Some of the most environmentally damaging plastics can barely be seen by the human eye, yet are used daily. Microbeads are tiny plastic pellets used in cosmetics and household products, such as exfoliating face scrubs, whitening toothpastes and deep-cleaning washing powders. Flushed down the drain, microbeads are too small to be captured by wastewater treatment plant filters and end up in our waterways. According to the Australian Marine Conservation Society, marine wildlife that mistake microbeads for fish eggs often end up starving to death.
The Australian government has ordered a voluntary phase-out of microbeads by mid-2018, but many believe an outright ban is needed. Consumers can sign a Surfrider Foundation petition calling for a ban, and consult the Australian Good Scrub Guide or Beat the Microbead app for help to choose microbead-free products.
Microfibres shed by synthetic clothing during washing is a growing concern. Synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon shed thousands of these tiny plastic particles with each wash, which end up polluting our rivers and oceans. Guppy Friend filter bags, developed in Berlin, are an emerging solution. Washing less, using front-loading machines and opting for natural fabrics and fibres wherever possible also helps.
Help reduce the impact of plastics already littering our environment
A whopping 269,000 tonnes of rubbish is now estimated to be floating in our oceans – weighing more than 1,300 blue whales combined – and about 80% of it comes from land, according to the Australian Marine Conservation Society. The Pacific ocean is already besieged by more plastic than plankton.
To turn that around, humans can’t just reduce our current consumption; we must also clean up the mess already created. Sydney-based non-profit Take 3 has inspired thousands to pick up three pieces of rubbish each when leaving the beach or waterways. Clean Up Australia Day, held annually each March, last year attracted 590,350 volunteers, who collected an estimated 15,500 ute loads of rubbish.
Perth surfers Andrew Turton and Pete Ceglinski have created the floating Seabin rubbish bin for marinas and ports, which moves with the tide, collecting about 1.5kg of floating rubbish each day. Dutch inventor Boyan Slat went further, inventing The Ocean Cleanup passive drifting systems – due to launch this year – which he believes will clean up half the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within just five years.
Consider a world free of plastic altogether
Despite how thoroughly plastic permeates modern life, it is possible to largely avoid it – with some effort. In Melbourne, Erin Rhoads has lived a “zero waste” existence since June 2014; her entire trash output since fits inside one old coffee jar. (Other notables on similar paths include Gippsland’s Tammy Logan, Adelaide’s Niki Wallace and Perth-based Lindsay Miles.)
“We have the power to dictate how things are packaged and presented to us by participating in everyday activism through our purchases,” Rhoads says. “The more businesses see and hear us saying no to plastics, the more likely we will see changes that will lay the foundation to a cleaner, safer and healthier planet.”
While going fully plastic-free remains a pipe dream for most, Rhoads advocates small shifts that build into big lifestyle changes. On her blog, The Rogue Ginger, Rhoads outlines five easy first steps, and encourages consumers to embrace Plastic-Free Tuesday or Plastic-Free July (which began in Perth).
“Going plastic-free helps us take responsibility for our actions, while reminding us that most of the plastic we use today is not necessary at all,” Rhoads says. “We should focus on preserving our earth’s resources for something other than a single-use plastic fork.”
- Additional research and reporting by Nicole Lutze
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