So we (Victorians) have just stopped using single-use plastic bags in supermarkets and we are feeling very good about ourselves. But this is just a drop in the ocean in our plastics use. Research shows that over 800 million – yes million – pieces of plastic enter Pt Phillip Bay from just its two main rivers each year. Research shows that plastics have infiltrated every ocean, every water supply and many food products. Films such as ‘Blue Planet’ and ‘The Plastic Ocean’ and TV series such as ‘The War on Waste’ show how badly our environment has been and is being damaged by our uncontrolled use of plastic. How can we address this environmental disaster?How did this happen?
Have a look at your own use of plastic. It’s everywhere. Many goods are enclosed in plastic packaging. Plastic packaging is often translucent, meaning you can see the underlying product, read the brand, design, contents and sales pitch. Plastic is often resilient, absorbing shocks in transport. Plastic is light, adding little to product weights. Plastic is cheap to produce.
As more and more uses are found, plastic has replaced paper and metals. Who can remember the days of metal containers, bulk food buying, wrapping in paper, being careful not to damage products in transport, providing your own wrapping?
And some plastic has been recyclable…so we haven’t worried too much about which is and which isn’t. Besides, recycling is someone else’s problem…
But plastics don’t disappear. They break up into smaller and smaller pieces. (Microplastics are defined as being less than 5mm, but many pieces are so small they cannot be seen with the naked eye…). The pieces escape, into waste, into water, into products, in infinitesimal pieces. And they are eaten – by animals, by fish, by people – getting into our bodies accidentally, as well as deliberately (some microplastics are added to products for a variety of product-enhancing reasons).
Just like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were used in refrigeration but were banned when we discovered they were causing ozone holes and global warming, now we have discovered that wonderful, useful, plastic is another human environmental disaster that we have to fix.
Audit Your Current Use
A quick audit of your current use of plastics will shock you. Stopping plastic use will be difficult for you, for us, but it’s very clear that plastic is destroying our oceans. We are yet to establish how invasive plastics are in our food chain, but the results will not make pretty reading. Sure, you can blame manufacturers and retailers, but you are the purchaser. If you continue to buy plastics, they will continue to supply them.
What to Do?
At the macro level, Banning plastics is the obvious strategy. This would solve the problem! Evidence suggests that big takeaway food and drink producers have outsourced the litter problem to consumers rather than take responsibility for the waste containers which they produce. Push the problem back to the producers. Phasing plastics out over several years would be feasible, bringing people along with an education campaign. But business lobbies would be strong opponents.
Tax plastics, just like cigarettes, on an increasing basis over time, would be a more feasible short-term solution and, if the tax was increased dramatically, like cigarettes, it might achieve the same effect as banning, but more easily.
Avoid/reduce use of plastics is the best thing to do personally…but the hardest. This requires the conscious rejection of items wrapped in plastic and choosing non-plastic alternatives. Try consciously monitoring your uses of plastic – what alternatives are available? For instance, milk is mostly in plastic, but you can purchase it in cardboard. Supermarket bread is packed in plastic wrappers, but can be bought from bakeries where they use paper. Buy goods from bulk/unpackaged suppliers (eg fruit and vegetables, most supermarket items).
In cases where you can’t get rid of plastics, think of alternative products or ways to purchase (eg buying in bulk so that less packaging per unit of consumption is used) or not buying the product (do I really need that item? Could I buy it somewhere else where it is not so packaged?).
Re-use plastics is easier. For instance, turn milk or yoghurt containers into plant or goods containers. But much plastic is actually wrapping around a product that you have to destroy to get to the product (eg tooth brushes and Araldite plastic packaging), but we need these products.
So Recycle plastics is the next alternative. Take the plastic back to the retailer. This forces the retailer to think about how they could solve what is now their problem by encouraging suppliers not to include so much plastic packaging. This action also makes you very conscious of the volume of plastics you are using. Alternatively, put all plastics into recycling bins. This may not be the ‘recommended’ procedure, but it forces recyclers to put pressure on manufacturers to reduce its use or to use recyclable plastic.
We can do this! Think how quickly renewable energy has become ‘normal’, how renewable targets are easily being achieved with only minimal government and business support. We have to turn plastics from being a friend to being an enemy, just like sugar. We like it, but it is not good for us. We’ve begun the war on plastic. There’s much to do, at all levels. Let’s get going.