The Problem with Plastic
Over 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been made since its mass production began in the 1950s. Only 9% of this plastic has been recycled, the other 91% sits in landfill, floats in our oceans or has been burned. An estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean every year. Many animals mistakenly ingest plastic believing it to be a food source. This can cause injury, suffocation, starvation and often death. Plastic contaminates our air, land, sea and can enter the human body through the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe.
Demand for plastic grew from its low cost and durability: plastic is almost indestructible and a serious threat to the natural environment. The vast majority of plastics are made from finite fossil fuels extracted from the earth. Plastics do not break down. Instead, they ‘break up’ into smaller and smaller pieces, creating microplastics and nanoplastics. Both the creation and degradation of plastics releases harmful greenhouse gases, contributing to our planet’s changing climate.
We need to reassess our relationship with plastic. Plastic production from new, finite resources like oil and gas must decrease if we are to protect our oceans and wildlife. If plastic is to be used, it must fit within the circular economy model. The circular economy (opposed to the current ‘take-make-dispose’ linear model) is modelled on nature where there is no such thing as waste and is renewable and regenerative by design. Technical nutrients (like plastics and metals) are recovered to create new materials while biological nutrients (like food waste) are processed to regenerate agricultural and natural systems. The circular economy model embraces renewable energy and represents an exciting blueprint for the future where waste and pollution become a thing of the past.
Over 1 million plastic bottles are purchased every minute around the world. Single-use plastic water bottles are a major source of pollution, clog landfills and require large amounts of energy and water to make and transport.
Current recycling of plastic bottles generally results in the ‘down-cycling’ of the material into a product that can not easily be recycled again. To support the circular economy we need new products that are made from 100% recycled old products.
Refuse plastic bottles and seek reusable alternatives. Don’t drink bottled water, instead purchase a quality reusable drink bottle and source healthy drinking water from the tap or bulk sources. Every single-use bottle you refuse is a positive move for the planet.
An estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are used annually worldwide. That’s nearly two million plastic bags every minute. On average, plastic bags are used for a few minutes then thrown ‘away’. Discarded bags undertake a journey to landfills, the environment and the oceans where they pose a major threat to wildlife and other animals.
Plastic bags are rarely recycled. To change this, countries and regions are increasingly setting up soft plastics recycling systems to turn lightweight, flexible plastic packaging into building materials, furniture and other products. Seek opportunities to recycle soft plastics in your local region.
Reusable shopping bags are readily available and can be used hundreds of times over and over again. Use reminders to take your reusable bags with you when you go shopping, or leave bags in your car or at your front door.
Each day, more than 500 million plastic straws are used and discarded in the United States alone. Straws, like other single-use plastic items, can easily enter the natural environment and cause immense damage to our wildlife and ecosystem. Straws are rarely recycled and are increasingly being found to affect marine creatures like the infamous case of the sea turtle with a straw lodged in its nostril.
A straw that you used for a few minutes will last longer on the planet than you will! A 2017 study found that up to 8.3 billion plastic straws pollute the world’s coastlines today.
If you need to use a straw, purchase a reusable one (like our stainless steel option here) and carry it with you. When you order a drink, always ask for ‘no straw please’ and encourage businesses that use straws to ban them or switch to reusable or sustainably-sourced paper alternatives.
Around 500 billion disposable coffee cups are produced each year. Paper and cardboard coffee cups have a thin plastic lining to prevent liquids leaking, making them difficult to recycle. The lids of disposable coffee cups are made from varying types of single-use plastic and are rarely recycled, they are instead sent to landfill, are burnt or end up in the environment and oceans.
There are an increasing variety of ‘biodegradable’ coffee cups and lids entering the market. While this is a step in the right direction to a circular economy future (where biodegradable materials are processed into biological nutrients), unless you live in an area that offers industrial-scale composting, these items will be sent to landfill, dumped or burnt for energy.
If you are having your drink ‘to go’ use a reusable cup (like our Take 3 X JOCO Cups here) or otherwise, slow down and have your drink in-house using a ceramic cup. Talk with your local cafe about what they are doing to reduce coffee cup waste. The Responsible Cafes initiative is an example of how incentives can drive behaviour change from disposable products to reusable alternatives.
Cigarette butts continue to be the number one item found at clean-ups worldwide – approximately 2.4 million collected. The butts have been shown to leach out numerous chemicals such as heavy metals, nicotine and ethylphenol into the ocean and the food chain.
Cigarette butts are made of non-biodegradable cellulose acetate from cutting, forming and polishing sheets of plastic. 4.5 trillion butts are discarded annually, which can take up to 15 years to disintegrate.
Littering of any item, including cigarette butts is harmful and in many locations against the law. Smokers must take responsibility for disposing of butts correctly, personal ‘butt bins’ may be provided by local councils or make one from a used mint or lolly container.
Plastic packaging can be produced for a relatively low cost compared with other materials, but is often designed for short-term or single use. Much of the growth in plastic production has come from the increased use of plastic packaging, which accounts for more than 40% of non-fibre plastic.
95% of plastic packaging is used just once and then discarded. Unless you can recycle, reuse or repurpose the packaging, it is destined for landfill or the ocean.
Avoid buying food or other items that are wrapped in plastic. When buying fresh food, buy the whole fruit or vegetable instead of purchasing a pre-cut version that’s been plastic wrapped. Shop at bulk food stores and bring your own reusable containers.
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