Plastic is actually quite remarkable and is useful for a wide range of things.
However our infatuation with and reliance on plastic has gone too far and we need to take a step back.
Largely driven by company profits, plastic is now everywhere. It is cheap to make, light to transport and because there is no accountability for its end of life management, its use has skyrocketed.
The plastic problem is so pervasive that most people would find it difficult to find a room in their house that doesn’t contain multiple items that have been made from or packaged in plastic.
Plastic is a product that essentially lasts forever so using it for single use or short term items which are quickly thrown away is where we have gone very wrong.
It can seem overwhelming at first, but there are simple things we can do to reduce our reliance on plastic, and encourage companies and governments to do the same.
The plastic problem
We are suffering a plastic crisis. Plastic is everywhere. From the deepest reaches of the ocean, to the most remote islands on earth. Micro plastics have even been found in our drinking water, our food and raining from the sky. There is every chance that there is plastic inside you right now.
Some scary plastic facts:
- Plastics don’t decompose, they only break down into smaller and smaller pieces – micro plastics.
- Because plastic only breaks down into micro plastic, permanent contamination of Earth with plastic is a real concern.
- Only 9% of all plastic ever created has been recycled.
- Recycling plastic only delays rather than prevents plastic ending up in landfill, as plastic can only be recycled a small number of times and needs to be mixed with virgin plastic material to create new products.
- 60% of all plastics ever produced are in landfill or polluting our natural environment.
How we can change our relationship with plastic
There are some wonderful people all around the world living plastic free lives. These people set a great example on how, even in this plastic focused world, we can live without it.
It would be wonderful if everyone stopped using unnecessary and single use plastic today, however this is not realistic. We need to make smaller changes, but quickly.
Systemic change like this requires action at every level.
As individuals we have great power to make consumer choices that avoid plastic. We can choose items without packaging, or items packaged in materials that can be recycled again and again like glass or aluminum.
Fun Fact: Unlike plastic that can only be recycled a small number of times, glass and aluminum can be infinitely recycled without losing any of the structural quality of the material.
At an industry level companies need to take steps to remove unnecessary plastic from their products and look for plastic alternatives in their products and packaging.
At a government level, responsible decision need to be made about banning unnecessary plastic items, and solutions that reuse the large amount of plastic that is already in circulation.
To be successful quickly these three things should be happening in tandem. Individuals need the necessary information to make informed choices. Companies need to be taking steps to ensure that they are meeting consumer expectations about sustainability. And governments need to support this process by banning inappropriate products, supporting sustainable products, and ensure the end of life responsibility of products is shared by manufacturers and consumers.
The good news
The good news is that all these things are already happening.
Awareness of the plastic problem is now widespread and at an individual level people are taking action to reduce their plastic consumption.
Companies are choosing plastic alternatives made from sustainable resources, such as bamboo, for their products and their packaging.
Manufacturers are embracing sustainable packaging design to ensure they are keeping pace with the demand for sustainable options and manufacturing more sustainable solutions.
Governments all over the world are also banning or placing restrictions on plastic bags and single use plastic products. From mid-2018, 127 countries had adopted some form of legislation to regulate plastic bags, and 27 countries have banned either specific single use plastics (e.g. straws, plates, packaging) or their production levels.
Why we take action
When we make the choice to avoid plastic, particularly single use plastic, we support responsible businesses that are making environmentally sustainable choices, and send the message that others need to do the same.
How we can take action
The action we can take ranges from avoiding plastic completely through to being more mindful about the products we choose and how they are packaged.
- Purchase products in your own reusable containers from bulk bins or direct from the producer.
- Use reusable bags for fruit and vegetables, or keep them loose and don’t put them in a bag at all.
- Where there is a choice, pick the products that aren’t packaged in plastic.
- Where there isn’t a choice to avoid plastic, ask yourself “do I really need this item?”
- Where there isn’t a choice to avoid plastic, and you really need the item, purchase things in bulk so there is less packaging.
- Write to businesses and governments to seek more action against single use plastic.
Chiba, Saito, Fletcher, Yogi, Kayo, Miyagi, Ogido & Fujikura. (2018). Human footprint in the abyss: 30 year records of deep-sea plastic debris, Marine Policy, Vol 96, p204-212.
Geyer, Jambeck & Law. (2017). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made, Science Advances, Vol 3, No7.
Orb Media. Invisibles: The plastics inside us. Retrieved from orbmedia.org/stories/Invisibles_plastics/
State University of New York, Department of Geology and Environmental Sciences. (2018). Synthetic Polymer Contamination in Bottled Water.
United Nations Environment Programme. (2019). Legal Limits on Single-Use Plastics and Microplastics: A Global Review of National Laws and Regulations.