Should You Go Plastic-Free Or Be A Plastic Pragmatist Instead?
By Nigel Tozer
Imagine weighing every person on the planet – all 7.7 billion of us. Now imagine this: the total weight of everyone alive is how much plastic we produce annually, on a global basis1.
Little wonder that seemingly overnight plastic has become environmental enemy No. 1. But just like a professional athlete, entertainer or artist, the overnight fame (or more accurately, infamy) of plastic is underpinned by many years of preparation. The scientific community has been warning about plastics’ damaging effects for decades – with their first concerns about it in the oceans as long ago as the 1970s.
We’ve all been shocked by footage of ocean creatures choked by plastic bags and non-biodegradable synthetic debris. All too common, too, are scenes of rivers completely clogged by plastic, and plastic piled up in apartment-block sized mounds in landfills bigger than towns. Then there is the plastic we can’t see: ground down in the oceans into microscopic pieces that find their way into marine life and our food chain2. This sort of plastic has been attributed to a loss in fertility in marine animals (and humans) and is known to be a carcinogen, as well as being suspected of causing other illnesses.
Plastic free now!
So, should we just ditch plastic now? It’s plastic free July after all.
For me, one month of total avoidance is not at all a bad thing. It raises the profile of the issue, and certainly makes a statement to businesses that would tempt us with plastic-laden goods.
The challenge, though, is that it’s much harder to remove plastic than you think, because alternatives to plastic are not always palatable either:
- Plastic cuts down on food waste3, and reducing food waste is the No. 1 thing we can to do to reduce greenhouse gases.
- Heavier but reusable packaging alternatives – glass bottles, for example – use more energy to manufacture and transport, fueling climate change3.
- Thirty-five percent of ocean micro-plastic comes from clothing4 , but natural fibres like cotton can have its own significant environmental impact.
Take that last point. Danish government researchers concluded that a recycled plastic bag needed to be used around 52 times to justify its impact, but an organic cotton bag required an incredible 20,000 uses to do the same across all environmental factors3.
It’s not a zero-sum game, though. There are things we can do to meet both goals of beating climate change and cleaning up our plastic pollution problem.
The plastic pragmatist
Plastic free July is a fantastic way for us all to send a message to stores, manufacturers and governments that things need to change. Sadly, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid plastic in our modern world, but we can dramatically cut usage down. Here’s what I’ll be doing:
- Avoiding single-use plastic, such as bottled water
- Buying local. Many independent stores sell loose produce and baked-in-store plastic free bread and cakes.
- Looking for hidden plastic. Nearly all wet-wipes are 100 percent plastic, and paper coffee cups have a plastic lining, making it hard or impossible to recycle them.
- Instead of buying new clothing with polyester, fleece or nylon (all plastic!), I’ll be making sure I use something I have already in my wardrobe instead
- Being social. Letting brands and stores know what I think about needless plastics or poor recyclability.
- I’ll be writing to my elected representatives about local and national plastic issues
Should I find myself in a situation where I absolutely can’t avoid plastic, I’ll make sure it’s 100 percent recyclable, too.
One final thought. Many governments are saying that manufacturers need to take responsibility for the plastic they use or produce. If you work for a company that uses plastics, why not talk to your management about alternatives? You might even find you can reduce costs or gain a competitive edge.
If we all do our bit, we could reduce plastic use by more than 50 percent in the next few years, which really would be something.
1 UN Stats about plastic https://www.unenvironment.org/interactive/beat-plastic-pollution/
3 Plastic Paradox https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-47161379
4 Clothing and micro-plastic https://environmentjournal.online/articles/35-of-microplastics-in-oceans-come-from-clothing-research-reveals/