Every bit of plastic ever made could technically still exist somewhere. That is an incredibly scary thought! Plastic cannot be eliminated from this planet. Even plastics that break-down still exist in the air or ground, even as the most minuscule particles possible.
In the first 10 years of this century, the world economy produced more plastic than in the entire 1900’s. Our consumption of plastic is out of control. Single-use plastics, or disposable plastics, are used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. These items include plastic bags, straws, coffee stirrers, soda and water bottles and most food packaging – products that we have become accustomed to using every day for just a few minutes before we throw them away. It isn’t the general consumer’s ‘fault’ that these products are all made out of plastic in the first place, but we have become accustomed to thinking it's normal and okay that this is the way.
Of the hundreds of millions of tons of plastic that we produce every year, much of it is not recyclable or biodegradable and is made of a material which is designed to last forever. So, what happens to it?
World-wide, only 10% of plastic items are recycled. The nature of petroleum based disposable plastic makes it difficult to recycle and they have to add new virgin materials and chemicals to it to do so.
If it ends up in landfill, it will break down into tiny particles after many years. In the process of breaking down, it releases toxic chemicals (additives that were used to shape and harden the plastic) which make their way into our food and water supply. These toxic chemicals can be found in our bloodstream. And the latest research has linked them to cancer, infertility, birth defects, impaired immunity and many other ailments.
If it doesn’t end up in a landfill, it goes straight into our environment as pollution, killing an abundant of wildlife and contributing to dead zones – vast areas of the planet where life of any species is no longer possible. An estimated 300 million plastic bags end up in the ocean due to escaping the garbage. The way in which the bags float in open water can resemble a jellyfish, posing significant dangers to marine mammals and leatherback sea turtles, when they are eaten by mistake and enter the animals’ digestive tracts.
Looking at plastic bags alone, single use plastic shopping bags are made from high density polyethylene (usually abbreviated to HDPE) – the same plastic that is used for two litre milk and juice containers but much thinner. HDPE is made from non-renewable natural resources such as crude oil, gas and coal – just 8.7 plastic checkout bags contain enough embodied petroleum energy to drive a car 1 kilometre!
Plastic bags have been around for over 30 years now, and it is estimated that world wide, 1 trillion bags are used and discarded every year. Only 3% of bags are recycled – even though major supermarkets offer a plastic bag recycling service.
It’s obvious that we need to use less plastic and move towards sustainable products and services. And we have to hope that governments will continue to introduce laws and regulations to improve this dire situation.
The ‘plastic free July’ challenge that helped to publicise this global plastic crisis is called a challenge because it is just that – it’s a real challenge to consume products and services to avoid single use plastic. For some products, it’s actually impossible. It’s a travesty that plastic materials are allowed to be used at all in this way and we’re sure many of us would never deliberately choose to harm our planet in this way. But whilst we’re waiting for companies and authorities to make the necessary steps to ban single use plastic entirely – it is up to us to make the right choices where possible.
Many people think that it’s okay to use plastic if it’s disposed of properly, but as we now know, even if it ends up in a landfill it is still causing serious harm to us and our planet. We cannot control this, and we cannot control what happens to trash once it leaves our hands. So instead, be part of the solution: Refuse single use plastic and go reusable in every way that you can.
There are so many new reusable products popping up daily to help us live a more plastic-free lifestyle.
Quick, easy steps to going plastic-free:
- Stock up on every day reusable basics and take them out with you everywhere, every day
- Recycle soft plastics where possible
- Choose non-plastic products where possible
- Avoid takeaways or take your own containers to a takeaway outlet
- Move to bulk buy, market based grocery shopping & strive for a packaging-free panty
We need to embrace and promote this shift in consumerism, not just in July, but forever.