I understand that plastic is here to stay. And there are some great innovations in our world thanks to plastic. (Bike helmets come to mind.) But the idea of disposable, single use plastic is just wrong-headed. Think about it: These products are made specifically to be discarded. In what realm does this make sense??
But there is one comment that I keep hearing from people when I tell them about what we are trying to do, and that really bugs me, is something along the lines of this:
It’s okay; I recycle all of my plastic.
This is often said by someone who still purchases bottled water or fizzy drinks. Or Multi-Packs of plastic packaged convenience foods. Or fruit and veg from the supermarket in those ‘value’ plastic bags.
Reason Number 1
Glass, metal, and paper are pretty straightforward, but when it comes to plastic, things get tricky. The truth is that what you can recycle depends on where you live and what materials your city’s facilities can handle. There are many different types of plastic, and they cannot all be recycled together. So unless you’re diligent about sorting all your plastics, then “recycling” that yogurt container may be doing more harm than simply throwing it away.
The UK uses over 5 million tonnes of plastic each year of which an estimated 24% is currently being recovered or recycled. and Of the 5 million tonnes of plastics used per year a staggering 2.4 million tonnes is packaging. According to the Waste Resource Action Programme (WRAP), 1.7 million tonnes comes from households and the rest from commercial and industrial companies. Items such as plastic bottles, pots, tubs, trays, films and plastic bags are the most common types of household plastic waste. The Commercial and Industrial packaging waste streams are largely made up of stretch-wrap films, which are often used to cover goods during shipping and returnable transit packaging such as pallets, crates and drums. All of these items need to be recycled in different ways.
Reason Number 2
Plastic is made of oil. The United States uses 12 million barrels of oil each year to manufacture plastic bags. And that’s just plastic bags! The 5p plastic bag levy takes effect on 5 October in England following (sluggishly) in the footsteps of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland (where in the first year the 5p charge saw the use of plastic bags drop by 96%). England has been close before with legislation – in 2008 the seven major UK supermarkets signed up to reduce the number of carrier bags by 50%, yet later dropped this in favour of reporting how many they gave out. The plastics industry and many retailers would rather solve all this by making plastic bags lighter or from compostable materials. They feel that plastic-bag pollution can be solved by better “dosage” from a checkout machine that dispenses fewer of them.
We hear how dependent we are on foreign oil for our vehicles, but imagine how much of this oil we’re using to manufacture plastic. The plastic manufacturing process releases toxins into the air (the plastics industry is responsible for 14% of these toxic emissions). Once manufactured, all of those plastic containers must be transported to factories that will fill them with shampoo or ketchup or itty-bitty scoops of coffee (tassimo I’m looking at you here!), then they’re transported again to the supermarket or corner shop where consumers like you and me buy it. After spending their allotted time with you, those plastic containers that you recycle are picked up by the bin men in their big, polluting trucks and taken to the local waste management centre. From the waste management centre, that plastic has to be bundled up and shipped to a manufacturer to process. Once again we have toxic emissions and the cycle starts over again.
Recycling is not the answer!
And don’t tell me that it’s okay because you re-use the containers. I hear that little story inside my own head, too, and I’m here to call us both out. Sure, you should reuse the plastic containers you already have. But we need so stop bringing them into our homes in the first place.
Recycling plastic containers should be a last resort. We’ve been sold on the idea that we need water in plastic bottles, that our fruits and vegetables must be wrapped in plastic, that Lunchables and individually wrapped biscuits are are a mum’s best friend.
But how do we stop the plastic madness?
The first step in changing this plastic mess we’re in is the hardest. We need to get in the habit of saying no. Look at the products in your shopping cart; not just the product but at the packaging as well. Are you comfortable with the level of plastic and packaging? No? Then refuse to bring it into your home. Refuse that plastic shopping bag. Refuse the drinking straw that restaurants automatically bring. Stop bringing this unnecessary waste into your home. Are you likely to ever reach the zero waste level? Maybe not. But every little effort helps. There are dozens and dozens of ways to reduce the amount of plastic that comes through your household, your life. Is there one item that you can pinpoint that would be an easy habit to break?
Another big step we can make is to recognize the term “single use.” We’ve been conditioned to think that using something once then disposing of it is normal. Identify where single use plastics are creeping into your life. Is it plastic shopping bags? Plastic bottles? Packaging? Once you recognise this, you can start to take steps to eliminate these items.