Plastic is everywhere. We use it every day because it is versatile, functional and cheap. It's used in the production and distribution chains of electronics, vehicles, medical equipment, clothing and countless other things. Its presence makes our lives easier and more convenient. Trying to live, nowadays, without any plastic at all is nearly impossible. Yet plastic has a dark side.
It's versatility, functionality and affordability has led to exponential increases in its production and consumption across the globe. According to the World Economic Forum worldwide use of plastic has increased twenty-fold in the past fifty years and is expected to double again in the next two decades. These statistics are even more alarming when we realize that most of the plastic we use is both single-use and almost indestructible. It neither degrades naturally nor can it be recycled, which means it ends up in landfills and oceans, causing immeasurable and irreversible ecological damage.
The public is beginning to understand this and there are growing demands from citizens for businesses and governments to take action. Entire cities, sports stadiums, and even independent coffee shops are responding. More than twenty-five countries around the globe either ban or tax certain single-use plastics, and restrictions on the use of some packaging formats are being considered. Alongside these top-down policies are the efforts of individuals, small businesses and large businesses to adopt practices that reduce their carbon footprint.
CAN'T WE JUST RECYCLE MORE?
One of the most common responses to the plastic crisis, alongside reducing usage, is to try and recycle more. But the problem with recycling plastic is that it is complex and inefficient. It is estimated that only around seven to eight percent of plastic in the US gets recycled, nine percent in Canada, and ten percent globally. Why is this?
In contrast to glass, aluminum and steel--which can be melted and reformed to make new products of the same quality--plastic is hard to reuse. First, it comes in many forms, not all of which are recyclable but all of which need to be sorted, separated and processed apart from one another. Second, it is sometimes cheaper to manufacture virgin plastic than it is to recycle old plastic. Third, plastic degrades in quality each time it is recycled. Fourth, even if plastic is recycled it can only be used in the manufacturing of a small number of things, meaning there is always a demand for virgin plastic.
Recycling plastic is not the solution and the United Nations declaring "war" on single-use plastic won't be enough. There needs to be a concerted effort from all sectors: members of government, the private sector and consumers will all have to play a part. According to a report from the World Economic Forum 72% of plastic packaging is not recovered at all, 40% is sent to landfills, and 32% is either not collected at all or is collected but then illegally dumped or mismanaged. This model is not sustainable.
As outlined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the current model needs to transform into a new system. One that changes the way we use resources, how we make and use products, and what we do with the materials afterwards. This approach would allow us to continue enjoying the benefits that plastic brings while ensuring that the problem of pollution and waste is neither compounded or created in the first place. It will also enable us to ensure that materials are recovered and can be reused, repaired or recycled into new materials.
NINE WAYS TO REDUCE OUR PLASTIC FOOTPRINT
Governments are busy banning plastic bags, straws and other single-use plastics which are used by the billion and take hundreds of years to degrade. But what can we do to help from the bottom up? Here are nine suggestions.
1) Notice plastic - For one week, make a note of every item of plastic that you use. This has a similar effect to food journaling: once you have real evidence of present consumption future consumption drops and you become more mindful.
2) Refuse straws - Just add "No straw, please" when ordering drinks at restaurants and cafes. If you do like sipping through straws opt for a reusable steel, glass or bamboo one.
3) Refuse plastic bags - Carry and shop with reusable bags instead. These are available everywhere and can be used for more than groceries. Perhaps the simplest thing to do is keep a folded tote bag in your handbag or pocket just in case.
4) Get a reusable bottle - Plastic bottles are convenient but wasteful. Carrying a reusable one will not only reduce your plastic footprint, it will also prompt you to drink more water instead of purchasing sodas and other sugary drinks. If you don't like carrying a steel canteen around, collapsible, reusable bottles are available too.
5) Refuse plastic tea and coffee cups - Over 1.6 billion disposable coffee cups are thrown out each year in Canada alone. Why not carry your own mug? Many large coffee chains encourage shoppers to use their own travel mug or thermos in exchange for a discount. Alternatively, next time you go to your favorite coffee shop ask for your coffee in a cup or mug and drink it on the premises. In many parts of the world, a cup of tea or coffee is a chance to pause and slow down.
6) Use glass containers and mason jars in your kitchen - These are great alternatives to plastic containers. Use them to store grains, beans, nuts, coffee and everything you buy in the bulk section.
7) Eat more fresh and whole food - The most common advice for improving your diet is also a great way to reduce your plastic footprint. Buying fresh produce reduces the amount of processed food consumed and will most likely translate to a reduction of waste. Visit a local farmer's market to find fresh, locally produced food that comes with less packaging.
8) Bulk buy - Many families a generation or two ago used to shop in this manner, making only one or two trips to the store a month. This method is currently experiencing a resurgence around the world, not only because it is cheaper to buy food in bulk and promotes meal planning behavior, but also because it is associated with less packaging waste.
9) Recycle - While recycling is not particularly efficient, it does help. In order to maximize your personal recycling rate, follow a simple three-step process: Wash away any food or liquid contaminants, then sort recyclable materials into the appropriate groups, and ensure the groups stay separated when put out for collection.
Plastic isn't going away, but its increasing usage has multiple drawbacks, many of which are becoming more apparent by the day. How can we respond? As citizens we need to support local, regional and national government initiatives trying to reduce plastic consumption. As customers we need to support businesses of all sizes--with our behavior and our wallets--which attempt to become more sustainable. And as individuals? We can start with one or many of the above strategies.
A transition to a new plastic economy is possible, but like all societal change it requires change on the part of individuals like you and me.