Today is the first day of Plastic Free July! In this post I want to address the severity of our plastic problem and just how important initiatives like plastic free July can be in changing or redirecting consumption habits by just encouraging people to stop, think and act.
We live in a plastic world and an era of cheap, convenient and disposable products; the irony of disposable plastic is that it doesn’t go away when our need of it ceases. Plastic has a very long life time. Frans Timmermans, the vice-president of the European Commission correctly stated that ‘single-use plastics that take five seconds to produce, are used for five minutes, then take 500 years to break down again.’ Not only do we need to dramatically reduce our plastic usage but also find better solution to managing existing plastic, which is directly impacting our planet and health (by entering our bodies through food and water contaminated with micro plastics).
We have produced 9.2 billion tons of plastic so far. The issue is not only how dependent we have become of it but what we do when we dispose of it. Of the 9.2 billion tons of plastic that have been produced, 6.9 billion have become waste and of that waste, 6.3 billion weren’t recycled. A great deal of this unrecycled plastic waste has made its way into our oceans and endangers marine animals and the ocean ecosystem.
One of the most frustrating parts of this issue is that we know of viable and achievable ways of making the situation better. Ocean plastic pollution is not as complex as climate change in the sense that we have much better understanding of the various components of the problem and of the solution. We know how to pick up our garbage, how to recycle it and most importantly we don’t need to entirely remake existing systems to deal with it. I believe the most important challenge we face in regards to plastic waste is our mind-set. With the increase of disposable plastic came, unsurprisingly, a throwaway culture. We are now consuming an unnecessary amount of plastic. We can clearly see walking down supermarket aisles. You will probably find that there is food unnecessarily packaged, such as vegetables wrapped in single-use plastic. Thankfully there have been complaints and, at least at the smaller scale in my day to day, I have seen/heard people becoming more aware of these details.
Are we moving forward?
Despite the pessimistic outlook. There have been some positive changes around the globe, some more dramatic than others. For instance, recently in Maharashtra (state in India, capital city Mumbai) introduced their plastic ban that extends beyond single-use plastic. China has banned imports of waste plastic leaving it to the exporting countries to deal with it themselves, and we have seen the widening of the plastic bag tax (first tried in Ireland in 2002, when a 15-cent charge per bag was similarly found to cut bag use by 90%).
One of the latest movements that has gathered a lot of attention is the plastic straw ban, with a lot of celebrity involvement and which has been closely followed by the media. Banning straws won’t solve our issues but act as a jump start to a challenging conversation. Hopefully also open people’s eyes about how unnecessary it is to use single-use plastic in many different occasions, and how easily it can be avoided.
There is no doubt that plastic has changed our lives and this has been for the better in some ways. For instance, plastic is used to lighten cars hence saving fuel and pollution. They are also used to extend the life of food and for medical package. The issue is the excessive use of plastic beyond that which is necessary. This is further, accentuated when one considers the vast numbers of alternatives that are available but people reject or ignore due to convenience. At home one could easily replace plastic wrappers with beeswax wrap or instead of using disposable plastic containers switch to glass or metal. The number of alternatives are extensive what is needed is an increase in willingness and it is through awareness and initiatives that this willingness can be furthered.
Going into Plastic Free July with five key principles
We know the problems and we have seen it, documentaries like blue planet have made us very aware so why do we continue? I believe is because we are still trapped in throwaway culture and the solution lies significantly in changing people habits. We can choose to not use plastic bags it is ultimately out choice. We can choose not to use a straw to carry a re-usable coffee cup or a water bottle. Ultimately, it comes down to practicality
The best solution to combat the amount of plastic waste is to stop it from becoming waste in the first place and rethinking out entire approach towards this. Reading thought a national geographic article I came across five principles that where regarded as vital to work towards zero-waste lifestyle and I think that they could be useful to bear in mind during and after Plastic Free July.
1. Refuse - refuse to buy things with lots of packaging
2. Reduce - don’t buy things you don’t really need
3. Reuse - repurpose worn out items, shop for used goods, and purchase reusable products like steel water bottles
4. Compost - up to 80 percent of waste by weight is organic. But this rarely decomposes in landfills
5. Recycle – It still takes some energy and resources to recycle, but it’s better than sending stuff to the landfill or allowing it to become litter
Excessive plastic use is not an unsolvable problem. We know where that plastic is coming from , who is consuming and who isn’t disposing of It correctly, the answer is us. It is down to us to engage with the 5 key principles I noted before. I think it is also crucial that whenever one encounters campaigns such this plastic fee month they think of the bigger picture present by this movements and the potential to change lifestyle patterns, by challenging us to reconsider.