There is an unprecedented and largely unexpected phenomenon that is currently sweeping the globe. Its effects are varied, and seemingly unrelated – camels, dying in the deserts of United Arab Emirates; one in six couples seeking fertility treatment in the UK; 400,000 marine mammals dying each year; and the bioaccumulation of persistent organic pollutants in the food chain.
The cause? Plastic waste. Camels in the United Arab Emirates eat discarded plastic bags, mistaking them for food, and an estimated half of all camel deaths are then caused by starvation, as their stomachs are too full of plastic to allow room for other foods. Common endocrine disruptors found in plastic products (the most well-known of which is BPA) are associated with decreased fertility in both men and women. However, the most striking effect of plastic pollution is that on the marine environment. According to the Plastic Oceans Foundation, “We use over 300 million tonnes of new plastic every year”, and “half of this, we use just once and for less than 12 minutes.” An estimated “eight million tonnes of plastic waste then ends up in the oceans every year.” Once in the sea, plastic can take hundreds of years to biodegrade, and poses a significant threat to all marine life.
As the Editor of A Better Place pointed out in her article, “The Quest For a Plastic Free Life”, our culture’s focus on convenience, ease, and disposability, has made our reliance on plastic problematic. A quick visit to the supermarket illustrates this. Vegetables are sold in pre-packed plastic bags; rice, pasta, and other grains, are packaged in neat 1kg plastic bags; pieces of chicken are pre-packed and priced according to weight, in carefully wrapped plastic packaging; deodorants, shampoos, soaps, laundry liquids, and dishwashing detergents are all uniformly packaged in plastic. Nearly every product in a supermarket is packaged in plastic. In the UK alone, 275 000 tonnes of plastic are used every year and less than 30% of that is recycled. Even then, due to their chemical structure most plastics can only be recycled (or down-cycled) a few times, unlike glass products which can be recycled almost indefinitely.
Plastic products that are not recycled are sent to landfill. However, inadequate disposal systems and poor infrastructure (predominantly in developing countries), means that significant amounts of plastic waste ends up in the oceans. A National Geographic report states that “there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean” and, “of that mass, 269 000 tonnes float on the surface, while some four billion plastic micro-fibres per square kilometre litter the deep sea.”
Clearly these numbers are staggering, and all variants of plastic pollution have deadly consequences for all types of marine life – over one-third of sea birds ingest plastic particles and are therefore vulnerable to starvation; all known species of sea turtles and half of all marine mammals are affected by entanglement in plastic materials; tiny fish will feed on micro-plastics, causing stunted growth and poorer survival; the accumulation of micro-plastics in the food chain means that there are now often tiny plastic particles in the seafood that we eat.
This issue inspired the production of the new feature length documentary, A Plastic Ocean. The result of four years of hard work by the Plastic Oceans Foundation, this documentary enlists a panel of experts, and was filmed at over 20 locations around the world. It features prominent environmentalists, such as Dr Sylvia Earle and Sir David Attenborough, as well as an international team of researchers and adventurers.
Whilst this documentary is eye-opening, it’s not all doom and gloom. It’s not too late to introduce workable technologies and policy reforms to conduct change for the better. Public policy can change both corporate and consumer behaviour – the recent ban on microbeads in the UK and the USA is an example of this, as well as the nation-wide tax on plastic bags in the UK. These actions do make a difference: since the introduction of the bag tax in the UK, plastic bag use has declined by 85%. These changes might be small, they might be incremental, but they matter.
There are also so many changes that you can introduce in your own life to reduce plastic. My own journey to a plastic free, zero waste lifestyle began a little over one year ago when I signed up for a “Plastic Free July” campaign. That month was truly an eye-opening experience as I had never before considered how much of my life contained entirely unnecessary plastic products. As the month progressed I found myself shopping more at the farmer’s market, making my own cleaning products, and purchasing clothing and skincare products from ethical and sustainable producers. Before starting this challenge I was a pretty normal mid-twenties student in graduate school, but I found that living plastic free forced me to live in a more conscious and deliberate manner. I had to be more thoughtful about my purchases, I bought food from local suppliers, I cared about the choices that I made and the effects that they had on the planet. What ensued was not just reducing my own ecological footprint and minimising the amount of waste I sent to landfill, but rather a sense of liberation due to the structured simplicity, and a sense of alignment in living my life in a way that was in keeping with my values.
Not everyone needs to become zero waste, but it is easy to reduce the amount of waste you produce, and here are ten easy tips to help you make a start.
Bring your own water-bottle wherever you go
I personally use a stainless steel Klean Kanteen, but any reusable water bottle will do. I just put it in my bag at the beginning of the day and refill it as necessary. It keeps me hydrated and prevents me from having to buy a single use water-bottle. Some people don’t like the taste of tap water, and it depends where you live, but I filter mine by using activated bamboo charcoal sticks that I leave sitting in the water jug overnight, and in the morning the water is clean, a little filtered, and tastes delicious.
Bring a re-usable cup to the coffee shop
Many people love to start their day with a steaming mug of tea or coffee, and, in our fast-paced society, many people grab them “to go.” Unfortunately, most commercial takeaway coffee mugs are neither recyclable nor biodegradable. As such, I use a glass KeepCup as it is convenient, durable, and is pretty much universally accepted by coffee stores.
Bring your own container when you go shopping (or eating out)
I will bring my own container for a number of different purposes. If I want to buy fish or cheese at the supermarket, the fishmonger, or the cheese store then I will take my own container and ask them to weigh the product directly into the container. If I want to buy food to take away, such as a salad for lunch, or takeaway in the evening when I’m feeling lazy, then I just take my container to the café/restaurant and ask them to put the food directly into it. I’m very rarely refused by store owners or restaurateurs but it does often take a little bit of explaining, for that reason it becomes easier as you frequent the same places over time and they become used to your container-carrying ways.
Carry a re-usable tote bag wherever you go
This one is easy and, since the tax on plastic bags was introduced in the UK, I see a lot more people doing this. It’s easy just to grab a reusable tote when heading out to do the shopping. I find it also helps to use smaller, reusable bags for loose vegetables, fruits, and bread.
Find bulk options
Not everywhere will have bulk options, but many towns and cities will have stores where you can refill goods from bulk bins. This means that you can take your own containers and fill them up with nuts, grains, seeds, dried fruits, and sometimes even chocolate! I’m also lucky enough to live in a place where I’m able to get bulk refills for products such as olive oil, tamari, and dishwashing detergent. I live in Oxford in the UK, and before I started this challenge I had no idea that there were a couple of unpackaged options available. I would recommend checking out farmer’s markets, health food stores, and there is even a bulk food app to help you find options near where you might live.
Visit your local farmers market for fresh produce
Buying produce from the farmer’s market means that it is often much more likely to be unpackaged than its supermarket counterpart. Not everyone will have this option, but most farmer’s markets will have seasonal fruits and vegetables that are often reasonably priced. I also love buying from the farmer’s market as it means that I get to try new produce, I get to engage with the people that grow my food, and I get to see the food change with the seasons.
Buy unpackaged shampoos, conditioners, and soaps
The plastic packaging for personal care products is largely unnecessary. A number of shops sell unpackaged soaps, shampoos, and conditioners. My personal favourite are those by Ethique, a New Zealand company that provide a range of solid personal care products packaged only in compostable wrapping. However, unpackaged options are also relatively easy to come by in health food stores, and Lush also has a large range. Lush also has an extensive range of unpackaged deodorants, sunscreens, and moisturisers.
Use DIY cleaning products
Another simple switch is to make your own cleaning products. I was very apprehensive about this one, but I was very happy to find that a homemade cleaning spray (2/3 cup distilled vinegar + 1/3 cup water + 24 drops lemon essential oil) worked to perfection. To complete the cleaning routine, I simply use cotton cleaning cloths that can be washed and re-used. For washing dishes, I get refills of dishwashing liquid and simply use biodegradable scrubbing brushes, or a copper scrubber for when I need a more abrasive clean.
Switch to a biodegradable toothbrush
This is possibly one of the easiest zero waste switches to make. There are a multitude of biodegradable toothbrushes available, but I use the Environmental Toothbrush brand. Just a word of caution: Most bamboo toothbrushes still have nylon bristles so they need to be removed before the handle is composted. In attention to a complete dental care regime – biodegradable silk floss is also available, along with either making your own toothpaste, or buying that in recyclable aluminium packaging.
If you’re a woman… consider a menstrual cup
A very intelligent woman once told me that a menstrual cup was one of the things that “changed her life.” Given that she’s pretty sensible and has both an MD and a PhD I considered this advice to be pretty top-notch. Menstrual cups, such as the Organicup are a healthier, more economical, and more environmentally friendly alternative to pads or tampons. They are reusable so produce no waste, and only need to be replaced once every 10 years, and apparently this translates into a saving of £510 (over the ten-year period).
“our actions over the next ten years will determine the state of the ocean for the next 10, 000 years.” – Dr Sylvia Earle
If you’re interested in learning more about reducing your own waste, or living a plastic free lifestyle, there is a lot of information out there. Some of my favourite blogs include Trash is For Tossers, Wasteland Rebel, Zero Waste Home, and The Rogue Ginger.
Also, if you’re from the UK and live in, or near, the Oxford area then please consider coming to our local screening of A Plastic Ocean on the 26th November. More details can be found here.
The goal is not an unattainable standard of zero-waste perfection – we are all living in the 21st century after all, but I believe that every little bit helps. Every piece of plastic that is ever produced is still here, and will be for the next 100-500 years. In the words of Dr Sylvia Earle, “our actions over the next ten years will determine the state of the ocean for the next 10, 000 years.”
Author: Hannah Baddock