Plastic Not So Fantastic - Tips for Using Less Plastic

The other day I found the plastic top of a takeaway coffee that had blown into my front yard.

As I picked it up I thought of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which I’d just been reading about. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a floating soup of 100 million tons of garbage, 90 per cent of which is plastic, in the North Pacific. It’s impossible to estimate the area accurately; one study found it to be twice the size of Hawaii. In 2010, similar patches of decomposed plastic debris were found in the North Atlantic and in the Indian Ocean.

While navies and commercial shopping are partly responsible, it’s estimated that perhaps 80 per cent of marine plastic originated on land as litter and industrial waste. Some of it has been dumped on the beach and in rivers or streams, and some has been blown away from landfill, or while being transported to landfill. Water bottles and plastic bags are the most familiar part of the problem – for example, US citizens consume an estimated 50 billion bottles of water per annum, and the annual figure for the globe is around 200 billion bottles – but the plastics in the garbage patches range from pocket combs, tampon applicators and toothbrushes to fishing nets, detergent bottles and toys.

Bits of this waterlogged mass of rubbish end up in the stomachs or around the necks of birds, turtles, whales, seals and other sea creatures, many of which die slow and horrible deaths from starvation, strangulation or suffocation. It’s likely that over 100,000 marine mammals and turtles and hundreds of thousands of sea birds die each year due to marine debris, including plastic. Scientific American describes some of the effects on sea life of coming into contact with plastic: ‘fur seals entangled by nylon nets, sea otters choking on polyethylene six-pack rings, and plastic bags or toys stuck in the guts of sea turtles’. More information about marine debris and what’s being done to clean it up can be found on the NOAA website.

Large pieces of plastic debris are just one aspect of the problem. Estimates for the time it takes various kinds of plastics to decompose range from 20 to 1000 years. They don’t biodegrade – get broken down by microbes – in any reasonable amount of time, but they do photodegrade, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. Much of the plastic in the ocean consists of tiny fragments that are less than 1 cm in size, some of them microscopic. These fragments release toxic chemicals into the ocean and into the food chain. Tiny marine organisms ingest the particles and these organisms are then eaten by fish, which in turn are eaten by humans.

A problem like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can seem overwhelming; individual actions aren’t ever going to solve it on their own. It would take government action and regulation on a global scale to simply stop the situation getting worse, by legislating for less use and greater recycling of plastics, for example. In the meantime, though, it’s surprisingly easy to cut down on your own consumption of plastic, and there are plenty of resources if you want to advocate for tougher regulations.

Below are some simple ways to reduce the use of plastic in your life, reuse it where possible, and recycle the plastic you can’t reuse. (There are also some more ‘hard core’ suggestions.)

* Put plastic containers in your recycling bin. There are many different types of plastics, and not all can be recycled. In the US, UK and Australia, local authorities usually allow some kinds of hard plastic such as drink bottles in their curbside recycling services, but the types of plastics they recycle will vary – check the website of your local authority. A Plastics Identification Code (used internationally) is stamped on plastic containers to indicate their type. According to Clean Up Australia, most local councils here recycle plastics labelled 1, 2, and 3, but many are now extending their recycling programs to include plastics labelled 4 to 7. Clean the containers before you put them in the bin.

* Recycle your plastic bags at recycling drop-off points in your area. Plastic bag recycling stations are now increasingly common. As well as supermarket plastic bags and the heavier store bags, packaging film is normally recyclable at these stations (eg plastic packaging for paper towels, toilet paper and junk mail), as well as drycleaning plastic. Cling wrap, compostable bags and prepackaged food bags, including frozen food bags and prewashed salad bags, normally can’t be included. It’s important that you only put in clean bags.

If you’re in the USA you can locate plastic bag recycling stations in your area at plasticbagrecycling.org or www.earth911.com. In the UK, some supermarkets offer plastic bag recycling; find a station near you at RecycleNow. In Australia you can drop your plastic bags off at your local supermarket.

* Wash and recycle dirty plastic bags rather than throwing them out. The thought of washing a plastic bag is a put-off for some. It’s not hard – turn the bag inside out and give it a quick rinse under the tap, wiping it as you go. Dry your bags on the line or on a clothes rack, using pegs to attach them. Plastic bags with meaty or fishy residue can be washed in hot, soapy water.

* Use your spare plastic bags around the house. Here are some great ideas for making use of spare plastic bags.

* Compost your unused food scraps. You’ll generate less rubbish and therefore need to use fewer plastic bags for household waste. Many options for outdoor and indoor compost bins are now available.

* Don’t assume that so-called ‘biodegradable’ and ‘degradable’ plastic bags are the answer. These bags may cause more problems than they solve. Oxo-degradable bags, for example, contain toxic metals that may not biodegrade at all. Even fully compostable bags require light and heat in order to biodegrade efficiently, which they won’t get if they end up in landfill or the ocean. They can also cause harm if they are included in plastic bag recycling systems.

* Buy fewer plastic toys. Consider reducing the number of plastic toys you buy for your children. Join a toy library, and buy eco-friendly toys where possible. Here’s a good article on eco-friendly dolls.

* Don’t buy exfoliants that include plastic. Unbelievably, minute granules of plastic are now used in some exfoliants! These can end up in the water supply and make their way to the oceans. Don’t buy exfoliants that include ‘micro-fine’ polyethylene granules, polyethylene ‘micro-spheres’, polyethylene ‘beads’, or just plain polyethylene.

* Stop buying plastic water bottles. Plastic water bottles can be reused several times as long as they haven’t been heated and you wash them with soap and water and allow them to dry before refilling. Better still, buy an aluminium drink container. It’s worth paying more for a good-quality bottle – a couple of years ago I bought a cheap aluminium water bottle that leaked water into my bag from the get-go.

* Buy a reusable takeaway coffee container. Look forward to your daily hit of takeaway coffee? Bring your own reusable takeaway coffee cup to the cafe.

* Reuse bubble wrap. If you receive something in the mail packed with bubble wrap, store it and reuse it as packaging in your own parcels.

* Reuse straws. Wash straws or better still, buy a non-throwaway straw. Alternatives include aluminium and glass straws.

* Stop using plastic film for keeping food fresh. Other options for covering food in the fridge include silicon lids, or simply putting a dinner or bread plate over a container of food. Use wax paper for wrapping sandwiches.

* Reuse plastic food containers. Buy your dips from delis and market stalls that serve the dip from bulk containers, and bring your own containers. (You can also buy slices of unwrapped cheese from deli counters.) When you buy takeaway food, bring your own used takeaway container. Used dip and takeaway containers are great for storing food in the freezer. There are dozens of uses for margarine and yoghurt containers; here’s a good list.

Extreme plastic reduction

* Recycle your toothbrush. Once you start becoming aware of how much plastic is needlessly thrown away, even tossing a toothbrush in the bin may start to feel wrong. Alternatives include a company that turns your used toothbrush into picnic tables, one that offers a toothbrush with replaceable heads, and sustainable toothbrushes made from bamboo, wood and cellulose. Some of these ideas can be found here.

* Use your own plastic containers for liquid goods. Buy your liquid goods such as shampoo and conditioner in bulk at food co-ops, health food stores, or speciality bulk stores, and bring your own used shampoo bottles to store them in.

* Buy your dry goods loose, and bring your own plastic bags to carry them. You can find grains, flours, nuts, seeds and pulses at produce and farmers markets, as well as food co-ops and health food stores.

* Bring your own plastic bag when buying meat and fish. Wash your used plastic bags and take them with you for wrapping meat and fish when you go to the butchers, fishmonger or supermarket.

* Use newspaper to wrap wet or smelly rubbish that you can’t compost. I remember my parents doing this when I was young, before plastic bags were widely used for rubbish in Australia.

Suggestions for taking action

* Pressure your local authority to widen the scope of its plastics recycling, eg by recycling plastic food containers if it doesn't already.

* Organise for your town or city to become plastic bag free.

* Pressure your state or federal environment minister to create stronger regulations for the use and recycling of plastic in manufacturing and packaging.


These organisations and websites aim to decrease the use of plastics and stop them polluting our environment.


Plastic Pollution Coalition Berkeley California


Planet Ark

Clean Up Australia


Waste Watch



Help with a plastic-free lifestyle

Life without Plastic

Ethically sourced alternatives to plastic products

Plastic Manners

The blog of a woman who decided to try to live without plastic

Until next time!


Emily Hunter said...

These are all great tips! :) I have to admit that I can't see a post like this without thinking of Tim Minchin's Canvas Bags Here's the link and just smiling.

Inspired Shopper said...

Love it! Thanks for the link and giving me a laugh!