Plastic-Free July 2021 - How Can We Turn The Tide on Plastic Pollution?
THE PLASTIC POLLUTION CONUNDRUM AND HOW YOU CAN FIGHT IT WITH YOUR WALLET
It's very easy to go about your busy daily life assuming that, when the World's plastic pollution problem hits crisis point, governments will step up and enact sweeping legislation to drive long-term change before it’s too late. The truth is that the problem is already a crisis and world leaders are reacting very slowly.
In 2020 we produced more than 500 million tonnes of plastic, which is 900% more than we produced in 1980.
Every year 8,000,000 tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the ocean.
It is believed that for every square mile of ocean there are 46,000 bits of plastic waste.
Plastic production is increasing exponentially and it is understood that by 2050 the volume of plastic will be greater than the volume of fish.
HOW DOES WHAT I DO MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
These stats are not new (you’ve probably heard them before) and the sheer number of zeroes involved can make you feel that the relatively small amount of plastic that you use and bin on a regular basis is - quite literally - a drop in the ocean. Add to that the dazzling array of different ways in which plastics infest our day-to-day lives - from fruit and veg packaging to the synthetic fibres in our favourite fitness gear - and you realise that giving it up altogether is a really difficult task. Even on a small, personal level (let alone a national or global level) reducing the consumption of plastics requires not only a significant change in habits, but also a change of mindset.
HOLDING BIG COMPANIES TO TASK WITH YOUR BUYING POWER
Around half of the plastics we consume are single-use plastics, which we use for an average of 15 minutes and which then take up to 500 years to decompose. If we focus on these plastics in our quest to be greener, it suddenly becomes a bit easier- reduce our plastic consumption. This article, from global energy leader Iberdrola, lists a few simple ways we can down our single-use plastic habits, from recycling chewed gum to always having reusable carrier bags on hand for our shopping. This does not simply reduce the small amount of plastic you use as an individual, it teams up with all the sustainable choices made by thousands of other people and starts to put pressure on the big corporations that are responsible for producing the most plastics.
In an article for the Financial Times last month, Camilla Hodson quoted Helen McGeough, global analyst team lead for plastic recycling at ICIS. McGeough asserts that small scale government bans targeting plastic consumption are not what plastic producers are really concerned about: “The real challenge” for producers was the risk that “manufacturers start to switch away from plastics” to please shoppers, she said. In other words, we really need to stop relying on governments to lead the way in reducing plastic production and to realise our collective buying power is influential enough to change manufacturing habits and ultimately reduce the amount of virgin plastic being produced.
Grassroots consumer decisions (not government pressure) have pushed big corporations to initiate huge changes in the way they operate. Here are a few well-known manufacturers who are responding to public pressure and committing to reduce their plastic waste:
Coca Cola - This global brand produces 3,000,000 metric tonnes of plastic packaging per year, so they really need to be at the forefront of the companies committed to reducing their plastic waste! They have launched a World Without Waste plan, which aims to both recycle a bottle or can for every one that it sells and to use 50% recycled material for all its packaging by 2030. It’s by no means perfect, but knowing this should make you feel better about craving a Coke every now and again.
Microsoft - This tech giant has pledged to be carbon negative by 2030 has some of the most ambitious environmental goals of any big tech company. Their war on waste goes far beyond just plastics, with pledges to drastically reduce construction and demolition waste and divert 90% of the solid waste they have historically sent to landfill or the incinerator.
Unilever - A health a beauty product manufacturer that has been pilloried in the past for the unsustainability of its practices, Unilever has signed the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment and pledges to make 100% of its plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 (which may have felt like a long time in the future when they signed it, but is now less than three and a half years away).
A HOLISTIC APPROACH TO PLASTICS
While global plastic pollution is just one aspect of our need to reduce the negative impact that human existence has on the planet, it is one of the most pressing environmental issues of today. However, it is important that we don’t adopt a blinkered view of plastics and begin to use alternatives just for the sake of it. It is worth remembering that plastic bottles are lighter than glass bottles, so they generate less CO2 when transporting them from A to B, and that cotton uses vast amounts of energy to produce, so it isn’t a sustainable alternative to synthetic fabrics.
It is important to remember why mankind started using plastics in the first place: They have a high strength-to-weight ratio, provide thermal and electrical insulation, are non-toxic, durable and low cost compared with competing materials. Vilifying plastic per-se and always using alternatives (even if they are actually worse for the environment) is completely counterproductive. A simple way to ensure that you don’t do this is to remember the adage “It’s not plastic that is bad, it is plastic waste.” So re-use the plastics you do buy, dispose of plastics responsibly (in a recycling bin wherever possible) and do not buy from businesses who are unconcerned about the excessive waste they generate.
Another important thing we can do is to support companies that are embracing new technologies and attempting to recycle some of the plastic that is already in existence because, whether we like it or not, in some areas of our lives, plastics still serve a purpose, but we have created so much of it already, we should be looking at ways of recycling what we have rather than making even more.
CHANGING OUR PLASTIC CONSUMPTION HABITS POST-PANDEMIC
Being an anti single-use plastic crusader has not been easy during the pandemic. Businesses have had to do a temporary u-turn on reusables and, with single use throw-aways considered less likely to facilitate the transmission of Covid-19, people have been forced into a less sustainable lifestyle than they had cultivated pre-pandemic. But it’s not forever. Whilst the virus is still affecting our everyday lives, things are edging their way back to something more closely resembling normality.
However, in the wake of repeated lockdowns, many of us are making significant adjustments to our lives to achieve a better balance and live more happily than we did before Covid-19. This is the perfect opportunity to make changes to our buying habits too, so that we can be part of a movement that is lobbying for societal change using its buying power.
Few of us feel able to commit to eradicating plastic waste from our lives, but it is heartening to learn that each of the good purchase decisions we make along the way helps to put pressure on those big companies that generate the most waste plastic to operate more sustainably.
SMALL WAYS TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
Look for reusable or biodegradable alternatives of your favourite products (such as baby wipes, face wipes, toothbrushes, washing up brushes, razors, cling film and straws).
Choose the fruit and veg in the supermarket that is not wrapped in plastic.
Look for businesses who are concerned for the future. These businesses will be cutting down on plastic waste and doing everything they can to make production and day-to-day transactions more sustainable. Spend your money with them.
Reject businesses that are focused on short-term financial gain at the expense of the environment. These companies are oblivious to the waste and pollution they are creating today and their business model that cannot be sustained in future.
If you can’t find a big company that makes what you need in a sustainable way at the moment, look for smaller companies that do. They may not be able to offer the cheap prices that bigger brands can, but they do not have unwieldy production processes or entrenched ways of working that take ages to change, so they can become sustainable more quickly.
The choices you make in the shops, both online and in store, are absolutely key to driving long-term change when it comes to plastic pollution. Seemingly tiny daily decisions stack up over time and those wasteful brands you eschew in favour of sustainable ones will start to notice it in their sales figures. Fight with your wallet, no matter how little you have in it, because it is stronger than you think.