According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), production of plastic has reached a staggering 265 million tons in 2010. Additionally, plastic production has increased by about 5% per annum since the 1990s. It can be expected that this trend will continue and may even increase over the longer term.
Plastic surrounds us
Wherever we look, we find ourselves surrounded by plastic. Furniture, gadgets, utensils, clothing accessories and even building materials are either made of, or make use of, plastic.
A mind-boggling amount of plastic is used by the food industry, too. Ready-made food tends to be packaged in attractive looking plastic or plastic-coated packaging. Vegetables are sold in little plastic boxes or trays presented so as to convince us about their quality and purity. Bread is delivered in a plastic pouch, juices and milk comes in plastic bottles or plastic coated cartons, frozen food is sold in thick plastic bags. Whatever product we can think of, it comes with a layer of plastic around it, in some form or the other.
The personal care industry is no different. Most products on supermarket shelves come in plastic containers. The packaging of shampoos, lotions, creams, and toothpaste all come with high amounts of plastic, not to mention personal hygiene and baby care merchandise.
This pervasive use of product is a marker of the modern era. Various chemical technologies help to make our lives easier. These technologies contribute to the development of consumption-oriented societies, where a vast amount of merchandise is available cheaply, thanks to mass production in the Far East. Given the low price, quality cannot be always expected to be good. So, we use such products for a while and then throw them away. Replacement is easy and inexpensive and the choice is abundant.
What’s the problem with plastic?
The key problem with the unprecedented level of plastic usage in the 21st century is the amount of waste it generates. Many types of plastic do not biodegrade at all. If they do, the breakdown process may only take place if certain circumstances prevail. Sometimes an extremely long time is needed for plastic waste to degrade.
Due to the lack of biodegradability, plastic either ends up in landfills, is incinerated or ends up in our oceans. Given the amount of plastic we use, landfills are scarce. Incineration may cause the release of toxins and heavy metals ending into the air, waters and soil. Eventually these harmful harms can end up entering the food chain.
So, the process is sometimes dangerous to the environment and to human health. Sometimes plastic waste is washed into our waters and floats around for several years in sewers, streams, rivers and seas before vast quantities of plastic items come together in the middle of our oceans. As a result, marine debris patches are found in the North Pacific and in the Atlantic. The plastic floating around in the middle of the oceans has wide-ranging consequences including substantially disturbing the marine life.
What can we do about this matter?
Given that plastic dominates the modern lifestyle, it is impossible to eliminate it. What we can do is to recycle what we can and reduce our plastic consumption.
Recycling plastic is sometimes a tricky business as it cannot always be recycled. Sometimes, it can be “downcycled” only, i.e. lower grade plastic items can be made out of recycled plastic. However, downcycling can only happen a few times before such a plastic item ends as a waste product.
What may be more effective is to reduce our plastic consumption. Here are five tips that can help us in dramatically decreasing our individual plastic consumption. If enough of us try to embrace these idea, such can have a powerful, collective impact.
- Refuse to use plastic bags when shopping. Handsome textile alternatives and wicker baskets are readily available. Use reusable cotton mesh produce sacks to measure fruit and vegetables in supermarkets. The fruit & veg section tends to be a major place of plastic bag usage.
- Don’t purchase overly-packaged food & personal care items. Opt for ones that are sold in glass jars, glass bottles or metal containers, as these are easier to recycle. Refuse all plastic that you don’t need.
- Reduce take-away food purchases, use your own metal mug when you buy your take-away coffee and ditch straws, plastic cups, tops and plastic cutlery.
- Buy in bulk. Larger items require less packaging. As a consequence, less packaging is thrown away and therefore the impact on the environment is proportionally less. As a nice bonus, you will also save a little money in the process!
- If you no longer need a possession that is in decent condition, don’t throw it away. Sell it via an online market place or, better yet, offer it for the needy. There are countless charities that welcome donations. It is not only better for the environment, but it feels good, too.
If you have thoughts on the subject and further tips, let me know!