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We have one word for you. Plastics. If you want to break free of a plastic-free existence, here’s how.
The overuse of plastic has been bugging me for a while. The world in general has a plastic dependency to the point that we are completely desensitised to it. It’s a product that supports a cheap, fast and convenient lifestyle – which is the crux of what we need to be prepared to give up, if we want to make a change. To me it’s not just an environmental issue but a social and cultural one.
Most people want to feel that their life has meaning, that it will make an impact on the world. Well don’t worry, it already has. In 900 years when we are nothing but dust, every single one of the estimated billion coffee cups thrown away per year (and that’s just Australia), will still exist. That is because they are lined with plastic, and plastic takes over a millennia to break down – if it ever breaks down. Plastic is an inorganic, man-made product that is mostly made from crude oil. It is estimated that 400k barrels of oil are used each year just in Australia just to make plastic water bottles, which are then carted and refrigerated, requiring even more fossil fuel. The anthropologists of the future are going to have a field day with us. They will say, “they used more than they had and threw it all away, and were surprised when it ran out – crazy!”
Everyone has probably heard of the elusive trash vortex in the Pacific Ocean. I initially imagined it something like the floating island in the Life of Pi, but instead of carnivorous plants, a tangle of plastic lawn chairs, thongs and milk containers. Actually, it is worse. Plastic doesn’t disappear, but gets smashed up into smaller and smaller pieces until it resembles a soupy kind of plastic confetti. This island of plastic confetti is reported to be twice the size of Texas. The obvious problem is that birds and marine life mistake the plastic for food and eat it. It either kills them, or they become toxic. This is why you will never see ocean caught fish labelled as “organic” – because it may have been living in plastic soup. The trash vortex isn’t getting smaller, it is increasing in size rapidly. What are we doing about it?
I felt like I had reached the pinnacle of my plastic-free crusade when I actually remembered to bring my re-usable shopping bags into the supermarket, but was totally deflated when I got home to realise that every single item I had purchased was somehow packaged with plastic. I mean, how does one buy toilet paper that doesn’t come wrapped in plastic? These are real obstacles to a plastic-free existence.
I follow a few hard-core “plastic-free” Instagrammers who are truly impressive and deserve a medal of some kind. They literally only produce a small handful of plastic waste each month and it will be stuff like a plastic tag on their op shop purchase or a plastic sticker that came on a jar etc. Amazing, and I believe them. They are dedicated. The thing is though, I get the feeling that most of them probably don’t have a mortgage, work full time or have kids. I think being plastic-free is a full time job. You basically have to do everything the long and hard way. It feels overwhelming.
In saying all that, there are some simple things we can do that are very achievable. They all come down to the choices we make and may just require a little forethought and less laziness.
- Don’t drink bottled water. This one is easy. Get a glass or stainless drink bottle (which are better for you anyway) and re-fill. Tap water is fine but if you want to get fancy, invest in a water filter. You will get thousands of uses out of a glass/stainless bottle. These are a great investment and if everyone did this, there wouldn’t be a need to produce hundreds of millions of plastic bottles each year.
- Use a re-suable coffee cup. Most of us enjoy a daily cup of something hot on the go. Invest in a reusable hot drinks cup and use it over and over again. Cafes are cool with this and you will save the planet while sipping in style.
- Say no to plastic bags and straws. Sometimes, out of habit, the shop assistant will just give you a single item in a plastic bag. Just say no. Same goes for straws. Unless your jaw is wired shut, you can do it tough and use your lips and tilt the glass like they used to do in the olden days.
- Use re-usable plastic bags. This makes a real difference. I conducted a little experiment. I let the checkout person pack my groceries as she saw fit in plastic bags. She used a total of 10 plastic bags. I transferred them into my reusable ones and the same groceries fit into four bags given they were slightly more generous, and I was willing to pack the toothpaste with the vegetables. We don’t need plastic bags for groceries.
My tips for success with this are, 1) keep the bags in the boot of your car, and 2) keep one bag in your hand/man bag. There are already single-use plastic bag bans in NT, SA, ACT and Tasmania – the rest of us need to get on board, it’s only a matter of time until it’s enforced.
- Shop at farmers’ markets or get produce boxes delivered. You can have the best of intentions with your reusable shopping bag but buying individually shrink wrapped cucumbers defeats the purpose. Farmers’ markets or whole-food stores are a great way to overcome this problem. You can bring your own bags and buy plastic-free foods. It also makes a nice weekend activity. For those who lack the time or opportunity to go to a market, there are lots of online whole-food delivery options, most of which deliver purchases in an exchangeable cardboard box.
- Bring your lunch to work. Self explanatory. Fast food nearly always comes in throw-away plastic. Not only will you save money but you can give yourself a pat on the back while doing it.
- Bulk buy whole-foods. Buying bulk can cut down on the amount of packaging a product has. There are also places you can go where you can just pay for what you want, and you can bring your own container. It’s also a great way to eat healthier while saving a buck. If you have likeminded friends, you can all put in for bulk supplies and divide them up.
There are other things we can do to incite a greater change. Write to your council and local shopping centre requesting that drinking fountains or bottle filling stations be installed. Write to companies and businesses that over-package and let them know you would like a greener option. As consumers, we can decide to put our money where our mouth is and support green brands. Raise awareness in your own world through example and social media. Once people know all the cool cats are doing it, everyone will be on board.