What’s wrong with plastic?

November 24, 2018 0 By Peter and Caira

So, what is wrong with plastic anyway?

Most of us have seen the video of the turtle with the straw up it’s nose which scientists painstakingly extract.  It’s devastating viewing. The latest plastic pollution reference is to the great pacific garbage patch which measures more than 1.6 million square kilometres (over 617,000 square miles).

Whilst living in New Zealand for the last seven years, it was easy to adjust back to using single-use plastic such as plastic bags.  In the UK we had become adept at taking our own bags out shopping.  But in NZ we had slipped back into old ways without a thought.  We did regularly comment that the amount of plastic bags being used in supermarkets in NZ was hideous (we once were given 6 bags for 5 items, because of course, milk required two bags).  However, that said, we continued to stuff them into the bottom drawer in our kitchen.

What changed for us?

There were a number of things that we recall: watching the aforementioned full video depicting the ‘sea of plastic’ in the ocean on Netflix; regular plastic/rubbish pick-up’s at our ‘clean’ local beaches highlighting bags of debris and microplastics; last, but by no means least, our travel plans, the concern with the planet long-term and trying to figure out a way to reduce plastic as a family.  We decided to do some further reading around this widespread issue.

History and legacy of plastic

The history of plastic is really quite fascinating, but it appears that its legacy may leave rather a bitter taste in the mouth.  The exact definition of plastic is ‘pliable and easily shaped’, sounds harmless right?  Plastic was originally designed to overcome the strain on natural substances such as stone, wood and ivory.  At this time, plastic was a godsend for the people who required an alternative substance to work with.  Additionally, it addressed the scarcity issue of natural resources.

However, from the outset, there have been no regulations around the production and provision of plastic products. This leads us to this alarming point in time.  A time where we cannot enjoy some of the top beaches on the planet due without plastic and debris having some sort of presence.  If current consumption were to remain, research predicts that by 2050 plastic will outweigh plankton as reported by the World Economic Foundation.    To emphasise this, a recent article in the Telegraph made a call for holidaying tourists to refuse single use plastic in a bid to reduce individual plastic footprint.  Furthermore, expectations and aesthetics have changed.  Most of us expect that shop bought products to be packaged at least on the outside.  However many items are again wrapped individually on the inside.  The excessive packaging of products full-stop has slipped out of control.  And, what do we do with all this plastic packaging?  Well, we recycle responsibly, if we are mindful of these matters.  And even then, we have no guarantee that these ‘recyclable’ items will be recycled effectively and ultimately become products of any use.

What do we do?

For a global problem like this, there is no easy answer. To fix the issue, it would involved co-operation from a large number of countries, both developed, and developing. It would also likely take many decades.  On an individual level, we can campaign for change within our local and wider communities.  But ultimately, the only people we can control is ourselves, which is where we need to start.

The most effective way to reduce plastic, is of course to not use it at all. Recycling is great, but the latest suggestions are that we should strive to achieve the five R’s of zero waste (‘refuse’, ‘reduce’, ‘reuse’, ‘recycle’, ‘rot’).  Immediately achievable goals are using reusable bags at the supermarket, obtaining a glass or steel water bottle and stainless steel straws.  Along with a bamboo toothbrush, you will have instantly reduced your plastic footprint.  A further reduction in your plastic footprint can be shopping in stores that have little or no packaging.  Most large towns and cities have at least one option.  We were living in Wellington in New Zealand recently and regularly frequented commonsense organics and Bin Inn. 

Making small changes

Other small changes you can make is to think!  Yes, think! What is the thing that you are about to purchase? Is it something that will somehow improve your quality of life?  Does it serve many purposes, or is it a short-term solution to a long-term problem?  Short term fixes to things will not only likely come with an abundance of plastic packaging to dispose of, but once the real issue has been resolved, the item itself may also find its way into landfill. One of my biggest lessons was not buying cheap.  “Buy cheap, buy twice” they say.  I’m not certain who actually says that, but more and more over the years I realised this was true.  We are now careful when we purchase new things that we consider the longevity of the item.  This sometimes means spending a bit more money, but let’s face it, if you do actually buy two cheaper items (because of course the first one breaks), then you could have purchased the more expensive item in the first place!

Turn down the plastic straw

How to recycle responsibly

This is really a post all of it’s own, however the crux of it is that we all need to take responsibility for this ever growing issue before it spirals beyond our control. Recycling responsibly is an obvious approach, however is seemingly more complex than it appears on the surface.  Recycle NZ has created this quick guide to advise how to recycle plastic products.

It’s great to see more recycling stations pop-up, but they should be a last resort.

Take time to check you local curb side recycling programme. Small changes in your habits can made a big difference. For example, plastic bottles can be recycled right? Well, mostly yes, but the caps are more often than not made of a separate type of plastic. Dividing the caps from the main bottle could make a huge impact.

Many years ago we’d consider ourselves eco warriors if we recycled our milk bottles and the copy of Yellow Pages that used to arrive every year. More recently the expectation is to put at least half your household waste into the recycling bin. Now though, it’s becoming more and more common to reduce your plastic consumption altogether…. why? The simple reason is, although you can be 100% perfect and sort all your recycling perfectly, there are so many opportunities for contamination along the way. Poke your head in any public recycling bin (as we sadly do) and there could be anything in there. It only takes one lazy or inconsiderate person to put plastic in the paper and vice versa for all the good work to be undone.