Many of us are starting to realise how much plastic we are surrounded by in our everyday lives and getting anxious because of it – because, yes, we are truly surrounded by plastics.
Plastic is such a versatile material that you can make almost anything out of it; from technical clothing to airplane parts. Some plastics increase our quality of life (even when taking environmental impacts into consideration), while others do not.
Reducing the amount of unnecessary plastics we use is the most efficient way to combat the negative environmental impacts caused by plastic marine litter and other negative health- and environmental effects associated with plastic materials.
It is estimated that 15 tons of plastic waste leaks into the ocean every minute – an amount that is expected to fourfold by 2050. In addition, plastic production is expected to account for 15 percent of the global CO2 emissions by that same year. This is the most likely scenario if we continue to increase the use of plastics in the current pace and don’t develop a more circular plastics economy.
Today, the global plastics economy is more or less linear. Plastic is often seen as a low-value material that can be thrown away after a single use, rather than a valuable material that should be reused and recycled over and over again. Plastic packaging is a good example of this; globally, only 14% of all plastic packaging is being recycled, and only 2% into same or similar quality.
Therefore, we have two major problems today; we use too much plastics and we recycle too little of it. Plastics aren’t the problem – we are.
However, it is important not to panic and start replacing plastics with alternatives that may have an even greater environmental impact. For example, several Norwegian grocery stores began offering paper bags as an alternative to plastic bags last year, even though they knew that paper bags (the way they are produced today) have a greater climate footprint than plastic bags.
The demand for action was so great that the stores felt that they needed to find a quick, and not necessarily the most environmentally friendly, solution to the plastic bag problem. It is solutions like these that fit the phrase “road to hell is paved with good intentions” well; we risk replacing one environmental problem with another, potentially more damaging one, if we try to speed ahead without doing the maths.
Many organisations are for example pushing for less or no plastic packaging around fruit and vegetables, both globally as well as here in Norway. Some plastic packaging has no functional value and is merely designed for marketing purposes or to increase the appeal of the product (such as sliced fruit placed on a Styrofoam plate, covered with plastic wrap). Others, on the other hand, help to maintain the quality of the product longer – both under transport, in the store, and at home.
According to Bama, the waste of grapes was reduced to 1-2% from 10-15% when they were packaged in thin plastic boxes, rather than being sold without any packaging. Ripe fruit, such as avocados and mangos, are easily damaged under transport, which is why using plastic packaging on these types of products also helps to avoid unnecessary food waste. Fruits and vegetables that contain a lot of water, such as cucumbers and broccoli, stay fresh for more than a week longer with plastic wrapping than without.
This is why we have to be careful when we require reduction of plastic packaging around fruit and vegetables.
The most efficient action we as consumers can take, is to avoid buying plastic that is clearly unnecessary. Use the bags and totes you already have when you go shopping. This way you don’t need to buy plastic bags NOR paper bags. Bring your own coffee cup when you’re getting take-away – most cafés are happy to fill private cups. Stop buying bottled water if you can and bring your own refillable bottle or buy water larger containers.
And most importantly: buy less altogether. Many consumer products, such as clothes, toys, electronics and homeware, are wrapped in great amounts of plastic – if not while on shelves of the stores, then at least under transport.
Buying second hand is great. You prolong the products’ lives AND contribute to no excess packaging – i.e. unnecessary resource depletion in general. In addition, many plastic products are known to be covered in chemicals when they come directly from the factory, which is why it is recommended to thoroughly wash especially products such as kids’ toys and kitchenware before they’re taken into use. Buying second hand removes this problem as well; the chemicals have most likely been already washed away by the previous owners.
Repair what you have rather than throwing away. When you do have to throw something away, make sure that you recycle it – whether it be an iPhone or a plastic bag.
And finally, stop littering and pick up after others. Cigarette butts, plastic candy wrappers and take-away containers belong in a trash can, not in a stomach of an animal that doesn’t know better. Picking up after others not only helps the environment and makes you feel like a real champion, it also sets a great example to others.
During my PhD study, I will be looking into how the global plastics economy can be developed so that it is easier for companies to offer sustainable products and for the consumers to buy, use and recycle them. In order to create a truly circular plastics economy, a paradigm shift is needed – starting from redesigning products to developing more efficient recycling systems for plastic materials. In the meantime, we can all contribute by buying less and recycling more.
Jambeck, R. Jenna, Roland Geyer, Chris Wilcox, Theodore R. Siegler, Miriam Perryman, Anthony Andrady, Ramani Narayan, Kara Lavender Law (2015). Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science, vol. 347, issue 6223, pp. 768-771.
World Economic Forum, Ellen McArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company (2016). The New Plastics Economy – Rethinking the future of plastics. (http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications).