For more than 50 years, the global production of plastic has increased exponentially. Plastic is a durable, primarily petroleum-based material, which has gradually replaced materials like glass and metal. In Western Europe and North America, approximately 100 kilograms of plastic is consumed each year per person, mostly in the form of packaging. According to the UN’s Environmental Program, between 22-43% of the plastic used worldwide is disposed of in landfills, where its resources are wasted, the material takes up valuable space, and it blights communities. It is estimated that 5.25 trillion plastic particles, weighing a total of 268,940 tonnes are currently floating in the world’s oceans, posing a serious threat to the marine environment. Experts estimate that plastic is eaten by 31 species of marine mammals and more than 100 species of sea birds. While a significant proportion of the problem can be attributed to industry and poor waste management facilities, we still can make some small changes in our own lives to contribute to the cause. While some of the below options may be kind of obvious to some people, other may not have ever given much thought to their plastic consumption and are just starting out along the road to less waste, so bear with us 🙂
1. BYOB (Bring your own bottle)
A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and this number is set to rise by another 20% by 2021 amount to 583.3bn plastic bottles per year. Most of these bottles, used for soft drinks and water, are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which can be easily recycled. But as their numbers dramatically increase across the globe, efforts to collect and recycle the bottles are failing to keep up. In Ireland, nearly 2,000 water bottles are produced per person per year and only a fraction are recycled. Using a reusable water bottle is such an easy way to reduce your plastic consumption as well as your spending. I got an aluminium water bottle as a birthday present a few years ago and I try bring it everywhere with me, to the gym, into work, on hikes, holidays etc and I really love it. There are loads of different varieties out there to suit different people’s needs, titanium, aluminium, glass, plastic, big, small, colourful, plain…go wild. Look out for water refilling stations when you are out and about in cities, airports, train stations and don’t be afraid to ask in a café or bar if they will fill it up, most times they are really nice and are happy to oblige. There are also various apps (such as Refill or Tap) you can use to suss out if there are any water fountains or refill stations in your locations.
2. Ditch the disposable coffee cups
Every year, 500 billion disposable cups are manufactured around the world; that’s over 70 disposable cups for every person on the planet and the vast majority of them are not recycled (more than 99.75%). One of the main reasons for this because disposable coffee cups contain 5% polyurethane plastic (to make them leak proof), making recycling by normal public waste collection services extremely difficult and they therefore are diverted to landfill or incinerators. While big coffee chains have a responsibility to ensure their “100% recyclable ” cups are in fact recycled, it’s really important that we the consumers reduce the number of disposable cups we use in the first place. You could either invest in a reusable thermos mugs, choose to sit in and enjoy your coffee the old-fashioned way (i.e. in a ceramic mug), fashion your own DIY thermos from an old jam jar or make your own coffee at home and bring it with you in a flask saving money at the same time. I’ve recently started to see a few cafes implementing mug libraries where customers can borrow mugs if they forgot their own which I think is such a nice idea (although perhaps best suited to more local cafes, then big city ones).
3. Think bars not bottles
How many bottles of shampoo do you think are used every year around the world? Or how about the number of bottles of liquid hand soap or body washes? To be honest I couldn’t find data to answer these large-scale questions but I was shocked to discover that 29 million bottles of Head and Shoulders shampoo were sold worldwide in 2011. That’s just one shampoo brand on the market and this figure is for one year only. Now scale that up to incorporate all the different brands on sale, all the different products (conditioners, treatments, hand soaps, facial washes etc) and this is year on year. Nowadays all manner of good quality personal care products are available as soaps in bar formations and they are just as effective as the liquid forms. By moving to solid products, you are not only giving up the plastic bottles but reducing the carbon footprint associated with the transport of bulky water based products (Fact: the average shampoo or bodywash can be made up of up to 80% water). I switched to a shampoo bar years ago, and my hair has never been in better condition.
4. Bring your own bag
It is estimated that 100 billion plastic carrier bags are used across Europe per year, with 8 billion ending up as litter. A landmark European Parliament ruling in April 2015 means that all member states must achieve an 80% reduction in polyethylene bag use by 2025. Since 2002, nine countries within the EU have introduced various plastic bag charges/bans in an effort to minimize its impact on the environment, reduce litter and protect wildlife. In Ireland, the plastic bag levy of €0.15 (which has since increased to €0.22), in place since 2002 led to a 90% decrease in use within one year. In England, the £0.05 charge on single use plastic bags resulted in an 85% decrease within 6 months. If you are living in one of the few countries that do have a plastic bag tax/charge you probably already have a load of canvas bags stuffed in your car or under your desk and it’s now second nature to bring them along with you whenever you are going shopping. If not then maybe you could consider investing in a few reusable bags, remember to pack them with you when shopping and if you are really passionate use your voice to speak to local politicians, councils and/or environmental campaign groups so that the issue can be taken to the top.
5. Choose loose fruit and vegetables
The amount of plastic packaging on fruit and vegetables in supermarkets these days is crazy (check out the Insta posts by @pointless_packaging for some mind-boggling examples). While I understand that some packaging is needed in order to extend the shelf life of some products (e.g. cucumbers) and to reduced damaging very fragile items (e.g. raspberries), for the vast majority of fruit and vegetables there is not valid reason for all the packaging. Whoever came up with the idea that potatoes, oranges, melons, onions and even coconuts needed to be sold wrapped up in a plastic bag/ tray/ clingfilm must be mad. So what can we do about it? Well I try to buy loose fresh products as much as possible (although this is much more difficult in Norway than in the UK or Ireland I’ll admit) and I try not to bat an eyelid when the cashier gives me the death stare whilst rounding up all my loose kiwis and carrots from the conveyor belt. You can also make a complaint about the plastic packaging at the customer helpdesk and/or remove the packaging from the items before returning home (ask a member of staff where to dispose of it though, no need to be rude and just leave it on the floor). And if you’re a social media user, share pictures of over-packaged food – ‘@’ your local supermarket using the hashtags #GoPlasticFree.
6. Give your bathroom a makeover
Bathrooms are usually chock-a-block full of unnecessary plastic – from toilet paper packaging to toothbrushes, deodorants to cotton buds, disposable razors to wet wipes and sanitary products to moisturisers. While some of these can be difficult to swap out, others have been so easy and don’t need to cost loads of money. Using a flannel is a super easy way of replacing single-use cotton pads and wet wipes for removing make-up, try a moon-cup during your menstruation (or simple organic non-applicator tampons if you are more traditional), switch to a bamboo toothbrush, make sure your cotton buds are made with paper or bamboo…the next thing I am going to switch to is a safety razor, I have heard great things about them and I have just been waiting to finish off the last of my Venus blades.
7. Say no to plastic straws
It is difficult to find information on how many straws are used globally or even at different national levels. However, one study published earlier this year estimated that as many as 8.3 billion plastic straws pollute the world’s beaches. It is also estimated that plastic straws comprise just 0.025% of the 8 million tonnes of plastic that flow into the oceans every year, so what is all the fuss about? Shouldn’t we be focused on more important issues? Well of course I am aware that refusing a straw in my cocktail isn’t miraculously going to save the planet overnight, but what bothers me about them is simple really: for the vast majority of people they are completely and utterly not necessary. And that makes it a really easy problem to fix, if you don’t need one, don’t use one. I was happy to hear recently that Starbucks plans to phase out plastic straws by 2020 and McDonald’s announced it will ban plastic straws at its U.K. and Ireland restaurants. Small steps indeed, considering the other impacts these companies have on the environmental, but steps in the right direction non-the less.
8. That’s a wrap on single use food storage plastics
Plastic wrap and plastic bags are most people’s go to for keeping food items fresh in their homes. But there are so many great alternatives, that really there is no excuse for using them these days. I’m a big fan of reusable food containers, whether they be plastic, silicone, glass, stainless steel or bamboo for wrapping up left over dinners and packing lunches. You don’t need anything fancy, just anything with a lid that you can get a hold of or you can use shop bought or homemade cotton bags for things like bread and pastries. Beeswax wraps are a really great idea too but I haven’t actually used them myself yet, I am keen to make my own this summer as the ones in the shops are a bit overpriced I think… and I do love a good craft project to get my teeth stuck into so watch this space.
9. Espress yo-self by other means
Almost 200 million coffee capsules are bought in the UK each year and 1 in 5 of us own a coffee pod machine according to The Grocer magazine. Coffee pods are technically 100% recyclable, however, most local recycling collections don’t take pods because they are made up of a mix of materials. Why not go old school and invest in a decent cafetiere, a small expresso machine or an Italian style “moka pot” for your coffee making needs. And if you already do own a coffee pod machine, then please ensure you recycle your pods. Nespresso coffee pods can be recycled by taking them into one of their 9 Nespresso UK boutiques or by sending them off in the post. Illy, Dolce Gusto and Tassimo have their own recycling schemes which usually entails sending used capsules off to a specialised recycling plant. Or even better you can now buy reusable stainless steel pods that you fill with your own ground coffee such as The Way Cap, if you have a Nespresso or Dolce Gusto machine.
So there you have it, a few ideas to get you started on the road to a life less plastic. Will giving up straws and coffee pods save the planet? Yes and no. Of course it is frustrating when you are trying to do your bit for society with these small steps, whilst the big corporate giants are seemingly doing zilch, but the fight has to start somewhere and these are important steps to get us thinking about firstly how much plastic we actually consume on a daily basis and how much of it is thrown away pretty much right after.
Cheers Aoife xx