The message from scientists and environmentalists is clear: The earth is slowly suffocating under a layer of plastic waste and if we don’t take action now the long term consequences for our health, our environment, our planet will be catastrophic.
But plastic is being used more than ever – globally production has surged from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014 (the equivalent weight of 900 Empire State Buildings) and is expected to double again in 20 years (a). In part because consumption culture is shaping our habits, and also because our focus is on short term convenience. Be it plastic bags, to-go coffee cups or cocktail straws, we’re hooked on the disposable. Long working hours and increased urban living mean it is harder to see first hand the impact of our choices on the natural world.
Eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in the world’s oceans annually, The New Plastics Economy report found. This is the equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute. If no action is taken, this is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050 . According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, plastic debris kills an estimated 100,000 marine mammals annually, as well as millions of birds and fish.
If things continue as they are, it’s predicted there will be “more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050” (by weight). Collectively, we’ve been horrified by the headlines but unless individuals start making lifestyle changes, the reality – in less than 35 years – will be a nightmare.
It’s not always easy being green, and while in a perfect world we’d make our own snacks, soaps or shampoos, it’s also important to set achievable goals for modern living. Recycling is only a small part of the solution, environmental campaigners say, urging people to cut back and to buy less. The Nature Conservancy suggests a three prong approach to eco-friendly living: ‘reduce, re-use, recycle’.
So we’ve put together a guide of simple ways to swap out the single use plastic in your life, for a cleaner alternative – that in the long term will protect the planet and save you money.
1 – Stop buying single use plastic bottles of water and get a refillable glass or metal one instead
A fantastic waste of resources and a drain on the environment with a sizeable carbon footprint, single use water bottles are arguably unnecessary. In the US, Pepsi’s Aquafina and Coke’s Dasani, account for almost a quarter of bottled water sold – both are essentially just bottled, purified water from public reservoirs (b). And when it comes to mineral water – there’s no proven scientific evidence that it is better for you.
In addition, the Pacific Institute, a think-tank for sustainable water policies, estimates it actually takes 3 litres of water to produce 1 litre of bottled water. Yet more than 50 billion bottles are consumed every year with on average just one in five being recycled (c).
Why not kick the habit, save yourself some cash and invest in a refillable alternative you can bring wherever you go. The guys at Klean Kanteen (www.kleankanteen.com/) make a versatile range that should last you a long time. Their #bethechange hashtag sums things up neatly, plus one percent of their profit goes to charities working to help the earth.
2 – Swap your plastic toothbrush for… bamboo and charcoal ones
It may seem a small thing, but given that dental advice suggests people change toothbrushes every three months – multiplied on a global scale this soon builds up to a serious problem. Try a sustainably-sourced bamboo alternative such as PearlBar’s, which also has 100% biodegradable charcoal infused bristles. Charcoal has long been used as a cleaning agent due to its antibacterial properties. They claim the charcoal has absorbent qualities so could make your teeth whiter too (www.pearlbar.com.au).
3 – Replace your plastic bag for… a cloth or hemp one
Worldwide, one trillion single-use plastic bags are used each year -nearly 2 million EVERY MINUTE – according to Earth Policy Institute at Rutgers University. It’s hard to believe this is still an issue given how many countries have brought in levies to prevent consumer use. Nonetheless, plastic bags remain a major pollutant worldwide and are one of the most common pieces of rubbish found in our seas – and in the stomachs of our bird and sea life (d). It’s an easy change to make, but it needs to span from shopping bags to freezer bags and everything in between – the folk at Reuse It have a good selection http://www.reuseit.com/reusable-bags.htm. It’s helpful to always carry a couple of cloth bags with you on the go – so that you’re never caught short.
4 – Ditch the polystyrene containers and plastic boxes for take away meals and use… Tiffin Tins
Take a minute and have a look at what it took for you to have lunch today. In some cases it’s become the norm to produce double digit numbers of plastic waste just from having a meal and drink. If you like warm lunches – be it curries or casseroles – or if you have a favourite take away joint, why not be prepared and bring your own container. Latch Tiffins have many sizes and shapes to suit your culinary needs (www.happytiffin.com/latch-tiffins.html), or To-Go Ware have a standard sized stainless steel tiffin (http://to-goware.com/). They also sell the brilliant Stow&Go 2 Cup Silicone Container, which can be used for storage at home – in the fridge, freezer, microwave or even in boiling water – and on the go as a canteen for food on the move. The innovators at Silisolutions have come up with a new approach for take-away and food storage, made from medical grade, premium silicon and are now looking for backers to help fund their projects. Some of their products are already available but if you are keen to invest in eco-friendly start-up ideas, then these guys might be what you’re looking for. Plus they are working in Asia too, where education about the damage single use plastics cause to the environment is limited. http://silisolutions.com/).
5 – Don’t buy a new coffee cup each day, bring your own
If you can’t get through the day without a caffeine hit, then you’re not alone. In the UK, an estimated 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups are used each year, with 99.75% of them ending up in landfill according to Friends of the Earth. The cups used by big brand coffee chains, which appear to be made from paper and often bear recycling signs, are often lined with a type of plastic that makes very few of them are recyclable. Chef and anti-waste campaigner, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, explains ‘The truth is [coffee cups] are barely recyclable at all in the everyday, commonly understood sense of the word. They cannot be recycled through any of the normal public waste collection services – which are consistently diverting them to be incinerated or sent to landfill’(e). If we add the plastic lids, spoons, stirrers and sachets – that’s a lot of trash just to have a drink. There’s no need for the planet to pay for your caffeine addiction so why not bring a cup. The guys at Stojo have made a collapsible one that could fit neatly into most bags (https://stojo.co/product/stojo), while Keep Cup claim to be the world’s first barista standard reusable cup (http://vs.keepcup.com.au/), and the Joco Cup is made from glass and silicon. There are plenty of stainless steel options too for those on a tighter budget.
6 – Trade the cellophane wrap for…. wax paper or cloth
Sometimes the old ideas are the best ones! Instead of suffocating you sandwiches in cellophane, why not wrap them in paper or cloth instead. Sarah Kaeck, and her team at Bees Wrap make theirs by infusing organic cotton with beeswax, organic jojoba oil, and tree resin, leading to a washable, reusable, and compostable alternative to plastic (http://www.beeswrap.com/). There are few kitchen table firms offering similar products, so look for one near you or discuss options with local farms or beekeepers.
7 – Change plastic straws for… bamboo, glass, stainless steel or reed ones
Somehow it’s become the norm for drinks to be served with straws, a silent shift that happened without most of us noticing. In developing parts of the world it’s argued as more hygienic than putting lips to dirty bottles or cans, while the rise of cocktail society in the West has also added to the mountain. Americans use 500 million straws every day, according the US Department of the Interior. A tiny fraction of these are recycled, and with straws in the top ten list of marine debris, the first question you need to ask is whether you really need one. If you do, there is absolutely no reason that it has to be a) plastic and b) single use. There are a stylish range of alternatives. Bambu Home sell sustainably sourced bamboo sets (www.bambuhome.com/collections/kids/products/bamboo-straws), Biome have these very stylish stainless steel ones (www.biome.com.au/807-stainless-steel-straws), and Glass Dharma have an option for every drinking occasion (www.glassdharma.com).
Why not seek out ultra-local options like Song Saa Island Resort in Cambodia, where they use dried reeds to serve as straws, inspired and bought from neighbouring villagers, who have harvested and used them for generations to drink from coconuts (www.songsaa.com).
8 – No more plastic plates, bowls and cups at parties, picnics or barbecues, opt for crockery made of India’s Areca Palm leaf alternative instead
The Wholeleaf Company’s idea is sustainable and simple. They use leaves that have fallen naturally from Areca Palm trees, which have been grown for their betel nut fruit. The trees shed naturally, so the firm collects all the viable leaves and turns them into strong disposable plates. The fronds are washed and heat pressed into various dishes, ready for use even in a microwave or oven. They are compostable too (www.thewholeleafco.com)
9 – Forget plastic utensils and opt for stainless steel, bamboo, or edible options
Plastic utensils, alongside plastic bags and fishing gear, are the deadliest forms of trash to marine and bird life, according to The Ocean Conservancy. So next time you reach for single use cutlery – keep in mind where it may end up. These edible options from Bakeys come in three ‘flavours’ plain, sweet or savoury and are made from millet, rice and wheat flour (www.bakeys.com) and are good for parties or events. Or just bring steel or bamboo options in a portable pouch and rinse off after use (http://to-goware.com/).
10 – Curb your use of plastic toiletries by using shampoo and body soap or balls
In America, 40 per cent of people don’t recycle items from their bathroom, which means an estimated 552 million 15oz/440ml shampoo bottles heading to landfill each year – enough to fill 1,164 football fields (f). JR Liggett’s shampoo bars, made from essential oils, are an easy replacement for the bottle. Vegan, biodegradable, and gentle on your hair, it lathers up nicely. Plus you have options to suit different hair types and needs (https://jrliggett.com/).
New kid on the block Nohbo offers a fresh solution: These balls of dry shampoo, fizz into action when mixed with water. They are waste-free, paraben-free, sulphate-free and come packaged in sustainable, biodegradable material. Created by 16-year-old Benjamin Stern, who says they are easily portable and ideal for hotel use, this could spell the end of mini bottles too. He’s still looking for funding on Indiegogo and has plans to develop similar items for shaving cream and sun protection – again bottle free (https://nohboball.com/).
11 – Save a mountain of plastic and poop from landfill by cladding your kids in cloth diapers
Babies have a surprisingly high carbon footprint – mainly due to the sheer number of disposables they require in the first two years, which are duly trashed. In the UK, it’s around 8 million a day, in Australia approximately 6 million, and the US on average 49 million daily. Manufacturers are now targeting Asia, where traditionally cloths have been used, so the pile is only going to get higher unless action is taken. Switching to cloth nappies with inserts could make a huge difference, though it does mean more washing. Firms such as Charlie Banana (www.charliebanana.com), and Bum Genius (www.bumgenius.com) offer a range of materials and sizes to suit. But it’s worth looking locally to see if any firms make what you are after. In Hong Kong Little Poppits has a cute range (www.facebook.com/Little-Poppits-343704329076931/)
12 – Give up the plastic-encased tampons and pads and use Thinx period pants instead
The average woman throws away 250 to 300 pounds (113-136kg) of pads, plugs, and applicators in her lifetime (g). But there are choices if you want a greener ‘cycle’. There are a range of reusable silicone cups on the market such as the Diva Cup (http://divacup.com/) and the Moon Cup (http://gladrags.com/category/33/Menstrual-Cups.html) which promise 12 hour ‘leak-free protection’. There’s also She Thinx – essentially washable absorbent knickers – that have been getting excellent reviews ( www.shethinx.com/pages/index).
13 – Forgo plastic scrubbers and synthetic sponges and use coconut coir brushes and Skoy cloths.
The women behind Skoy’s cleaning range have thought it all through. Their cloths, made from natural cotton and wood-based cellulose pulp, are chlorine-free, unbleached, and break down within five weeks when properly composted. Their factory even ensures that bi-products and waste water are treated on site in an ecologically sound way (http://skoycloth.com/).
Scrubbers and brushes can be swapped for wood and coconut coir alternatives such as these pads from Safix, which are made by women in rural India to help support their families.
14 – Rethink your cleaning products in plastic bottles and test out white vinegar, citrus peels and baking soda instead
Instead of purchasing endless chemical laden sprays, gels and bleach, experiment with what’s in your cupboards. Some say the combination of lemon juice, vinegar and baking soda is unbeatable. The guys at Good Housekeeping have a list of DIY cleaners you can cook up at home (www.goodhousekeeping.com/home/cleaning/tips/a24885/make-at-home-cleaners/)
(a) Statistics from “The New Plastics Economy” report presented by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey at the World Economic Forum, January 2016.
(c) Corporate Accountability International/Coca Cola/Pepsi
(d) The Ocean Conservancy
(e) The Times of London, March 15, 2016
(f) Johnson & Johnson Care to Recycle campaign
(g) Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation by Ellen Stein and Susan Kim