With the fast and cheap production of single-use plastic ‘disposables’, plastic pollution has been increasing exponentially in recent years. Since the 1950s, approximately 2.3 million tons of plastic has been produced. In 2015, we have seen an astonishing 448 million tons of plastic sold by manufacturers, and these numbers are expected to double by 2050. But at what cost, we ask? Every year, 8 million tons of plastic waste seeps into the ocean. It takes 400 years for these plastic wastes to break down - in some cases, much longer. The accumulation of these plastics will eventually have us all drowning in our own waste.
What is plastic? What’s the big deal about plastic waste now?
Plastic, by definition, is made from crude oil. Crude oil is centuries of compressed fossils (yes, the very same dinosaur and flora fossils that you see in natural history museums!). Crude oil is a limited resource on our planet, yet most modern lifestyles are truly dependent on it. From life-saving medical equipment and devices, to space travel, to manufacturing lighter cars for fuel reduction, to single-use disposables for convenience sake - it’s everywhere, no matter which way we turn.
But how did we get to the point that our plastic production is destroying the very planet we reside upon? After WWII the acceleration of plastic materials was seen as a modern revolution, where the thought of ‘throwing away for convenience’ was such an awe inspiring moment for the public. It was a revelation and modern change from the vintage reusables which our grandparents were used to. Flash forward to 2019, it became a pressing environmental issue on a global scale: the throwaway culture mindset took over nature and started harming marine wildlife, and, in turn, impacting our health. Single-use plastic disposables accounts for 40% of manufactured plastic, such as food packaging and plastic bags, which are used for mere seconds and thrown into landfills where they will persist for hundreds of years.
Image 1: Beach clean up from Adventure Clean Up Hong Kong with Outward Bound Hong Kong
Read more about how microplastics are affecting our global diets and oceans.
Although we have bioplastic (made from corn, straw, and wood) thanks to the use of aniline (a key chemical in plastic), we still live in a throwaway culture that is heavily marketed as ‘compulsory convenience’ through the sale of disposable plastic products. The most important change which needs to be implemented in our personal lives is to reduce our plastic waste, rather than completely avoid it as conscious consumers - which is just not 100% feasible for most local communities! After all, we live in a capitalist global economy where plastic is made cheaply for bigger profits. It’s such a huge environmental problem that the United Nations has prompted countries to sign a global treaty in reducing their plastic trash due to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Fine, I get it. Plastic waste is a dramatic environmental issue. But, where do I start? How can I help with this?
Do a bin audit
Let’s ask ourselves, how much do we throw into our kitchen bins every week? Is it a trash bag everyday or every few days instead? Take a look in your bin and fish out the mess to count how many different types of waste that have been absentmindedly thrown in there: plastic, paper, metal, and unrecyclable mixed materials which are hard to differentiate for recyclers. A fair warning, it will be messy to do a bin audit, so we advise you to do so before you chuck out your recycling and (food) waste. Take a piece of scrap paper and stick it on your fridge, or even better, make a note on your phone about what trash material went into your kitchen bin. Take a step further and audit your bathroom bin too! You would be surprised what goes into your bathroom bin too!
Reduce your plastic and recycling waste
Now that you’ve done a bin audit, it’s time to analyse what is the most wasteful habit that you’ve thrown out mindlessly. You might have more plastic packaging. You might have more mixed material packaging that you didn’t know what to do with but bin. You might have more ‘wet waste’: food leftovers, expired forgotten food from the fridge, and stinky mouldy food that had been brewing at the back of your cupboards.
Sure, you can recycle most packaging (depending on what your local council and/or waste collection takes in) but we can all learn to reduce our waste intake. 91% of plastic isn’t actually recycled due to food contamination and lack of recycling resources (especially for hard to recycle plastic numbers and mixed material plastics). Only a small percentage of plastic are downcycled; they degrade each time they get ‘recycled’ to the point where they can’t be remade into new plastic materials, leaving it for the landfills. This is why it’s important to reduce your recycling, and rather reuse your recycling instead!
How do I reduce my recycling?
Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
Read more on how to sort out your recycling and what the different plastic numbers mean.
Hopefully with this extensive list you are now ready to tackle and reduce your recycling! Even if this is the first step of reducing your waste, it’s the start of your low impact journey in being more sustainable as well changing your lifestyle habits too. Everyone needs to start somewhere after all.
By: Sona Hiranandani