Reducing Plastic Pollution Is Everyone’s Business
Earth Day comes around every year on April 22. Since its founding in 1970, the Earth Day Network has influenced policy progress on many critical environmental issues, including clean air, clean water, and the protection of endangered species. This year, along with many other environmental groups (including our amazing charity partner Friends of the Earth), it is focusing its attention and resources on ending plastic pollution.
Let’s be clear; we’re not talking about ending plastic, but rather ending plastic pollution. The durability, longevity, and cost-effectiveness of some types of plastics make them essential materials that can solve practical problems and improve lives. But the very qualities that make plastics valuable also make them an ecological hazard because, unfortunately, there has never been a clear strategy to deal with all the waste and pollution that they create.
Plastic waste that stays around for hundreds or even thousands of years becomes a major pollution problem, particularly in the oceans where a lot of plastic ends up. On April 22, plastic pollution will be given the limelight, but it’s abundantly clear that thinking about it just one day a year isn’t going to cut it. We really need to live every day as if it were Earth Day, because… it is. It’s up to us to support the environmental organisations, governmental policy makers, and businesses that are looking for solutions to the global issue of plastic pollution.
A brief history of plastic and pollution
Plastic is an umbrella term for a large variety of man-made materials. The first plastics were invented around the turn of the twentieth century. They were initially used industrially and later in the military during World War II. During the post-war boom, the household use of plastic really took off.
The most common type of contemporary plastic is made by heating petroleum products to high temperature in order to create strongly bonded chains of molecules called polymers. The almost limitless adaptability (of shape, size, weight, and durability, for instance) of these synthetic polymers is what makes plastics so widely used (from medical devices to aeroplanes) and useful to human lives. However, it’s their chronic overuse for the sake of convenience that is resulting in the pollution crisis we are now facing.
Many plastics (and certainly the most common, and cheapest) don’t biodegrade naturally, meaning that almost all the plastic (79%, according to the BBC) ever produced on Earth is still with us. It may seem like recycling is a good solution, but only a very small portion of all the plastic produced is actually recycled. The rest ends up in landfills by the billions of tonnes or may make its way to one of five massive garbage gyres in the world’s oceans.
Many of the plastics that end up in the ocean, for example, take an enormous length of time to decay, but they often break down into smaller and smaller pieces along their decomposition journey. These small pieces are consumed by marine life and may kill the animal or enter the food chain. That plastic fork that you ate with for 5 minutes and then threw away is now part of the planet forever (well maybe not forever, but most likely a lot longer than your lifetime) because there really is no ‘away’ for plastic.
The single use that lasts forever
One of the biggest problem areas in plastic pollution, and a big focal point of the current spike in awareness, is what is known as ‘single-use’ plastic. That includes any product that is intended to be used only once and then discarded.
Drinking straws are an oft-cited example that seem so inconsequential but add up to a lot of trash very quickly. But for the most part, single-use plastics are all about packaging: soda and water bottles, grocery carrier bags, takeaway food containers, and much more.
Sometimes the packaging isn’t even performing a useful service like containing a liquid. Sometimes it’s about making a little thing look more impressive on the shelf (it’s a merchandising mind game). Sometimes it’s just packaging for packaging’s sake. The watch that is nestled enticingly inside a box within a box within another box that momentarily excites and then… gets thrown away. It’s time we considered the implications all of this consumption because the overuse of plastic packaging is such a big part of the problem.
Where do we go from here?
The solution must come from a combination of actions. Governments must begin to ban single-use plastics, industry must find viable, cost-effective, biodegradable alternatives, and individuals must embrace a reduced plastic lifestyle.
The key issue when it comes to replacing single-use plastic is the dreaded c-word: COST. Plastic packaging is CHEAP. And too many products are packaged with this throw-away stuff because to do it any other way would cost too much. Until there are governmental bans which force industry to adapt and find good solutions, or until there is enough public pressure to do something about it (and really, both those things are needed as each one will drive the other), the motivation for companies to innovate solutions just isn’t there.
Tell me something good (is there any cause for hope?)
Well, here are few recent legislative milestones of note!
Taiwan has announced plans to phase in total bans on single-use plastic bags, utensils, containers, and straws by 2030.
In France, a ban on single-use plastic bags, dishes, and cutlery will be phased in by 2020.
Single-use plastic bags are banned in quite a few African nations, including Rwanda, Mauritania, Eritrea, Morocco, and Kenya.
Plastic bags are also banned in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Malaysia only allows the use of biodegradable and compostable plastic bags.
Plastic microbeads in cosmetics are now banned in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.
What Can I Do?
So glad you asked!
• Reduce your personal plastic consumption by rejecting the single-use mentality. Use your own water bottle, coffee cup, straws, and grocery bags – check out these top tips from our partner Friends of the Earth for more alternatives.
• Reuse packaging whenever possible. This might include using glass jars to store food in the fridge instead of buying disposable plastic containers or reusing shopping bags.
• Recycle effectively. If you have household recycling in your community, take the time to review their guidelines so that you only put out items that can actually be recycled in your bin. Including nonrecyclable items makes the process less efficient and less likely to be successful. Choose to buy items packaged in materials you know to be recyclable. If you do use any plastic (cups, bottles, plates) while you are out, bring them home so that they can be recycled.
• Support the efforts of environmental groups (like our partner Friends of the Earth) that lobby governments to take action by banning unnecessary plastics and encourage industry to invent better plastics or comparable alternatives.
• When shopping, choose to support businesses that are committed to going as low-waste as possible.
Here at Liforme, we did the research and development to create a product which is made of the right materials, specifically biodegradable polyurethane rather than the dreaded PVC. When you get your mat, you’ll notice that it’s packaged in entirely recyclable cardboard materials. By putting our minds to it (and of course incurring some extra cost – totally worth it!), we created a packaging solution that protects the mat while on its way from the factory right through the distribution chain to the Yogi customer… but which is PLASTIC-FREE! We’re quite sure that you’d be shocked too, if you saw the needless yards of plastic wrapping, bubble wrap and other plastic nonsense that we’ve seen wrapped around yoga mats coming out of every yoga mat factory we’ve visited (and we have visited many!). There really can be a better way.