PLASTIC-FREE LIVING

Why plastic is bad for the planet and animals & how to go plastic-free

a woman's hands places two cherries into a linen napkin. an orange handmade glass sits behind filled with orange juice. the table is covered in plastic free groceries

Table of Contents

HOUSEHOLD PLASTICS

According to Greenpeace, homes in the UK throw out nearly 100 billion pieces of plastic packaging per year.

Whilst public perception of plastic is changing, and there is so much more information available to us now about plastic and its impact – perhaps our actions are not keeping pace beside our expanding knowledge.

 

a pale blue compost bin sits on a kitchen top next to a pot of rosemary and a chopping board of vegetables - encouraging home composting to reduce plastic waste

“Just 5% of plastics are recycled effectively while 40% end up in landfill and a third in fragile ecosystems such as the Oceans” (Elen Macarthur Foundation New Plastics Economy 2016). And, even the plastics that DO end up in our recycling bins could perhaps be causing further harm (find out more about the problem with recycling and the importance of zero-waste here).

According to science.org, if current trends continue “by 2050 we’ll have produced 26 billion metric tons of plastic, almost half of which will be dumped in landfills and the environment. Because plastic doesn’t degrade easily, there will be zillions of tons of the material on our planet by the end of the millennium”

a tower of multicoloured plastic bottle tops lie on a beach - showing the impact of plastic pollution

The era we are living in now, coined by many as the Anthropocene era (the period of the human) – is likely to be remembered by the plastic packaging stewed across the Earth. Dire warnings predict that plastic will be our legacy – haunting the planet, long after the human species has gone extinct.

PLASTICS AND THE OCEAN

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According to Greenpeace, “a truckload of plastic enters the ocean every single minute”. If this doesn’t change, by 2050 plastic will outnumber the quantity of fish in the sea.

Most of the plastic that enters the ocean ends up on the sea floor. This means that efforts to retrieve plastic from the top layers of the ocean are well-intentioned but don’t really scratch the surface. We need to stop plastic getting into the ocean in the first place.

Plastic ends up in the ocean from a variety of sources. Everyday items such as plastic bottles get swept in from beaches and further afield. This is why beach clean-ups are so transformative – by tidying up the shoreline we are literally removing waste from the sea. Household and commercial waste overflows into rivers and sewers which wind into the sea. Microplastics (more on them later) are released from our clothing in laundry cycles and swirl into the sea. They also go down the drain and end up in the waterways. Dust from vehicle tyres is also one of the main contributors to ocean plastics.

Industrial leakage is a huge problem too. Something called ‘pellet spills’ or ‘nurdles’ are the particles that escape during mass manufacturing and find their way to the seas. As of 2017, these pellets were polluting almost three quarters of beaches across the UK.

Around 20% of the ocean’s plastics come from “ghost” fishing gear. This is gear that is either lost, or purposefully discarded during fishing trips. Because this gear is crafted to ensnare fish – it does exactly that – trapping marine life (such as sea turtles) and leading to starvation, injury and death.

a turquoise fishing net lies tangled in rocks on the beach - showing the impact of discarded ghost fishing gear on marine life

Huge numbers of discarded clothing also ends up in the oceans. This is the result of unimaginable production of clothing at alarming rates – fast fashion. To find out more about this issue, check out our journal article.

THE IMPACT OF PLASTICS UPON BIRDS

a bird carries a piece of plastic across a pebble beach - encouraging us to go plastic-free

You might be wandering – how do plastics harm animals.? According to National Geographic, over 700 species feel the impact of our plastic problem. Perhaps one of the most visible examples of these is the affect plastics is having on birds; research estimates that 90% of birds are flying (or walking!) around with plastic inside of them. In fact, so many seabirds have now ingested plastic that there is a new term for this disease: “plasticosis”. Consuming all of our waste plastic leads to health problems of every variety for these poor birds, due to inflamed scar tissue. 

a plastic bottle lies strewn on the beach with a sunset behind, showing the impact of plastic pollution and encouraging us to go plastic-free

The toxic ingredients in plastic can also be transmitted into the bloodstream of birds, disrupting their natural rhythms and causing issues with hormone balances, reproduction and immune system. Tragically, we know that birds regurgitate their meals to feed their young. This means all of this plastic – the poisonous compounds, and tentacles of destruction – are being eaten by birds before they are even grown.

WHAT ARE MICROPLASTICS?

This dreaded word…

Microplastics.

Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic. They are everywhere – in our cosmetics, our food, our clothes, our soil, our oceans – they even rain down from the sky! (Apocalyptic or what?) .They are either created to be this size (and pop in everyday cosmetics like exfoliators!) or are broken down over time from bigger plastic products. Microplastics can also break down into further into nanoplastics which are difficult to see even with a microscope. These little fragments of fear are almost impossible to break down into anything else – getting stuck in our Earth and harming the environment, animal health and human health.

These microplastics end up all over the place for a few reasons. Littering plays a part, as does the force of winds and water which carry them from one location to another. Microplastics have even been found in the Arctic which was previously thought to be one of the last remaining unaffected places. Scientists believe they were blown there by the wind.

a beach littered with plastic pollution including micro plastics

Microplastics also shed from our clothes. Up to 35% of the microplastics in the ocean are said to come from tumbling them through the washing machine!

blue waves crash against grey rocks

Tips for Living Plastic-Free

We are all different.  We each have unique skillsets, talents and interests. These are our superpowers; these are the diverse ways we can all show up and fight for worthy causes. We will not turn plastic-free overnight – and it can feel like a terrifyingly overwhelming concept – so just take it slow. In what ways can you begin to make small swaps? What talents or skills do you have that could help?

Perhaps you love organising and campaigning and could hold a beach clean in your local town. Maybe you are more introverted but love cooking and could gradually replace your household essentials with their zero-waste alternatives. Possibly you work in an office or school environment where you could put forward ideas for sustainable changes – such as banning the use of plastic cups by the water fountain, more recycling stations or buying things in greater bulk to avoid singular plastic packaging.

Activism will look different for everyone. Find a way that works for you.

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Ideas on how to cut down your plastic usage and help the fight against plastic include:

  • 67% of household plastic waste comes from packaging. Try shopping at your local zero waste store instead (you can build up gradually, just starting with the items that have run out first)
  • Carry a reusable coffee cup
  • Use a reusable water bottle
  • Bring your own cutlery (keep a fork or spoon in your bag) to avoid having to use disposable
  • Carry a tote or shopping bag wherever you go to avoid buying new
  • Organise or attend a beach clean
  • Donate to an environmental or animal charity
  • Report to websites such as Birds and Debris
  • Educate yourself through documentaries, films, books, podcasts, articles etc
  • Share your learnings with others
  • Buy less ‘new’ clothing or fast fashion. Opt for secondhand, vintage or utilise the clothing items you already have!
  • Wash your clothes less
  • Explore alternative laundry ideas – such as using a filter

It is important to note that for some people with certain health conditions, swaps to non-plastic alternatives would decrease their health and wellbeing.

The plastic straw is a clear example of this. Many disabled folks rely on plastic straws in order to consume their drinks. Paper alternatives can become soggy and hard to grip within the mouth. Silicone straws can be difficult to clean. Stainless steel versions can pose a risk when used by people with conditions such as epilepsy. Therefore plastic straws are imperative to ensure that disabled people can continue to engage in essential and meaningful activities and have a good quality of life.

Let’s not forget the social model of disability – the philosophy that disabled people are disabled not from any medical diagnosis or condition, but because the world around them has not been built with them in mind and does not support them. (This includes the physical environment such as buildings without ramps or lifts, social structures such as beliefs and stereotypes, working structures such as lack of accessibility within the workplace, the political landscape including funding cuts and so much more). In this way, a ban on plastic straws would further disable people.

Instead, make the changes that you can make. Be kind to yourself, gradually implement what you can and live with compassion rather than judgement.

FINAL THOUGHTS

It can feel easy to feel paralysed by all of this information. Where to even begin? Can we turn the tide? A helpful piece of advice is: ‘Never let the idea of perfection get in the way of good’.  A small step can have a huge knock-on effect. A seed planted today can grow into a huge great tree. Begin with the changes you feel you can make right now – whether that be a reusable coffee-cup, starting to buy a few things as they run out from a zero-waste shop or having a look at plastic-free sanitary products.

We all have the power to make a difference. Never feel helpless at the state of the world – we have so much creativity, ingenuity and passion at our fingertips. It’s not one day – it’s day one.

For more information on Plastic-free July and how to get involved, click here.

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