Our last blog highlighted why plastic is such an issue in relation to sustainability, climate change, the environment, and our wild and marine life. The take home message is simple - Less plastic needs to be produced, and less plastic needs to be consumed.
While we all know that to really make an impact on the plastic crisis, governments, industry and retailers need to act now, the big question is whether individual action can actually make a difference. It turns out “Australian households are actually the largest contributor of plastic waste, supplying 47% of all plastic waste (1.2 million tonnes).” (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2020).
As many state and territory governments now roll out long awaited bans on problematic single use plastics, such as cutlery, straws, plates and stirrers, unlike many solutions to climate change, we have the opportunity to make a significant impact through individual action by simply reducing our plastic consumption and waste.
With just a few simple changes in our daily lives, the impact we can have collectively is huge. The annual Plastic Free July campaign has done a great job of making us all aware of the top four single use plastic items we should be swapping out of our lives: Plastic Bags, Coffee Cups, Straws, and Water Bottles.
Unfortunately the current pandemic hasn’t helped us to maintain good reuse habits – “2 million Australians said they consumed more single-use plastic during 2020 than they had in previous years due to the pandemic.” (IPSOS and BRITA Market Intelligence Report Australia April 2021). Embracing the 7 “R’s” of sustainability can make things a whole lot easier to reduce plastic waste: Rethink, Refuse, Reuse, Reduce, Repair, Recycle, Rot.
RETHINKING your bin system is a good place to start, but firstly, do a bin audit. Whether at home, school, or the workplace, bin audits are the best way to determine what products you and others are consuming that create the most plastic waste. They also provide an opportunity to “connect with your waste” and rethink what waste you are sending to landfill, what could be avoided, and where you might be able to improve your composting and recycling habits. (NB: Plastic Free July gives detailed instructions on conducting a bin audit).
In 2017 in the UK, a guy by the name of Daniel Webb collected every piece of plastic he used for a year. He counted, categorised, weighed and photographed the whole collection of plastic waste, and turned it into a large scale billboard ( Everyday Plastic Project). He then partnered with Dr Julie Schneider, an expert in Earth Sciences, to write “Everyday Plastic: what we throw away and where it goes.” (Webb, D. and Schneider, J., 2018. Everyday Plastic: what we throw away and where it goes.)
In a nutshell, they found from Daniel’s collected plastic waste that the majority was single use packaging used to wrap, store and consume food. Most of it was unable to be recycled and only a small proportion would be collected for recycling, with less than half of that actually recycled – only 4% of Daniel’s collected plastic waste!
Your bin audit results are likely to be the same as Daniel’s, with the majority of your plastic waste coming from food packaging. If you haven’t already, split your bins into kerbside/industrial recycling, compost, and soft plastic recycling – no landfill. Separating items into the right bin before they leave the house/school/work will help to divert unnecessary plastic and other waste from going into landfill. You can apply this system to every bin in your chosen environment, not just the central one.
From now on, REFUSE to buy any new products/stock/supplies/stationary/etc which can’t go into these bins, including items with soft plastic (scrunchable) packaging where possible. (NB: If a product is absolutely indispensable, collect the soft plastic and dispose of it in the Redcycle bin at your local supermarket). Making changes takes time and some trial and error, you will need to do your research! Here are some good ways to start refusing:
- Try a like product that is made from compostable, recyclable, reusable, and sustainable materials, and ecofriendly or no packaging, eg 100% recycled paper or cardboard, plant based materials, organic textiles, glass, stainless steel, or bamboo.
- Buy in bulk to reduce packaging waste.
- Talk to the company about their packaging and what they are doing to become more sustainable.
- Reduce take out and convenience foods – prepare your own ‘Take Out Kit’ of reusable cup, utensils, straws, container, beeswax food wrap/Furoshiki cloth, water bottle, plus tote bag. Refuse any single use plastics, or, just eat in rather than taking out.
- Shop locally at the Farmer’s Markets for fresh unpackaged produce (with your own reusable bags), as well as bulk food stores and other small local businesses where you can use your reusable jars, bags, and containers.
- Grow your own fruit, vegetables & herbs and make as much food from scratch as possible.
- Eat more plant based meals.
REDUCE how much plastic you consume by firstly using up what you already have and then gradually swapping out items with plastic to more environmentally friendly alternatives. Focus on one or two of the worst offenders in your bins at a time, get creative and do your research to work out the best alternatives for you and your household/school/workplace.
Choose one item that is nearly finished or at the end of it’s useful life to start with. Think about this product:
Is it absolutely necessary? Is the product and packaging recyclable or better yet compostable (home or industrial)? Is there a more eco friendly option or sustainable material? Could you switch to a refillable option? Can you buy it in bulk? Could you grow it, bake it, or make it yourself? Or could a small local business? Is it able to be repaired?
For example, we all need to wrap an avocado or a sandwich from time to time. Out comes the plastic wrap: Necessary – no, there are better alternatives. Recyclable – some brands in soft plastic recycling (check out Redcycle). Compostable – some brands in industrial composting. More ecofriendly options – beeswax, vegan or fabric food wraps; even parchment/recycled paper or silicone; Refillable – N/A. Bulk buys – yes. Makable – No. Repair – No.
In summary, that plastic wrap that Daniel had so much of is unnecessary, a poor choice for recycling/composting, and there are easily made/sourced ecofriendly alternatives, such as:
- Empty containers, jars, bags (produce, bread, tote), casserole dishes, bowls, silicone pouches and lids, and fabric/waxed food wraps, pouches, and covers.
- Choose food storage and transport products made from natural ingredients and textiles, or sustainable materials over plastic – eg waxed cloth, organic cotton/linen/hemp, recycled paper, glass, stainless steel, bamboo, salvaged wood. These are all either compostable and/or biodegradable, reusable and non toxic to yourself and the environment, plus don’t take years to break down! Use tupperware if nothing else is available, it is still reusable even if it is plastic.
- Ditch plastic bin liners and make your own from newspaper, or reuse any paper bags that come in to your life. If you’re happy to clean the bin between empties, forgo a bin liner completely.
REUSE everything you can (connect with your waste). It helps to not view any waste as single-use:
- Wash and reuse any plastic and ziplock bags, plastic food (take away) containers, etc that creep into your life any way you can and as many times as possible before disposing in the soft plastic/ kerbside recycling. Eg. storing food in the freezer; collecting food scraps; storing pet food; laundry or tool storage; storing children’s toys, pencils, art scraps, etc.
- Reuse any thick plastic bags you have for shopping or storage until they die.
- Pump packs and spray bottles can usually be reused for refilling at the bulk foods store for years.
- Glass jars and bottles are great for all sorts of things – in the pantry, smoothies and take out coffees, storing leftovers, homemade goodies, bulk food shopping and refills, creative dinner parties, candles, vases, plants, collections, plus bathroom, laundry and tool shed storage.
- Even plastic bottles come in handy for homemade laundry and cleaning products, or in the garden as planters, for mixing homemade fertilisers and pest control, interesting plant irrigation and pest traps, or protecting homegrown produce.
- Look at what you already have available at home and get creative with your reuse eg tote bags can be made out of old T-shirts and produce bags out of doilies, pillowcases or tea towels. Old calico ham bags also make fabulous produce bags and conference tote bags are great for shopping. Calico bags are also perfect for fresh loaves of bread.
- Don’t forget your Take Out Kit of must have reusables to have on hand when out and about. Old items from home are perfect for takeout and cost nothing.
Try to RECYCLE your plastic waste at the kerbside only as a last resort (most of it will end up in landfill) and follow local council guidelines. Recycling is a minefield and finding effective local programs can take a lot of research. Items that are recycled through community based recycling programs are more likely to actually get recycled and made into something new eg Precious Plastics Melbourne.
- Take your ‘scrunchable’ soft plastics to participating Coles and Woolworths supermarkets and pop them in the Redcycle bin. These are sent to REPLAS (https://www.replas.com.au) who recycle the plastic into outdoor furniture, bollards, fencing, and all sorts of other things.
“Australia uses about 70 billion pieces of ‘scrunchable’ plastics – chip packets, food wrappers, lolly packets etc – each year.” (Australian Government’s National Plastics Plan)
- Recycle bottles and tins through the Containers for Change Program (https://www.containersforchange.com.au ).
- Find a Terracycle (https://www.terracycle.com/en-AU/) program to send your difficult to recycle items. Schools, community groups, shops, and businesses participating in this program collect all sorts of things for recycling eg bottle tops, toothbrushes & toothpaste tubes, make up containers, razors, etc.
- Visit the tip! Most local tips have fantastic waste separation and recycling systems in place, plus, you never know what you might find!
ROT – there is now a variety of “compostable” or “biodegradable” food wrap, packaging, bin liners, utensils, coffee cups, etc on the market, just to confuse us! Unfortunately, some “bioplastics” are still made from petrochemicals and are mixed with other industrial chemicals or a metal to make them “oxodegradable” and break down when exposed to heat and light. Even though they degrade more quickly, the microplastics they create are a big problem for the environment, wildlife, and marine life.
Only if a product is 100% plant based (eg corn or sugar cane), “bio based”can it be composted at home, which is usually inefficient for these materials and takes quite a long time. These materials are better put in industrial composting systems if you can access one.
Also, although compostable bio based products breakdown into natural substances, if they breakdown in landfill where there is limited oxygen supply, they will produce the powerful greenhouse gas methane. Bioplastics cannot be put in the soft plastic recycling due to the degradable nature of the material. Best option – avoid!
REPAIR - if something can be repaired and reused or repurposed before throwing out, give it a crack! It’s better than being thoughtlessly discarded.
See what you can learn to fix yourself or ask a handy family member, friend or neighbour if they can help. You can always swap repairs for homegrown veg or baking? Otherwise, outsource. Repair Cafes (find them on Facebook) are starting to pop up in most towns and there is never any shortage of places where things can be mended. Otherwise, look to makers and crafters and other local small business for more complex repairs.