As we are approaching the new year, it is time to make new promises to ourselves and better our ways. This year has been a roller coaster for many people, it has shaken us and disrupted our lives in a ruthless way. But despite all the hurt and losses, I hope that at least we have become a little bit more aware of our environment and that we do in fact need to take care of mother nature, if not for nature than at least for the people we love and the people to come. With that in mind – although not directly related to viruses but definitely to our health – I’d like to talk about a major issue for the environment: plastic. Plastic waste is incredibly damaging to many ecosystems and to ourselves. As it accumulates into nature and more and more plastic is created each year, we are truly becoming a plastic world without even knowing all the consequences, as is the case with most environmental issues. Luckily, there are some great alternatives out there that you can buy, use, or get inspired by to reduce your plastic waste in 2021. If you want to know more alternatives to waste items, check out my article on ways to live a more sustainable life. Let’s set the intention together to reduce plastic and make the earth a little bit better in the new year.
The dangers of plastic
Why is plastic so dangerous? Well, there are many dangers to plastic waste but I will list some of the most important ones. For one, it is not degradable so it accumulates into nature, and each year billions of tons of plastic is thrown away. Especially micro plastics are harming both ourselves and other animals such as fish and birds as they get into our food chain. The fumes from burning plastic aren’t great either. And here in the West we hardly face the consequences as most plastic washes on shores of other communities that then have to deal with all the pollution. For a full scope of the problem I encourage you to watch the documentary a plastic ocean and support plastic reduction. The UN recognises the problem and has included many ideas in their sustainable development goals for 2030. However, we all need to work together and keep pressing the issue if we want to do better.
Plastic is everywhere
Plastic is in almost everything we use, and in much more than you’d imagine. It can be found in many packaging materials or furniture, but also in clothes and even face wash with plastic beads. If you want to help with reduction, it is therefore best to find products without any of these plastics, which can be very hard to find. As for clothes, when made with plastics like polyesters, millions of micro particles are released in the washing process. These often end up being used in agricultural by irrigating with waste water and thus find their way into ecosystems.
Plastics are polymers, basically a long chain of a certain compound such as ethylene. When this ‘degrades’ it falls apart in very small plastic particles of less than 5 mm (micro particles) or 100 nm (nano particles). This is a lot harder to filter, so it finds its way in our drinking water and food. The consequences are that many animals die, because they get tangled up or their stomach gets filled with plastic and they starve. Another concern is the effect these nano particles can have on internal organs once they get in the bloodstream. Direct toxicity seems unlikely but it is still a valid concern.
It will never perish
And that is the problem. Plastic made its revolution in the 1950s when society needed durable products for little money. However, this precise characteristic of plastic is also the greatest downside, because if it is left behind in nature it can’t degrade like other materials such as wood. It only breaks up in smaller particles, that get harder to filter out. This is why plastic can be found for instance in our drinking water. It stays there virtually forever. Since the 1950s, production has only increased of which a third ends up in nature.
The bamboo revolution
Luckily there are many great alternatives for plastic, with bamboo being probably one of the best. Using bamboo has many advantages: it grows fast, needs very little water, is sturdy and durable and can be used for many different products ranging from water bottles to chairs or even houses. An example are the drinking bottles made in Sikkim, where plastic has been banned due to all the plastic litter that tourists left behind while visiting. Bamboo can also be used in the production of many soft and sturdy clothes such as underwear or athletic wear, and the technique to produce these fibres is still developing. Instead of plastic toothbrushes, use bamboo toothbrushes. Use bamboo straws instead of plastic straws when making fun drinks or smoothies. When thrown away they can be degraded, opposed to plastic throw away items. Bamboo is also used more in furniture, even bigger corporations as IKEA are paying attention to replacing plastic with bamboo. It seems to be moving in the right direction anyway, and you can support that by buying mindfully (and not too much).
Replace to reuse
Besides bamboo, there are many other materials and products you can use to reduce plastic. The main idea here is: replace to reuse. I would first assess where most of your plastic use centres itself and then replace that for something that can be reused or has no plastic waste. For me, it was easy to change for instance plastic shampoo or soap bottles with locally produced soap and shampoo bars. I also always use boxes to store food in the freezer or fridge or to take food with me, instead of plastic wraps. Another great way to store food is by using bee wax or cloth wrapping that you can wash. Reduce waste by buying products that are not wrapped in plastic, or to buy a large packaging. I for instance often make a big pot of soup in the weekend and store it for the rest of the week, so that the food I buy can be bought in larger packaging (although I’d rather not have any plastic packaging at all). Bring your own bags while shopping. Some countries have banned plastic packaging and have replaced them with other packaging material such as banana leaves. Any throw away item you find in your house that is not biodegradable, replace it with something that is or can be reused. And find local alternatives, to make it even more environmentally friendly.
For more inspiration on how to reduce plastic waste watch the infographic of the plastic oceans foundation.