Rethinking plastic: local action on a global issue

In 2016, the world was warned that if we continue to use and discard plastic the way we do, plastic rubbish in the ocean will outweigh fish by 2050.

The report, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics, was launched at the World Economic Forum, and includes strategies to help tackle this problem, which involve innovative ideas around packaging design, reusing and recycling. In 2017, 40 global industry leaders, including The Coca-Cola Company, MARS, Unilever and Veolia, endorsed the action plan; and time will tell how this will play out.

What began as a groundbreaking resource in the 20th Century is now used and discarded as if it were worthless. But considering some types of plastic never breakdown, plastic is far from worthless. With the lightweight plastic bag ban set to be introduced in WA this July, now is the time to change the way we use single use plastic.

Piers Verstegen, Director of the Conservation Council WA, said that plastic pollution is a global issue.

Frances D’Souza shops for her groceries at bulk food stores to reduce single use plastic in her home.

“We’re producing and consuming massive amounts of material that doesn’t breakdown naturally and doesn’t go away,” he said. “The more we produce and consume, the more ends up in our environment, whether that’s in the oceans or soils or even in our human bodies, and that is a growing load of pollution on the planet.

“Now we’ve got to a point where plastic pollution can be detected in the most remote parts of our planet. Compounds that are in plastic are finding their way into just about every part of our  ecosystems.

“Every item that we use which is plastic – whether it be a plastic straw or bottle top, or anything that we might use for a few seconds – essentially lasts many times beyond our own lifetimes in the environment.”

While often we think of plastic bottles, bags, popped balloons and straws filling the oceans like a massive floating rubbish tip, microfibres and microbeads are also becoming a huge issue for our marine environment. Microfibres come from plastic in clothes made from fabrics such as acrylic, nylon and polyester. Each time we wash these fabrics in our washing machines, microfibres are released into our oceans. Microbeads are tiny pieces of plastic which are used in exfoliating beauty products and toothpaste, but can also come from plastic wearing down over time.

Piers said these kinds of micro-plastics actually attract other forms of chemical pollutants, and can now be found all over the globe.

“What happens to plastic in the natural environment, or even in use, is that it does break apart over time; it doesn’t breakdown, but it breaks apart into smaller and smaller fragments,” said Piers. “We really know very little about what impact that is having on our marine environment, but our own citizen science work here has shown that there’s plastic microfibre contamination on every  single beach that we’ve sampled throughout the South West, even the most remote beaches.

“The problem with [microbeads] is that they look very much like food to fish and small micro-organisms. The chemistry of them is that they actually attract other pollutants, so when they get eaten by fish or marine life they are actually then ingesting a concentrated form of pollution from the marine environment. It’s a really tragic situation that’s happening and one we can only prevent by  stopping its source.”

There are a number of ways of doing this, starting with individuals choosing to consume less single use plastic.

Inspired five years ago by the Plastic Free July movement, Frances D’Souza, a marine biologist and member at Mt Pleasant Uniting Church, has been on a journey of reducing single use plastic in her own home. What started with a few simple steps has turned into a passion for a new way of life.

“We started with things like take away,” she said. “At one point we were getting take away once a fortnight, and it always comes in plastic containers, so we started to take our own re-usables to  our local Malaysian [restaurant]. And they were lovely, they said ‘no problem’ and they were totally cool with it.”

From there, Frances extended the concept to the way she buys meat, opting to take her own containers to her local butcher rather than buying pre-packaged meat from the supermarket.

“When you look at what’s in your rubbish and recycling bins each week you work out what things are contributing most to your waste,” she said.

Frances now also takes her own bag to the bakery for bread – or her husband makes the bread himself. Perhaps the biggest shift they’ve made in reducing packaging ending up in their bins has been buying groceries from a bulk food store, using their own containers to purchase them in. There are a number of bulk food stores in WA, but this option only works if you have regular access to one of them.

“It’s really simple,” she said. “Once I thought ‘I’m going to do this’, I started to save containers rather than throw them out.

“We take these large plastic 20kg buckets that we used to get free from the health food shop. And I saved up honey containers from when I used to buy honey from the supermarket and I put dry food items in there.

“Snack foods are the next thing that uses a lot of plastic and our family loves chips like any other family. But you can also buy them in bulk, so there are alternatives. They do bulk chocolate as well, so we can still get all that stuff that we love having, we just don’t have to have it pre-packaged.”

Frances also makes her own snacks. She makes popcorn and spiced nuts from bulk ingredients and is yet to try making crisp bread from day old baguettes, by finely slicing and baking them in the oven. She also tries to keep on top of her plastic use by refusing plastic drinking straws, using reusable shopping bags – including fruit and vegetable bags – carrying her own water bottle and  even keeping items such as reusable coffee cups, plates and cutlery in her car.

While it sounds daunting, Frances said these changes didn’t happen in her family overnight; she started small and gradually took steps to end up where she is now.

“The hardest thing is remembering to take the re-usable stuff with you,” she said. “It’s just a matter of creating a new habit.

“You make lots of mistakes initially, but you mustn’t get discouraged. It’s a gradual progression, don’t try and do everything at once, because it can be overwhelming.

“I didn’t do it all at once. I just did little things at a time and when I got comfortable with something, I started to increase the things that I did.”

With the recycling industry in Australia currently going through some massive changes, both Frances and Piers agree that local industry could really step-up to bridge the gap, possibly creating new local industry in WA around waste management. In the past, Australia has been sending most of our recycling to China, but Chinese authorities have recently changed their policies on the kinds of recyclable waste they will receive.

“What we really need to do to ensure that our recycling industry is sustainable, is to be investing in local reprocessing industries here in Western Australia, rather than sending material offshore,”  Piers said. “And what that will do, is it will capture jobs and economic benefits for our state as well and enable us to produce material and products that can be used again, rather than having this  single use polluting plastic phenomenon.

“The State Government needs to support local councils and support business to be establishing local reprocessing industries so that we don’t have to send all this stuff offshore,” he said.

Frances believes that while this issue could be problematic in the short-term, it could be beneficial for us in the long-term.

“It’s got the potential to create a whole new industry and improve our economy,” she said. “I try to look at it in a positive way: what are the things that we could gain from this in Australia? The  thing that we’re good at is technology, so we could employ some talented engineers to come up with some new methods for processing and value adding to this product.

“I think there’ll be some pain in the short-term but in the longer term I think it will be a positive step.”

Piers believes the first step in plastic reduction is to make a distinction between single use plastic and more durable materials. He said we can create change on this issue by engaging action at  each level, from individuals, government and industry.

“Really what is a major driver of this plastic pollution problem is single use plastics, and it is relatively easy to phase those out. It might be plastic take away containers, plastic lids on coffee cups, it  might be plastic shopping bags or it might be plastic drinking straws. All of those examples have ready alternatives, and people are starting to adopt those alternatives,” he said.

“Some of the more difficult ones might be packaging on material that you buy at the supermarket. There are alternatives to that, you can buy in bulk and find other ways to purchase things that  don’t require so much plastic wrapping, but that’s one of the more challenging ones and that’s where government and industry are going to have to come on board as well. We need to have  regulations to avoid excess packaging on material that we buy.

“If it is essential that you need plastic packaging then it should be mandated that it comes from recycled material rather than from new plastic because that will then support the establishment of  local reprocessing industries which can capture the plastic rather than sending it to landfill or allowing it to become a problem in the environment.

“There’s a role for consumers, there’s a role for government and there’s a role for industry in all of that,” he said. “We’ve got to prevent this stuff from entering the environment and that means using a lot less plastic and not using plastic for single uses where we use something once and throw it away.

Inspired?

Want to take part in Plastic Free July? To get involved, or to find out more about how to reduce single use plastic, visit plasticfreejuly.org.

Boomerang Bags are a great way to keep plastic shopping bag use down. Volunteers make them out of recycled fabric and distribute them for free with a message of sustainability. For more  information about how to get involved visit boomerangbags.org.

Precious Plastic is a global community of people passionate about recycling their own plastic by sorting, shredding and melting it down to create new products. Find out how to get involved at  preciousplastic.com/en.

Find out more about the Conservation Council WA and their Plastic Free WA campaign at ccwa.org.au.

Read The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics report at ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/new-plastics-economy-catalysing-action.

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