Reducing plastic waste can be very hard to do. Everything we buy seems to be over packaged these days. Even a cucumber or lettuce comes in plastic wrap or a plastic bag. This keeps the food fresh for longer, but I don’t think that advantage is enough to warrant the amount of waste produced.
Getting rid of some single use plastics is a good place to reduce because it is fairly easy to do and it will cut down a significant amount of waste.
Last month we looked at the most common types of waste you are producing and the amounts of waste you have on a regular basis. We focused on the waste generated by just going shopping. Supermarkets certainly generate a lot of plastic waste!
So how do we solve the problem of single use plastic?
The world is now literally drowning in plastic waste.
Shockingly, only 12% of plastics used in Australia ends up recycled. Other countries; notably China, used to do the bulk of our recycling. China have now refused to accept 99% of our rubbish. As we don’t have sufficient recycling plants, the plastic goes to landfill or is burned. Neither of these is the outcome we want.
New research has also shown that plastic, when exposed to solar radiation, releases methane (a potent greenhouse gas) and ethylene. This is especially a problem as it degrades, and also if burned.
Plastic is an extremely cheap and resistant material. Given the resistant nature of chemicals like PET, a gradual breakdown process can take years to complete. ( PET is a plastic resin and the most commonly used plastic material. ) Plastic bottles are estimated to take up to 450 years to decompose in a landfill.
Sadly plastic doesn’t fully decompose. All plastic ever produced remains in the environment in one form or another.
By 2050 there may be as much as 850-950 million tonnes of plastic in the ocean. There could be more plastic than fish in the sea if we continue on this path! Clearly reducing our plastic waste has never been more urgent.
There is a move in many countries including Australia to legislate banning single use plastic items or putting a charge on them such as the 15 cent fee to buy a plastic supermarket bag. (This doesn’t seem to be a deterrent as the majority of people are still using them and 15 cents doesn’t seem like much when it is perceived to be a convenience).
What about using more “eco friendly” single use products instead of plastic?
There are single use alternatives such as compostable fast-food containers and wooden or bamboo cutlery. If single use plastic items are banned, these may take their place. People feel better when throwing something away that they think will break down and not be an environmental problem. There is concern though, that this just reinforces our reliance on single use items and doesn’t solve the problem. Somewhat surprisingly, compostables are not necessarily a better solution than single use plastics and a rise in their use could further clog up the composting process and create more mountains of trash. People’s habits are what really need to change.
The best environmentally beneficial practice is to keep reducing the amount of plastic and other single use waste we generate and to focus on reusing as much as possible.
“To solve the plastic pollution crisis, companies need to rethink how products are delivered to consumers and invest significantly in reusable and refillable delivery systems,” Greenpeace
We urgently need to find sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions to reducing plastic waste in the environment.
Where can you reduce plastic in your own life?
I would start with what is easiest so it is not too overwhelming. Basically, everyone seems to agree that the first single use plastic items to replace with reuseable are:
- Shopping bags and produce bags -available on the products page
- Disposable coffee cups and lids – get a keep cup for your take away coffee
- Find alternatives for plastic food containers and cutlery when eating out.
- Also try to avoid plastic cutlery, plates and bowls if picnicking or entertaining
- Plastic water bottles – get a reusable water bottle
- Plastic straws – are totally unnecessary unless you have a disability which makes it difficult to drink from a cup or bottle. Rather than replace with metal or bamboo, why not just stop using straws? I have managed to do without straws my entire adult life!
So what are the alternatives to plastic food storage containers and single use plastics and are they any better?
Thousands of businesses provide “Eco” friendly products designed to replace plastic products. This doesn’t fully address peoples habits that cause waste in the first place. We are still buying a lot of “stuff” which will ultimately end up yet again in landfill.
While a lot of these products, from stainless steel bento boxes, to plastic keep cups and metal straws, are reducing single use plastics, it doesn’t ultimately solve the problem if we are still filling up our cupboards with lots of these items which eventually will need to be disposed of.
Many people will throw out perfectly serviceable items and buy the latest new products. Buying “eco friendly” products makes us feel better, but it doesn’t address our over consumption of “stuff”.
A minimalist approach is more compatible with a waste reduction goal
Rather than buying more new things, it is possible to find good quality kitchen storage items in charity or second hand shops. I bought a Tupperware cake box which is in great condition from a vintage shop so I didn’t need to go out and buy a new plastic item. If we can reuse these things, we will keep them out of landfill. Garage sales are also a great way to buy cheap but good quality items. Buying pre-loved and pre-used household goods also reduces demand for new products. As much of what we throw away is either unable to be recycled, is not suitable for recycling or doesn’t have a current use in a recycled form, it is far better to just not make so much waste.
Keeping our belongings in good condition, repairing and reusing them is something we used to do in previous decades. Having less stuff actually leads to more contentment and more time – less to look after!
I think the focus for many years has been to continue to buy plastic items with the good intention of recycling. The huge amounts of plastic waste already choking the planet has nowhere to go, so continuing to make more and more plastic waste is just no longer an option. It can also be confusing to know what items are able to be recycled and what bins they go in – That’s a discussion for another day!
Is it ok to replace single use plastic with reusable plastic containers?
When I was first conscious of the problem with single use plastics, I went out and purchased sturdy reusable plastic food containers which I have now had for a number of years. I imagine they may last for up to 10 years and I will need to replace them.
Now that I know more, I wouldn’t recommend this path, as ultimately these items will go into landfill and will not biodegrade. Although I reduced my total volume of plastic waste by doing this, I am still contributing to the problem at the end of these products lives.
There is also the other issue which is not really talked about of chemicals leaching into the food from plastic containers. More of this in another blog!
What about silicone- is that plastic?
Silicone is a hybrid between a synthetic rubber and a synthetic plastic polymer. So it is still a plastic. While it is a bit better than normal plastic as it contains silica, which is derived from sand, it also contains synthetic and chemical additives that come from fossil fuels. This makes it less desirable from an environmental perspective.
While it is thought to be safe to store and cook food in silicone there haven’t really been many in-depth studies into its long-term effects
Studies do show that silicones are not completely inert, that they do leach synthetic chemicals at low levels, particularly if the food they contain is high in fat.
Silicone also has a very low recyclability rate.
If we are really committed to reducing plastic waste then we should also use alternatives to silicone bags. Glass jars, stainless steel containers, and cloth bags can all do the job, without any of the associated production, use, and disposal concerns that accompany silicones.
So what are the best reusable alternatives to plastic food containers?
At the moment, I would suggest using a combination of stainless steel, glass, ceramic and fabric to replace plastic containers and plastic wrap. Go through all your containers to see what you already have. If you have reusable plastic containers, I would keep using them rather than throwing out and replacing. Then just buy new items when you absolutely need to.
- You can purchase a stainless steel water bottle which will last for many years
- Stainless steel lunch boxes or other food containers
- Glass microwave dishes
- Ceramic casserole dishes
- Glass storage jars for the pantry
- Mason jars to take for lunches – great for storing salads in the fridge door
- Fabric wraps – either coated with beeswax or plant based waxes instead of using plastic wraps like clingfilm – you can even make your own ones – this is a future blog!!
- I would go to second hand shops, markets, garage sales and charity shops to look for containers, and cooking pots, pans and tins when you need new ones rather than buying new. Reusing is a really great way to reduce waste in your community
- Look for glass jars which can also be found in charity shops and are very cheap to buy. They are usually under a dollar each.
- I reuse glass jars after I have eaten the contents as well. My peanut butter jar gets refilled at a local fruit and vegetable shop. They are happy to refill my jars, so I can reuse what I already have. More and more businesses are coming on board with this, so it will only get easier to do this.
These are relatively inexpensive and easy things to do in reducing the amount of plastic waste you are generating. It also feels a lot better to know that you are contributing to waste reduction. If enough of us take this on, we will be able to make a big difference in the amount of plastic waste in our communities and surrounding environments.
We also need to lobby the government about putting in bans on single use plastic.