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With 300 million tonnes of plastic produced every year and that number expected to triple by 2050, the United Nations have negotiated a global treaty to significantly reduce single-use plastics by 2030.
Our reliance on single-use items like coffee cups, water bottles, containers and plastic bags must be drastically reduced. This approach must also be applied to plastic food packaging, disposable nappies, fast fashion and sanitary/personal hygiene items.
This is where you come in!
You, as an individual, along with the other 7.5 billion people in the world, can either help or hinder the preservation of our wonderful environment. With Plastic Free July fast approaching, we wanted to create a practical toolkit for you, that outlines why plastic pollution is such a huge problem, why we need to make a change and how you can help.
Plastic has revolutionised our way of life: from medicine, to transport, to space travel - it’s a cheap and durable resource that we depend on for pretty much everything. Most plastics are derived from fossil fuels, such as crude oil and coal, which are then converted into molecular chains called ‘polymers’. From there, the polymers can be formed into different types of plastics; all of which are lightweight, strong, and malleable.
Why do we have a plastic pollution problem?
Even though plastic is an extremely useful resource, it’s clear that we cannot continue manufacturing and disposing of plastic at the rate we are now; certainly not in the form of single-use items, and certainly not disposed of in our river systems and overflowing landfills.
To understand why we have a plastic pollution problem, we must first split it into three problematic areas:
Our throwaway culture means plastic products are purchased, used once and discarded in mass quantities. For example, a single plastic bag is used for about 12 minutes – but it can take up to 1,000 years to break down. Worldwide, every single minute, we’re buying one million plastic bottles and two million plastic bags. Disposable nappies are also a huge problem – the average child will go through 5,000-10,000 nappies before they are toilet trained, resulting in several hundred tonnes of plastic going straight to landfill. That’s a lot of plastic waste!
Our throwaway culture means plastic products are purchased, used once and discarded in mass quantitie Littering and improper waste management pollutes our waterways and affects the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the soil we use to grow food. Most trash ends up in river systems. In developing parts of Africa and Asia, the management of wastewaste is hugely inefficient; almost 90% of the plastic that flows into the ocean, roughly 8 million pieces per day, comes from just ten rivers. All of these rivers are inundated with plastic due to large surrounding populations with little to no waste management in place.
When a piece of plastic enters the ocean, UV rays and wave action break it down into microplastics; fragmented bits of plastic that lurk beneath the water’s surface. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a huge swirling mass of plastics and microplastics, is estimated to be three times the size of France. These tiny pieces of plastic are also deadly to marine wildlife; studies have found microplastics in 100% of marine turtles and 59% of whales.
Some alarming new research from the University of Newcastle has suggested that humans consume roughly 100,000 microplastics every year, or the equivalent of one credit card per week. At this point, it's not known how this is affecting humans – but the associated chemicals are already recognised to have carcinogenic impacts and endocrine-disturbing behaviours.
Why we need to make a change
Plastic pollution may seem like an overwhelming, unsolvable problem. The reality is that we need to change our ways – starting with how we use plastic and how we dispose of plastic. The vast majority of us aren’t scientists, engineers, or experts in the field – so what can the average person do?
How to be an advocate of change as an individual
Aim to cut out single-use plastics from your day: Disposable water bottles, takeaway coffee cups, plastic containers, cling wrap, straws and shopping bags aren’t necessary and can be replaced with alternatives.
Use reusables: BYO reusable water bottle to school or work, bring a reusable coffee cup to your local café (or dine in), refuse cling-wrapped lunch options and BYO lunch from home, refuse plastic straws and opt for metal/bamboo ones, and bring your own reusable shopping bag to buy groceries.
Swap to eco-friendly bamboo/biodegradable options: In Australia, we throw away around 30 million plastic toothbrushes per year! It’s the same story for items like plastic razors, hairbrushes, kitchen sponges, pads/tampons, makeup wipes and deodorant – implementing reusable or biodegradable options could make a world of difference.
Be smart with how you buy your food: When shopping for fruits and veggies, BYO reusable mesh bags or cloth bags to use instead of using the thin plastic bags. Consider buying pasta, grains, nuts, dried beans and oats in bulk – you can bring your own jars/containers to store them in as well.
Avoid fast fashion: The impact of textile waste on our planet is enormous; each Aussie buys an average of 27 kgs of new textiles per year, then discards about 23 kgs into landfill. Most textiles are manmade, synthetic fibres that don’t break down.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Reduce the amount that you buy, reuse or repurpose items you already have, and recycle what you can.
How to be an advocate of change in society
Fabulous initiatives like Plastic Free July have one aim: to reduce plastic pollution on a worldwide scale. The more people that get involved, the better!
In your community, the best thing you can do to reduce plastic pollution is to create awareness. Every single protest, movement and revolution in history has always begun with courageous people speaking out about important issues. Speaking to your friends, family or co-workers about it can plant the seeds of meaningful change. You could even host a plastic-free picnic or breakfast, organise a beach/park plastic clean up, or connect with other like-minded people participating in Plastic Free July. More ideas here.
Part of the problem is believing that our individual actions don’t make a difference – whether it’s taking a reusable coffee cup to work, sharing zero waste tips on Instagram, or educating a family member about plastic pollution – it all makes a difference!