It’s everywhere, it’s causing mayhem and PAT PILCHER has decided enough is enough.
When first created, plastic was seen as the stuff of miracles. It was durable and could be effortlessly moulded into almost any shape. It revolutionised vast swathes of the economy. Technology, manufacturing, clothing, packaging and countless other areas have all been changed fundamentally by plastic.
The problem is, plastic has been a little too successful and has become an environmental scourge. There’s a massive floating plastic debris island in the north Pacific known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It visible from the air and researchers say it now covers a whopping 1.6 million square kilometres – 10 times the land mass of Greenland.
Then there’s Henderson Island in the Pacific. Conservation biologists at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania estimate that boggling 37.7 million tonnes of plastic debris washed up on its beaches last year.
It isn’t just oceans and far-flung tropical islands either. There are hundreds of thousands of metric tons of chlorinated plastic releasing a lethal cocktail of chemicals into the soil at landfills around the world. Over time these leach into groundwater, causing serious harm to wildlife and humans drinking the contaminated water.
Things aren’t much better with biodegradable plastics either. While these are designed to degrade into harmless organic compounds in landfills, their breakdown releases methane, a greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.
Let’s not forget too, the plastic micro-debris. These are pieces of plastic less than 5mm long. Many are smaller than the diameter of a human hair. A common source of micro debris is plastic refuse that is shredded and turned into pellets for recycling. In the plastic industry these are called nurdles.
Their small size means that they often end up blown into the environment and they usually end up in rivers and the ocean. Through friction and other processes, these nurdles wear down into micro-debris. Another source of micro-debris is cleaning and cosmetic products which use tiny plastic particles known as scrubbers. Scrubbers inevitably go down the drain, and their size means that sea life often consumes them.
Micro-debris have been steadily accumulating in our oceans for decades. Estimates are that there are at least 300,000 plastic items per square kilometre of the sea and 100,000 plastic particles per square kilometre of seabed.
Their gradual breakdown has caused a build-up of DDT and PCB’s which are incredibly toxic and linked to a vast range of extremely nasty health issues in both humans and animals.
Perhaps the most distressing part of plastic micro-debris pollution in our oceans is that sea and bird life mistake plastic micro-debris for food. These can’t be digested and build up in their gut. It causes them to starve and endure an agonising death.
And this looks set to get worse.
The global production of plastics reached an estimated 250 metric tonnes last year and continues to grow. Some projections have the volume of plastics on earth doubling over the next decade.
All of this had been weighing very heavily on my wife’s mind. A good friend of ours mentioned that she’d gone plastic free. It must have made quite an impression as my wife declared the following day that we’d do the same thing. Now 18 months later, we’ve weaned ourselves off plastic wherever we can, and we’re not looking back.
To start with, it wasn’t easy. I soon realised just how habituated I’d become to using plastic. It’s the wallpaper (erm, shrink-wrap?) of our lives. If you’re not convinced, try going out shopping and count the number of time you get given items in plastic bags.
When I first started mentioning that I didn’t need a plastic bag, I’d get odd looks from local shop owners. I guess they were as habit-trapped as I was. It took time, but eventually, we got our local dairy and takeaway trained not to give us plastic bags.
There were also times when we’d forget our reusable grocery bags, but this became less of an issue as we built up routines and habits. Keeping extra reusable bags in the car helped.
Supermarket shopping was one of the hardest plastic habits to break. Buying simple items like pasta got more difficult until we tracked down a brand packaged in cardboard.
Containers in our pantry are now nearly all glass jars that we can reuse. While some plastic still makes its way into our lives in the form of takeaway containers and other harder to avoid options, we keep and re-use these to prevent adding to ocean pollution.
Meat gets bought at an old-school butcher. We take in our containers (takeaway containers have their uses!). It’s been a real win-win as the quality of the meat is miles better than what we’d get at the supermarket, and we are not throwing polystyrene containers into landfill. We’re also keeping local businesses alive with our support.
Perhaps the biggest saving grace came to us in the form of a Wellington-based start-up called the Nude Grocer. As disturbing as it was to think of a naked 4Square man, the Nude Grocer has been a real lifesaver.
We found them on Facebook. They’re the ingenious idea of a bunch of 20-somethings. They use no non-reusable packaging. There’s no plastic. Everything that needs to comes in labelled jars. Once these get transferred into our own (non-plastic) containers, the pots get picked up, cleaned and re-used with the next customer. Thanks to Nude Grocer, going plastic free with groceries became a hell of a lot easier.
There are other parts of my life where I still encounter plastics. In many of these instances, the gratuitous use of plastic frustrates me. Unpacking gadgets to review on Witchdoctor, I routinely find plastic widgets shrink-wrapped in plastic and then placed in plastic bags. TV remotes made from plastic shouldn’t get shrink-wrapped in plastic, nor do they need to be packaged in plastic bags. The volume of unnecessary plastic with consumer electronics is, quite frankly, disgusting. There are plenty of decent biodegradable alternatives that won’t clog up oceans for hundreds of years.
Moulded popcorn can replace Styrofoam. It’s biodegradable (and edible!). Biodegradable alternatives can get used instead of plastic cling film. Options such as the water-soluble cellulose packaging used with dishwashing tablets are just one example.
There are also ingenious solutions that make use of waste plastic. In India, it is being collected, melted with tar and used with gravel to build roads. It strikes me as being a particularly bright idea. Plastic gets pulled out of the environment, and less money is spent importing oil that’s wasted building roads.
There’s some real potential for this to be scaled up. A non-profit technology firm called The Ocean Cleanup was launched by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat when he was an 18-year-old aerospace engineering student. He’s designed a machine that he says could harvest 400 tonnes of plastic a year from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. That’s a lot of cheap roading that could be built. That’s just one solution, there are thousands of others out there.
Most importantly, it starts with us. Reducing the amount of plastic in our lives might involve forming new habits, but ultimately, it has proved far less complicated than I thought. Eighteen months in, we’ve reduced the amount of plastic in our house massively. We still have some plastic, but it is a shrinking – and tiny part of our lives.