The World Economic Forum recently published their 14th annual Global Risks Report. Environmental issues took front row in the discussion - three of the top five risks by likelihood and impact are extreme weather, climate change, and natural disasters. There is no better time to talk about, and act on, more ways we all can reduce our environmental footprint.
I am sure at this point many have heard about about the devastating impact plastics have on the oceans. Salt water and UV rays break down plastic products into microplastics (tiny particles) which are virtually impossible to filter out. Microplastics end up in the stomachs of fish, and, when digested, these plastics ooze poisonous chemicals that infiltrate the blood stream. We then eat these fish. Moreover, studies have shown that microplastics are found in 90% of table salt, so arguably, we end up eating microplastics in virtually every meal. It is already shown that microplastics are inside of us.
What impact do these microplastics have on humans? We don’t really know. There are no definitive answers yet, but considerable evidence suggests it could be troubling.
Our toxic relationship with plastic
A few months ago, I listened to an eye-opening podcast with Adrian Grenier (the star from show Entourage). In the podcast, he acknowledged the same problem that I had been mulling over: it’s not just difficult to expect everyone to give up on everything that harms the environment – it’s near impossible. Modern society is structured in such a way that we inevitably create waste, and we simply can’t go back to living in a cave.
Like me, Adrian had done a lot of introspection, engaged in self-blame, and had became extremely discouraged by observing the environmental downward spiral we are in. However, what ready stood out to me was Adrian’s advocacy for a solution of “moderate participation”. Moderate participation is the idea that large-scale collective impact can achieved if everyone makes even minor adjustments to their lifestyle to reduce their environmental footprint. But what are these “minor adjustments”? Interestingly, Adrian pointed out that most of them have to do with the relationship we have developed to perceived “convenience”. Listening to the podcast got me thinking about the ways in which I have developed a – potentially erroneous - perceived relationship with convenience with respect to daily activities. For example, where do I use plastic items and treat them as necessary (i.e. my perception is such that eliminating their use would be a huge inconvenience) but in actual fact, simple alternatives exist? In this article, we’ll explore 5 easy changes anyone can implement in their lives to contribute to the reduction of plastic waste.
Before I go on, it’s worth looking at this handy infographic to identify the main buckets of where we should focus our attention.
An overwhelming amount of plastic waste is single-use. Eliminating that alone, will have an enormous impact on reducing the waste.
1. Plastic grocery bags
When I go shopping I take reusable bags. However, if I pop by the store on the way home, and I have no reusable bags on me, I try to:
Stuff my bag pack with groceries.
Use my abled hands to carry the few items home. Most of the time I just have a literal handful of items that don’t need to bag.
If I absolutely needed to buy plastic bags, I will use as few as possible and reuse as a garbage bags.
Small plastic bags are really not necessary for the majority of produce. When I buy lose produce, I just pile them into the basket (oranges, apples, potatoes etc). It really doesn’t take much more energy to put them all on scale individually.
Advanced eco-baller move: stop buying stuff in plastic packaging. Go for lose apples or spinach bundle over plastic containers. Everything is driven by market economics. Flex your consumer muscle and send the signal to the manufacturer by choosing a more sustainable option. It often is just a matter of stretching your hand over to the nearby shelf.
2. Plastic bags for takeout
I always try to carry take-out without a plastic bag. More often than not, the walk isn’t longer than 10 minutes - it’s really not as much of an inconvenience as you might think.
3. Plastic cutlery
When I buy takeout, I ask the restaurant for no cutlery. If I bring food back to the office, I use the metal cutlery we have at our office. The idea of hot food making the plastic spoon release chemicals in my mouth is gross.
If I absolutely have to use plastic cutlery, I will think twice about which items I actually need. Often, I can get away with just a fork, and skip taking a knife. If I order food to be delivered to my home, it never makes sense to ask for plastic cutlery, because I have metal ones at home.
Hack: in apps like Ritual you can add comments to your order, or sometimes you are offered to select Dine-In or No Cutlery. I wish more restaurants had this convenient option.
I review my order and return plastic cutlery if it was given to me despite my requests.
4. Plastic lids and straws at the movie theater and other spots
I stopped using lids or straws in movie theater, and most other places. The walk is 30 meters to the seat where I consume the beverage. I wouldn’t do that at home, so why do it in the movie theater? The same goes for restaurants – why do I need a straw if I sit down at the table? A straw adds no convenience over my “nature’s straw” - my mouth. Even beverages I previously thought “required” a straw, like smoothies, don’t really need it. I am not even going to address cups of water.
5. Plastic lids on your food or coffee when you dine in
I am not sure yet why restaurant owners don’t care about throwing away their money by putting a lid on every plate of food they serve during lunch and not asking their staff to inquire about where the food will be consumed. If I am dining in, I proactively tell them that I am dining in and that I don’t need a lid.
It’s pretty ridiculous how many people put a plastic lid on their paper cup just to walk to their table to immediately take it off because the drink is too hot. When I go to coffee shops and plan to drink a beverage there, I always ask for a ceramic mug. If one is worried about the heat, a thermos can do wonders at keeping coffee hot for hours, which is exactly what I received as a gift two months ago and have used daily ever since.
Does the fact that this plastic is recyclable matter?
In my experience, people often justify using plastic by claiming to recycle it. I know, because for a long time, I was of the same opinion. So, does the fact you recycle it matter? The truthful answer is: a little, BUT – and this is key – it doesn’t matter as much as you think it does. Not even close. Just because a given plastic item is recyclable in theory, doesn’t mean it will actually be recycled - only about 9% of all plastic is. Evidence suggests that only 1% of plastic bags are recycled. One must also not forget that recycling requires energy (transporting, washing, shredding it etc.). This means that the process of recycling also contributes to climate change.
What can you take away from this article?
1. Notice the plastic that you take. Start with just paying more attention to what you take and what is handed to you.
2. Ask yourself if you can do without it. How much inconvenience would it really be to skip taking it?
3. Try skipping taking the item once and see for yourself.
Can one straw or lid really make any difference?
Think about it this way. Globally we consume 5 trillion plastic bags a year. Let me spell this out: 5,000,000,000,000 plastic bags. If you were previously consuming a plastic bag a day and start skipping even every second one, it will cut the waste in half! Don’t think about only your impact and look at the math this way: 5,000,000,000,000 – 180 = 4,999,999,999,820. Think about the impact we can make if you, your friends, and friends of your friends start cutting back.
I really want to hear from you, my reader! Are there any other easy things one can do to eliminate unless plastic from our lives?