“Plastic Island” and “garbage patch” are terms that have been used to describe (perhaps misleadingly) a large “diffuse soup of plastic” that has formed in the ocean as a result of years of plastic pollution. The Great Pacific Garbage patch consists of tiny particles of plastic floating below the ocean surface, which not only poses a threat to the lives of hundreds of thousands of marine animals, but also points towards the failure of us as a species to responsibly and sustainably use our resources.
Of the 9.1 billion tons of plastic produced since 1950, 7 billion tons are no longer in use and just 9% have been recycled. This leaves 12% to be incinerated, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and 5.5 billion tonnes left to litter our land and oceans. Plastics take up a huge amount of space in landfill and can leak toxic chemicals into the surrounding earth, while biodegradable plastics produce methane as they break down, a greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide. By reducing our plastic consumption and becoming more sustainable, we could have an incredibly positive effect on our oceans, wildlife and our planet.
But how can we achieve this? Here are 10 ways of reducing our plastic consumption and improving our ecological footprint:
1. Buy a reusable bottle: This is a classic that is so easy to do, but still 16 million tonnes worth of plastic bottles are used and discarded into our oceans and environment every single day. A reusable bottle has 50-60% lower global warming potential than a single-use bottle and, in addition, a BPA-free durable plastic or stainless steel bottle is much better for our own health.
2. Don’t use single-use plastic straws: Plastic straws are something rarely thought about, sometimes we don’t even realise we are using them! The number of plastic straws used in the US every day would be enough to wrap around the Earth two and half times, so drinking straight from the cup or even using a bamboo or stainless steel reusable straw could make a big difference.
3. Use your own coffee cups: A damaging consequence of the burst in popularity of on-the-go coffee is the considerable amount of waste it produces, most of which cannot be recycled. More than 7 million of these cups are used per day and the plastic lids and linings mean they can take up to 100 years to break down. An easy alternative is to take a reusable coffee cup or a small flask with you, which most cafes can fill instead of using a single-use take-away cup.
4. Don’t use plastic bags: The introduction of the 5p charge has done a lot in terms of reducing plastic bag consumption, but there are still 2 million of them being used every minute all over the world. Remembering to always have a canvas bag on hand, in our bags or in our car can go a long way in reducing the number of plastic bags that end up damaging our environment.
5. Carry around some cutlery: This is another one that is rarely acknowledged as an issue, but single- use plastic cutlery in fast food restaurants can be easily avoided by bringing your own. Eco-friendly sets of bamboo cutlery are readily available online and are a much greener option than throwaway plastic knives and forks.
6. Be aware of your cosmetics: Many face washes and toothpastes contain “microbeads”, little particles of plastic which, once washed down the sink, often end up in the ocean or water supplies and can be ingested by sea creatures including phytoplankton and lantern fish.
7. Use a menstrual cup: Estimates suggest that 20 billion pads, tampons and applicators end up in US landfills every year. These products can take hundreds of years to biodegrade, releasing harmful chemicals and toxins into the earth as they do so. By switching to the menstrual cup, a woman could save 150kg of waste in her lifetime.
8. Don’t chew gum: The sight of pavements littered with discarded gum is familiar to all. Not only is chewing gum made from synthetic polymers (plastics) which are non-biodegradable, but crude oil is used in its production and so the environmental effects of this chewy habit are further reaching than people may realise.
9. Get a lunchbox: Instead of carrying lunch in a plastic sandwich bag or wrapping everything in cling-film, a simple solution is to use a lunchbox. A long-lasting plastic or stainless steel lunchbox is an easy alternative and can dramatically cut down on the waste we produce every day.
10. Save jars: Not only are jars an extremely aesthetic way of storing your groceries, they are an opportunity to reduce our plastic consumption! Buying in bulk and storing rice or pasta in jars is a great way to avoid the vast amount of plastic packaging that now accompanies most foods. Jars also make a great alternative to plastic cups, even better with a reusable straw!
OCS Media and Research Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.