This month you can expect to see a lot of social media posts about Plastic Free July. Maybe you’ve already stopped using plastic drinking straws, bring your own water bottle with you everywhere and have bought some bees-wax wraps to replace cling film in your kitchen. Over the past few years as we’ve become more aware of the damage that our addiction to plastic is doing to the planet there’s been a movement building to stop using plastic altogether. But is all plastic wrong? Is there still a place for plastic in our lives? Is it even possible to go completely plastic-free? Is it all fine as long as you put your plastic in the recycling bin when you’re finished with it?

Like lots of sustainability issues it’s not as straightforward as switching from plastic drinking straws to paper ones. 

Why is single use plastic not a good thing?

Reduce, reuse and recycle has long been the mantra for being more environmentally aware. The problem with plastic is that much of it is created for single use. And many people don’t realise that plastic is made from fossil fuels – along with other additives which can end up polluting our planet.

  • 40% of all plastic produced each year is single use.
  • Plastic food wrappers are used for minutes but don’t biodegrade, so stay in the environment for hundreds of years.
  • Every year 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean.
  • Nearly 700 animal species have been affected by plastic.

More information in this National Geographic article with a great Plastics 101 video explainer.

Sure it’s grand once I put it in the recycle bin, right? Unfortunately a lot of single use plastic cannot easily be recycled or may not be recyclable at all. Sadly a lot of it ends up being exported for waste disposal or is warehoused in other countries until it can be dealt with. Indeed, putting the wrong kind of plastic (such as crisp packets and other soft plastics) into the recycling bin can result in recycling machinery becoming jammed.  

Choose to refuse single use plastic

Choose to refuse single use plastic is the catchphrase for Plastic Free July. This has the aim for everyone to choose to give up one item of single use plastic in their day to day lives, as shown in this video, Choose your Plastic Free July 

If you’re new to the plastic free idea then here’s a handy Action Picker so that you can choose your one action for July.

What’s good about plastic?

There’s a reason why plastic became such a popular manufacturing material before its detrimental effects were recognised.  Plastics feature in modern medicine with uses such as joint replacement and prosthetics, often replacing metal. In heart surgery it is used in pacemakers and stents. As it can be made sterile, it is widely used for surgical gloves, syringes, insulin pens, catheters and many other single use products. This helps to prevent the spread of disease and the need to sterilise and reuse a device.

Plastic has been widely used in space travel due to its lightness and durability. NASA has recently launched a plastic recycler that provides feed stock for a 3D printer that can make new components in space. This will cut down the amount of spare parts that need to be sent up to the space station and will be invaluable on long space flights such as the mission to Mars.

In transport it has lightened cars and aircraft, saving fuel and pollution. Electric and hybrid cars depend on plastic bodies and components to make them lighter and more fuel efficient. Plastic is light but tough – ideal for helmets protecting cyclists, motorbike riders and racing car drivers. 

Plastic packaging has many advantages. It is light compared to the alternative of glass packaging for food, cosmetics, medications etc., so saves carbon emissions in transporting goods around the world. It also maintains the freshness of produce so reducing food waste. 

Is plastic good or bad?

The answer to this, as to a lot of questions, is: it depends. 

On the one hand, there are some very good and life saving uses for plastic. On the other hand, it is made from fossil fuels and so is contributing to global warming and discarded plastic is polluting our oceans.

What can you do?

What does a busy person, with lots of other stuff to do in their life, do about reducing their use of plastic?

  • Choose one thing from the challenge choices above and start it in Plastic Free July and try to make it a permanent change.
  • If you have plastic food containers, don’t feel you have to replace them with more sustainable alternatives. Use them, look after them and replace them at the end of their (long) life with glass, metal or another more sustainable alternative.
  • Save glass jars and reuse them for storage. It’s amazing what you can use a glass jar for! (my personal favourite)
  • Try doing your grocery shopping in a Zero Waste shop like the brilliant new shop, The Good Neighbour in Dundrum Dublin 14.
  • Have a few reusable bags in your (reusable) shopping bag for loose fruit and veg so you don’t need the supermarket plastic bags. The Good Neighbour and Lidl sell them. 

It is possible to change from single use plastic – Ireland was one of the first countries to impose a charge for single use plastic shopping bags in 2002. By 2014 the use of plastic bags per capita had decreased from 328 to an estimated 14 bags per capita. We’ve all become experts at cramming our few groceries into our handbags and balancing them in a pyramid on those annoying occasions when we forget to bring bags with us! Anything rather than pay 22c for a plastic bag you can only use once or twice before it tears. 

What it comes down to is the need to put a value on plastic. It is a useful material which is a necessary, even life-saving, part of modern life. But it shouldn’t be treated as the ubiquitous, single-use, throwaway material we’ve taken for granted for too long. It took millions, or even hundreds of millions, of years to create the fossil fuels that become plastic. The least we could do is save its use for the more important materials and treat the existing plastic objects we have with some respect. We need to find new ways to use them before they wear out and can be recycled and replaced with something more sustainable. 

Interested in making your business more sustainable? Contact me to find out how.

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