More and more people try to reduce plastic. But it’s a movement which has a different speed in every country and every society. It’s often connected to the climate crises and the species extinction, but maybe not all of you know why.
So I searched the Internet as well as the knowledge I gained already about this topic to explain to you why we should reduce our plastic consumption and waste. For that we will follow the life of plastic from its production, consumption until its disposal.
Production at first we will have a look on how plastic is produced and which problems
come along with it. Plastic is made of earth oil and this is already the first problem, because it is a finite raw material. Once we used all oil the earth has stored, we will get to the end of the plastic production. Additionally the production produces a lot of CO2, in 2015 it was over 1 million tons. If an average elephant weighs 6 tons, that would be nearly 170 000 elephants. And the elephants are getting heavier and heavier or more in number.
Because there is huge production and consumption of plastic every year which increases gradually. Did we produce in 1950 1,5 million tons of plastic worldwide, was it 68 years later in 2018 359 million tons. That is more than 239 times as much. If a truck weighs 12 tons, that is an increase from 18 million to 4,3 billion trucks. A truck invasion! They will come and get us!
If we look around us we can see where the plastic got: in the supermarkets, cloths, stores, packages we get, everything is packed in plastic or made of it. The biggest part (40%) is for the package of things, nearly 20% is build and used for our houses and 10% in cars, just to name the main consumption areas.
I think we all agree that plastic makes life much easier. And it is indispensable. It is flexible, cheap, light. Which other way I could get my sushi-to-go in a plastic box?! (Spoiler: there is a way, but we’ll come later to this) But we are paying a high price for it.
Often without knowing: Plastic has not only an huge impact on our surroundings, but also a clear effect on our health. And this is the moment when I personally begin to worry. Because the different sorts of plastic like PVC, PE, PTFE etc. are produced with the addition of extremely poisonous ingredients. They are used for example to make it more elastically and/or soft or to make it resistant against fire but also aging coursed by exposure to sunlight. I popular one is BPA, maybe you heard already about it.
Many of these poisonous ingredients damage the immune and endocrine systems, reduce the probability to become pregnant, are a risk for the unborn child and can cause cancer. Luckily some of these ingredients are already replaced by others with less risks. But others are still there and are not staying in the plastic where they belong. They are released again and pass into the room air, house dust or even food. By this or through skin contact they get into our body. For example, degradation products of ingredients to make the plastic softer have been detected in the urine of kindergarten children. There are some already forbidden to be used in toys, baby items and cosmetics. But we are eating and storing our food in it…great!
Do you remember the huge amount of plastic I mentioned we are producing and using every year? A high number of this plastic is new. In Europe we recycle around 30% of it. And that brings us to the question: What happens with all this plastic once we through it into the trash can? Spoiler: It doesn’t disappear in a pink glittery confetti cloud. Unfortunately.
As I mentioned there is the opportunity to recycle it. But the majority (more than 40%) is used for energy recovery. That means that it ends up in a fire that produces nice grey and unhealthy clouds full of greenhouse gases. Not mentioned the venomous fumes that are released by burning the plastic. Because if you use poisonous ingredients for production you can not assume that the burning will produce cinnamon and cookie fumes.
The rest of our plastic ends up on a waste disposal site. There it lies and it decomposes. Slowly. But not like the egg shells on grandmothers compost which get part of nutrient-rich soil. Plastic is not biodegradable. So it never really disappears and gets part of the material cycle on earth. It breaks down into smaller and smaller parts. This we call micro plastic and it is everywhere. In the atmosphere, spread by wind, rain and snow on the whole planet. In our water from water tabs. It was found in fish, clams, milk and honey. It is released from the plastic package our food and drinks are stored like plastic bottles. It is in our oceans, rivers, lakes, swims together with plankton on the surface of the water and is eaten by fish. It injures their mucous membranes, occupies their respiratory organs or injures and clogs their stomach and intestines. The fish die from their injuries or starve to death. Mussels suffer from severe inflammation. So here is the negative effect of micro plastic to the ecology. And we are not secured against it. Through food it enters our human body. With contaminated micro plastic pollutants get into our body which have hormonal, carcinogenic and other negative effects. But not only ashore the plastic is stored on waste disposal sites. Some people think that the ocean is the best waste disposal site of all and trough it into the sea. For sure everybody is indignant now: How can these bad people do this?!
But it is our fault. Yes it is. Because the western countries have too much waste to handle it. So what is the first thing that comes up? Sending it to Asia and paying them (because money is something we also have), so they can deal with it. Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand are our garbage dumps since some years ago China forbid to accept garbage exports. In 2018, 870.000 tons of plastic were imported to Malaysia. In trucks: 10,4 million. The garbage there is is usually not recyclable, because it is soiled, multilayered, unusable material. So the recipients face the dilemma: What to do with it? They want to keep the money and need to get rid of the trash. So they either collect it in large piles, burn it in the nature, throw it in the river or bury it. Burning it leads to toxic thick smoke which drifts over the city and causes respiratory diseases. So our plastic is also the reason why other human beings suffer. Throwing it into the river leads to the increasing amount of plastic in the oceans. And this stay there and stays there. A plastic bottle for example stays 450 years until it is fallen into micro plastic. And in this time will having an increasing micro plastic problem, animals are caught by plastic, eat the plastic or are injured by plastic and die.
Plastic in the sea has also an impact on the climate change, because it produces greenhouse gases while corroding. Furthermore the oceans are a natural CO2 absorber, because some seaweed species and plankton are binding it. (Micro-) Plastic inhibits their growth, which means that less CO2 is bound. Another reason is that normally the water absorbs the heat of the sunlight. If there is a huge amount of plastic on the surface covering it, the heat is not absorbed but reflected into our atmosphere which continues to heat up.
Plastic is an absolute catastrophe for the nature, animals, our health, the health of people in other regions, is speeding up the climate change and takes the end of the world much closer to us.
BUTTTT: Armageddon is not here yet and we can do something. Me, you, everybody. We are living in a world that is based on the production of new things. We are constantly adding material to the resource cycle instead of using, reusing and recycling the amount x we have. Let’s change this! Reuse, reduce and recycle plastic! Every plastic product you buy, look if there is an alternative made of other materials. But before think if you really need something new. That saves a lot of money and time. Here are some ideas what we can do:
Shopping, Food, Drinks:
- don’t take plastic bags for fruits and vegetables, take reusable bags
(Often stores offer such bags. It is an single investment)
- for daily cosmetic products use alternative materials: no cotton swabs
with plastic but with paper
- in supermarkets often everything is packed in plastic. Go shopping in
unpacked stores where you take your own boxes for everything: oats,
cornflakes, nuts, seeds, flour, pasta, rice etc. even soap (also you can
measure on your own, depending on your needs)
- don’t buy fruits and vegetables in plastic wrap, choose the ones
without (you can really see them, if they have marks and are fresh)
- buy as much as possible with reusable packaging like paper or glas
- buy bread from the backery with your own cloth bag and not in the
supermarket in plastic bags (tastes better, is fresher and healthier)
- take your reusable drinking bottles with water from your tab (healthier
than with bobbles) instead of plastic bottles from the stores (no more
hauling heavy water)
- conventional chewing gum is made of plastic and is poorly
biodegradable, if you don’t want to live without it look after plastic free
gums (e.g. True Gum or Forest Gum)
- don’t use single-use products like plastic plates and cutlery, drinking
straws and stirring sticks, use reusable dishes
- drinks and food for taking away either have it filled into a can or box
you have brought with you (often stores reward your ecological behavior
and you have to pay less for a coffee) or choose „to stay“ and not „to
- lunch boxes of metal and not plastic
- when buying products that have to be of plastic, because of their
characteristics, buy plastic made from natural materials, like soy,
corn, sugar cane and shellfish remains or that are biodegradable.
Nevertheless the problem is, it is a new product. Also plastic made from
natural materials doesn’t mean that it is biodegradable and
biodegradable plastic doesn’t mean it is sustainable. It can also be
made out of earth oil
- cut packagings of cremes, tooth paste, shampoo, soap etc. when there
is nothing left anymore and use the rest it from the inside (also saves
- pay attention to ingredients in cosmetics: micro plastic is hiding behind
the names polyethylene (PE) or polyquaternium (PQ). Using apps that
scan the ingredient list and show you how good these are can help, e.g.
Code scan. Alternatives: Certified natural cosmetics without micro
plastic or other harming and dangerous ingredients. Remember you
only have one body and one skin. It deserves the best! You deserve it
- buy creams, shampoos etc. with recycled packaging, it is often written
there (fortunately often natural cosmetics has this)
- buy tooth brushes made of wood, bamboo or natural products and not
- use a piece of soap instead of liquid soap, also shampoos and
conditioners are available in this form
- use reusable cosmetic pads made of cloth instead of cotton (saves
- for the menstruation use menstruation cups or cloth binding (saves
money and doesn’t dry out liken tampons)
- use tooth tabs instead of tooth paste in a plastic packaging
- don’t through cloths away, because you don’t like it anymore. Sell it,
give it away, make others happy. In general it is better to wear cloths
as long as possible.
- if you need new cloths buy second-hand. It is better for the ecology,
better for your pocket and better for your awareness and happiness. It
makes really happy when you know that you are wearing something
second-hand, because you are caring for the planet
- if you find what you need not second-handed, buy is from natural
material instead of synthetic fibers
- avoid fabric softener or make it yourself
- separate garbage, everything in one trash will be burned and not
- through your garbage into trash cans when your outside and not into
the nature or on the street
- buy sponges and rags made of natural materials or make them by
- use dish brushes made of wood instead of plastic
- use reusable beeswax clothes instead of cling film or alufoil
- use wooden chopping boards and other kitchen devices instead of
- use iron pans instead of pans with non-stick coating
- stop using backing paper, it is is covered with a thin layer of silicone.
Either you coat trays and tins with oil before baking or use products
I hope you learned something new, got more awareness in relation to this
topic and feel inspired to do something for this wonderful planet we have the
luck to call our home.
Spantzel, Antonia – ESC volunteer in “Well-Volunteering” project
Sources: Unfortunately all in German