Say goodbye to single-use plastics
We’ve all seen something plasticrelated in the past year that’s brought tears to our eyes: headlines in June about the whale that died after swallowing more than 80 plastic bags; the turtle on that viral YouTube video with a plastic straw lodged deeply in its bloody nose; the sea horse floating with its tail wrapped around an earbud, appearing on your Instagram feed. But what are the facts, and what can you actually do about it?
WHERE WE ARE
‘Globally we’ve produced approximately 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic since plastic was invented [in the 1950s], according to a 2017 study published in Science Advances. Almost half was produced in only the last 13 years,’ says Cape Town’s Zoë Palmer, a senior consultant for environment and planning at engineering and advisory company Aurecon. ‘By 2015, only nine percent of the plastic generated had been recycled; 12% has been incinerated and a staggering 79% was accumulated in landfills – a problem, since plastics do not decompose. Some plastics in landfill sites have been found to leach their chemicals into the ground. Studies suggest these hazardous chemicals are polluting our underground water supply.’
What’s even more scary is how much of this plastic ends up in our oceans. ‘Eight million tonnes,’ says GreenCape’s waste economy programme manager, Quinton Williams. ‘When it comes to microplastics [particles smaller than five millimetres], there are about 51 trillion of these in our oceans.’
There’s so much plastic in our oceans, in fact, that collections of rubbish are forming their own islands in our seas, far greater in size than many countries. ‘More than half of the plastic found in the ocean is less dense than water, which means it won’t sink,’ explains Zoë. ‘This has resulted in five offshore plastic accumulative zones, with the largest, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, extending up to three times the size of France. Smaller bits of plastic have been found at almost every depth of the ocean, meaning they’re infiltrating our marine life at every level.’
Greenpeace Africa’s Paul Christison adds: ‘Scientists have documented 700 marine species affected by ocean plastic. Up to nine of 10 sea birds, one in three sea turtles and more than half of whale and dolphin species have ingested plastic.’
WHAT ABOUT RECYCLING?
In South Africa, our rate of plastic recycling is in fact quite high
– PlasticsSA reported that we recycled 43.7% of our plastic in 2017. But before you pat yourself on the back, it’s not everyday users helping shift the dial. ‘Up to 74% of this recycled plastic is sourced from landfills by waste pickers who comb through sites for recyclable waste,’ says Zoë. ‘Only three percent came from household recycling.’ We still have a lot of room for improvement.
NOT ALL PLASTICS ARE CREATED EQUAL
Before you bash plastic entirely, know that going entirely plastic-free isn’t necessarily the answer. ‘There is a lot of good that plastics bring,’ says Zoë. ‘Plastics are cheap to make, light, strong, long-lasting and easily moulded compared with other materials like wood, glass or metal. There’s a reason why we’re producing a lot of plastics: they’re extremely useful. Without plastics, it’s unlikely we’d have some of the greatest innovations of our time, like computers and cellphones.’
Quinton agrees: ‘Plastics, when managed correctly, are re-added to the production cycle – meaning they aren’t necessarily creating a problem. The concern should be around plastics that leave this system and leak through littering and landfills.’ The main problem? Single-use plastics – where we’re using plastic (a material that essentially lives forever) for throw-away purposes. ‘Instead of going plastic-free, we should be looking to minimise the use of certain plastics,’ says Quinton.
‘Every piece of plastic we’ve ever created still exists today – so to use plastic for 10 minutes (like a straw) or even a few hours (like a plastic bottle) doesn’t make sense,’ says Zoë. ‘We need to make a conscious decision about when it’s appropriate to use plastic and when we shouldn’t, even if that means spending a little more money.’
BEWARE OF MICROPLASTICS
‘Microplastics range from two to five millimetres in diameter and seem to be causing some of the worst chaos because of how easily they spread,’ explains Zoë. ‘They are everywhere: they’ve been found in almost every ocean and animal tested. And if, for example, fish are consuming microplastics and we’re eating fish, we end up contaminating ourselves. Just like what happens in landfill sites, plastics leach chemicals – if we ingest them these toxins enter our bodies, too. We still don’t have enough research to understand fully what the impact of this will be, but some studies suggest up to 90% of plastics have hormonealtering substances, putting us at greater risk of things like cancer.’
One common microplastic offender? Microbeads, which may be in your face wash or shower gel. ‘Microbeads are plastic beads, usually smaller than two millimetres, used for their abrasion properties in things like toothpastes and skincare products, such as exfoliators,’ Quinton explains. ‘These tiny plastics enter the water system by washing down the drain. They’re often too small to be screened out in our waste-water treatment plants, meaning they’re released into the natural environment: rivers and oceans.’
So steer clear of buying microbead products. ‘Sea salt and sugar are natural alternatives – look for these in your products instead,’ Zoë suggests.
In August this year, the Department of Environmental Affairs announced it would consider banning microbeads. ‘It’s about time,’ responds Zoë – but of course, this isn’t enough. ‘Microbeads are just one type of microplastic causing harm. There are also dangers from microfibres. Synthetic fibres like polyester shed microfibres whenever they’re washed, and these can be just as harmful as any kind of microplastic, like microbeads,’ she adds. The problem of plastic is pervasive.
‘EVERY PIECE OF PLASTIC WE’VE EVER CREATED STILL EXISTS TODAY’
‘The plastics used in most pads and tampons are just as bad as any other disposable, single-use plastics,’ says Zoë. They can also create microfibres that escape filters to get into our rivers and oceans. ‘Ironically, the solution is probably a plastic one: the menstrual cup,’ she says. ‘But it’s a great example of when plastic can be good: menstrual cups can last for years and can be cleaned and reused over and over again.’
DO YOUR BIT
The truth is, impactful change has to come from everyone. ‘It’s time for companies to do better. Manufacturers, retailers and the related supply-chain business have the resources and power to provide innovative alternatives to single-use plastics,’ says Paul. ‘Plastic straw bans can and should be a starting point to tackle plastic pollution and challenge our throwaway culture. But it’s not enough for a company to ban straws, replace them with another throwaway material, and then walk away from the issue. It’s up to all of us to push companies to go further on single-use plastic reduction.’ Vote with your wallet by refusing to purchase single-use plastic products and adapting your lifestyle. After all, every little bit really does count. mc