Say good­bye to sin­gle-use plas­tics

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - Contents - BY SARAH BROWN­ING-DE VIL­LIERS

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?


‘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.’


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.


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.’


‘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.



‘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.’


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

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