By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends much of her time in Asia and is currently researching a book about textile artisans. She also writes regularly about legal, political economy, and regulatory topics for various consulting clients and publications, as well as scribbles occasional travel pieces for The National.
When Mr. Mc.Guire tells Benjamin Braddock in the American film classic, The Graduate, “There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”— I don’t think he had today’s plastics nightmare in mind.
The world is now drowning in plastics— something I was reminded of just last week, while diving in the South China Sea, around Whale Island, off the coast of Vietnam.
Despite Vietnam’s decision to recognize and protect this unique marine environment, today, these dive sites are the dirtiest I’ve yet seen— with their beauty marred by plastic waste.
I, along with the divemaster, dive guides, and some of the other recreational divers each carried a mesh bag, to pick up plastic and other waste from the seafloor— e.g., water bottles of various sizes, huge plastic jerrycans, pieces of styrofoam packaging that escaped from nearby shrimp farms, small blister packs that once housed tablets. Some of these were too big to retrieve.
And while the diving was good, and this ad hoc effort did make me feel I was doing something, it’s a mere drop in the bucket compared to the scope of the problem.
New Plastics Economy and EU Circular Economy Policy
Last year, the World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation, produced a report, The New Plastics Economy, Rethinking the Future of Plastics.
One thing that Mr. McGuire got right: there’s certainly been an explosion in the use of plastics, especially in the area of plastic packaging, plastics’ largest application, representing 26% of the total volume. “Since 1964, plastics production has increased twenty-fold, reaching 311 million tonnes in 2014, the equivalent of more than 900 Empire State Buildings,” according to the Report (p. 25).
And, while today, discarded plastic is suffocating our oceans and cramming landfills, the problem is only expected to worsen in future. In the next twenty years, it’s estimated that plastics production will double, and by 2050, nearly quadruple from 2014 levels. Over the same period, the amount of plastics in the oceans will increase fivefold, from current levels—where the ratio of plastics to fish (by weight) is 1:5— to where it will be 1:1 (Report, p. 25, and p. 28. figure 5).
The purpose of this post is not to wallow in the details of this urgent problem. Nor is it to delve deeply into the report’s detailed recommendation to adopt a new model for how the world uses, recycles, and reuses plastics— what it calls a New Plastics Economy—based heavily on circular economy principles (see the discussion starting on p. 31 of the Report). Some of this discussion is closely linked to the EU’s adoption of a circular economy model for waste management— a topic I have previously posted in Waste Not, Want Not: Right to Repair Laws on Agenda in Some States:
This policy was motivated by a conscious decision to replace the ‘take-make-consume-dispose’ model of how resources are used and consumed (with some minor tweaks to promote for end-of-life-cycle recycling for some inputs). EU policymakers appreciate that as the world’s population approaches 9 billion people, the prevailing wasteful linear model of resource consumption results is no longer sustainable. The circular economy alternative instead considers the entire life cycle of a product, and seeks to reduce waste by various means, including reducing materials used in products; promoting durability and thereby extending the useful life of a product; practicing ecodesign (and so facilitating easier maintenance, repair, or remanufacturing); and promoting waste reduction by minimizing recycling costs and encouraging reuse.
I mention these points in passing to set the scene for what I want to discuss: the simple changes each of us could make, in our daily lives, to reduce our use of plastics, particularly of the single-use variety. I do admit it takes some effort to reduce one’s personal use of plastics, because the default setting is to accept the convenient packaging that’s foisted on us, and that only leads to the generation of more and more waste.
Zero Waste Kit
Now, I’ve long made the effort in my daily life to eschew single-use plastic, by taking the following steps: I carry cloth shopping bags, don’t use plastic wrap, and carry my own refillable water bottle, for example. I try to purchase food at farmers markets where items aren’t prepackaged in plastic (and where, incidentally, I can purchase only what I need, thus helping reduce the fod waste I generate). At supermarkets, I don’t place produce into plastic bags, but chuck it all into my grocery cart, and then decant everything into cloth bags at check out.
I’ve also taken other steps to reduce my use of plastics. I seek out and treasure lidded containers— glass, ceramic, or metal to store bulk food and leftovers, for example. I buy larger size toiletries— and prefer to purchase them at places that promote reusuable containers.
And of course, I shouldn’t forget to mention, that whenever possible, I recycle the plastics that I’ve not been able to avoid purchasing.
Yet after last week’s my dives, I was thinking about what I could do to cut back further on my use of plastics, and stumbled upon this post, How To Go Plastic Free, With One Easy Step, written to draw attention #PlasticFreeJuly “a month-long challenge to stay away from single-use plastic items such as straws, cutlery and take away containers.”
Admittedly, I’m a bit late to the party here, as this campaign started on July 1. Nonetheless, if we’re going to make any real progress in cutting down on plastics waste, this can’t just be done for one month a year, but needs to become part of one’s routine throughout the year. It really doesn’t matter when one starts, just that one does. Adopting just some modest changes would allow one to extend a Plastic Free July to a Plastic Free Life– while recognizing it may be impossible, at least initially, to get to the goal of zero waste, but even major reduction in single-use plastics would be a significant improvement on the status quo.
The post was written by @itsahashtaglife— aka Emily Charles-Donelson– and this point struck a chord with me, and I bet it will with many readers as well:
As a zero waste blogger in Toronto, I find the biggest barrier preventing people from participating in such campaigns (or taking the plunge to go zero waste year-round) is one of the following:
- They don’t know where to begin
- They think avoiding waste is going to be too difficult
Donelson’s solution was simple:
So, in honour of #PlasticFreeJuly, I’ve boiled down the first step towards breaking free from plastic into one simple step: assembling and carrying a Zero Waste Kit.
Jerri-Lynn here: Now, I’ve yet to get around to assembling my own Zero Waste Kit, so I’m going to start with Donelson’s description and list:
A zero waste kit is made up of all the things you carry with you on a regular, day-to-day basis. You incorporate these items into your daily routine so as to always be prepared for the coffee on the go, the spontaneous decision for takeout or picking up veggies on your way home from work.
Her Zero Waste Kit includes:
- a collapsible coffee cup;
- a leakproof, stainless steel container with removable dividers;
- three lightweight veggie bags and a cloth bread bag (all of which it into the stainless steel container;
- cloth napkins;
- bamboo chopsticks;
- stainless steel straws;
- a wooden spoon and a foldable spork;
- combination placemat/cutlery holder, which holds all the cutlery and the cloth napkins;
- a cotton canvas tote bag.
Jerri-Lynn here: What you may choose to put into your kit would, obviously, reflect your needs and preferences. I, for example, would certainly include a Swiss Army Knife or other similar tool in my kit, and I wouldn’t bother with the metal straws (I hate straws).
To some readers, these tips may seem to be on the order of advice to Look Both Ways Before Crossing. But others may find, as Donelson concluded:
While dedicating yourself to using a Zero Waste Kit is not going to solve the plastic crisis we’re facing, it does serve two fundamental purposes: it will make you more conscious of our consumption practices in the West and will spark important conversations about refusing single-use items.
The Plastics Free July website has a page of further tips for how to live a plastics-free lifestyle, covering cleaning, cooking, food storage, gardening, meals-on-the-go, personal care, pet care, and shopping, among other topics.