'War on Waste': Plastics

The recent ABC TV series, War on Waste, alerted Australians to the extraordinary amount of plastic we use and send to land fill each day. Our Institute’s ‘War on Waste’ moved to a new level in 2016 with the launch of the Sustainable Living Policy, ‘An Integrated Approach to Sustainable Living’.

Waste is the third of seven key areas being addressed by this policy. Over the next month, Rahamim will be taking on “Plastic Free July” and sharing ideas with other Institute Ministries doing the same.

So what’s the problem with plastic? Can’t most plastic be recycled? Could individuals or Institute ministries go plastic free?

Plastic is a material made from fossil fuels – scarce resources that we take great energy to scrape from the earth. Historically, plastics got going in the 20th century, starting as celluloid, then Bakelite, nylon, polyethylene, all taking off for cheap versatile products in the World War II era. The plastic bag was developed in the USA in 1976 and has been used around the world since. These products for human convenience have made a profound impact on all life on the planet in a very short time.

While we may be aware of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the accumulation of exceptionally high concentrations of plastics trapped by currents in the North Pacific Gyre, we now know there are several of these patches or “Plastic Gyres”. Scientists are also revealing how plastics are breaking down and entering the food chain.

Some Plastic Facts

  • There are 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in oceans around the world.
  • With a global population of about 7.2 billion, that’s nearly 700 pieces per person.
  • Plastic never completely breaks down, it just becomes smaller and smaller. So every single piece of plastic you’ve ever used in your life still exists and will outlive your children’s, children’s, children.

Production and Recycling

  • Approximately 320 million tons of plastic are manufactured annually, but 40 percent of this is single-use items.
  • Only 5 percent of plastics are effectively recycled, which means that the remaining 95 percent – almost all the plastic ever made – remains on the planet.
  • Microplastics: Much of this single-use and unrecycled plastic ends up in the oceans and breaks down, over decades of sunlight and pounding waves, into microplastics that measure 5 millimetres or less.
    • These are ingested by shrimp, plankton, fish, birds, turtles, and other sea animals, creating a cycle of contamination that we’re only just starting to understand.
    • Microplastics from clothes washing is a problem we are awakening to now. Synthetic fabrics send out thousands of microplastic fibres into the water supply after each machine wash.

Why are only 5% of plastics recycled?

Because there are a lot of different kinds of plastic and it is hard to tell them apart. For recycling to work you have to be able to collect it, then you have to have an end market that you can sell it to, you have to have somebody who wants to buy products made from recycled plastics.

In much the world, plastic recycling ends up going to China which has questionable recycling facilities. A new movie called Plastic China shows whole towns in China that are devoted to plastic recycling. Children sort plastics in order to recycle them under primitive and unhealthy conditions.

According to Susan Freinkel, the author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, people want to blame the material, and that’s where we have a problem: “Plastic isn’t the agent, we are the agent, we make this stuff, we use this stuff, and what it does in our lives or what it does to our lives depends on how we make it, how we use it, how we dispose of it. We can take that ingenuity that created some amazing plastic stuff and use it to make safer things for us.”

What can we do?

  • Use more items made from natural and re-usable materials.
  • Say ‘no’ to the Big Four single-use plastics we can easily live without:
    • Disposable coffee cups (not recyclable) and their lids (recyclable)
    • Plastic bags
    • Straws
    • Bottled water.
  • Take soft plastics to one of 630 REDcycle drop off points across Australia located in some major supermarkets. Click here to find drop off points.
  • Shop at farmer’s markets or wholefood cooperatives – they make it easy to avoid packaging.
  • Try out some Onya products, such as reusable produce bags. Click here to explore the range.
  • Catch up on the ABC’s War on Waste. Click here to watch the series.
  • Take inspiration from the clean up efforts in India by 2016 UN Champion of Earth, Afroz Shah
  • Join us on 28 July 2017 at 6pm for the Green Stream of Rahamim’s Plastic Free July conversation with Lis Bastion, founder of the Big Fix, who enabled her town of Blackheath, NSW, to be the first in the world to ban plastic straws http://www.thebigfix.org/ . Sign up and receive a free Onja bag.  Register here http://www.rahamim.org.au/green-stream/