July is Plastic free month

Imagine if you only wore each item of clothing once, and then threw it away. That sounds absurd, but it’s exactly what we do with thousands of everyday items made of plastic. Many bags, takeaway containers and straws are designed to be useful for a few minutes and then be discarded.

Although plastic is lightweight and low cost, it doesn’t go away; it ends up in landfill or as litter and can harm wildlife. Globally, around 9.2 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since 1950, which is when plastic production really started to boom. Approximately 6.9 billion tonnes of that has become waste, and 91% of that plastic has never been recycled. (National Geographic Magazine, June 2018)

We can all do our bit to cut down on plastic we use every day. Here are a few simple ways to get started.

Single use plastics


Lots of single use plastic items – like coffee cups – can be replaced with reusable versions. A Canadian study from the University of Victoria compared the energy needed to produce disposable paper cups and plastic reusable cups. The study found that using a reusable cup just 17 times will offset the energy required to produce it, compared to a disposable paper cup. Common reusable cups can also be recycled at the end of their life.

There is a lot of discussion about plastic shopping bags, but you might not have considered balloons as single use plastic. Balloons are one of the most common items of litter and can be a real problem to wildlife, especially when they are used outdoors. When released, the balloons, the plastic ties and their ribbons can end up in waterways and can strangle or be ingested by wildlife. Blowing bubbles, hanging bunting or fairy lights are great substitutes for balloons.

Rethink your plastic use

Once you start thinking about your plastic use, you will start to notice just how much there is in everyday life.

Here are some quick tips to create new habits and reduce your plastic use.

1. Stash your bags

Remove the need to remember your reusable shopping bags by stashing them everywhere. Leave a couple at work, in your car, compact foldable bags as big as a wallet can fit in a handbag or pocket. Have a few by each door and get into the habit of returning them to each spot as you unpack groceries.

2. Bring your own

This one is easy. Along with your bags, BYO to replace other single use plastics. BYO water bottle, coffee cup, straw. There are many varieties and sizes of these available and a quick search online will get you started.

3. Be flexible

Scope your shop – go to the butcher where they use less packaging. Try bulk buy shops where you can use your own containers for pantry staples like flour, rice and spices. Split a shop with a friend so you can buy large packages and hopefully save money at the same time.

4. Practice saying no

First step in reducing plastic is to refuse plastic. At restaurants, bars and venues, say no to a straw as you order your drink. Choose products with less packaging while out shopping. Every little ‘no’ adds up.

5. Use your influence

Tell others about what you are doing and encourage them to reduce plastic use as well. Don’t be afraid to guilt trip them if you spot them using unnecessary plastic!

6. Get the kids on board

Use that pester power for good! Kids love a challenge so educate them about better plastic choices, then have them be the responsible ones to keep you on track.

7. Just get started

Pick one action and focus on that and, once you've nailed that habit, pat yourself on the back and choose another action to take on. Soon enough, habit will take over and you won’t even have to think about it.

FACT

Recycling plastic into new materials saves 88% of the energy used to produce items from virgin materials. The energy saved by recycling one plastic drink bottle would power a computer for 25 minutes.

Microplastics


Microplastics are small pieces of plastic less than 5mm in diameter. Some microplastics are created when larger plastic litter breaks down in the environment. Others are manufactured, like microbeads found in cosmetics, or the raw product from which plastic products are made, pellets.

Microplastics become an environmental concern when they become litter or are washed into waterways and oceans through drains. When fish and other marine animals mistake the tiny pieces for food and ingest them, it can cause malnutrition where the animal feels full, so it eats less real food. Through this process, microplastics have the potential to enter the human food stream as well.

Sustainability Victoria has run a Citizen Science research project to better understand the sources and impacts of microplastics in Port Phillip Bay and its catchments. Read more about the development and methodology of the research project and keep an eye out for the soon to be released findings.

FACT

Researchers in England have found that a single plastic bag can break into 1.75million microscopic fragments in marine conditions. Plastic has been found on the sea floors across the world and in Arctic ice floats.

(National Geographic Magazine, June 2018)

Recycling plastics


Let’s face it, you won’t get to zero waste immediately, so recycling plastic is a great idea. You might be surprised how many different plastic items can go into council kerbside recycling that can be processed for further manufacturing and kept out of landfill.

It's just as important to keep the wrong plastics OUT of your kerbside recycling bin. Soft plastics are the number one contaminant of recycling, so make sure you don’t put your paper or other recycling into plastic bags.

Instead, gather your soft plastics, including food bags (think rice and pasta packaging) and return it to the supermarket for collection. The rule of thumb is that if it’s soft plastic and can be scrunched up into a ball, then it can be recycled at a supermarket near you.

Recycling requirements vary across Victoria, so check your local council to make sure you recycle right.