If you’ve been considering your impact on the planet, reducing your use of single-use plastic is a great way to start minimising that impact. We take you through a brief history of plastic, its impact on the environment, and how you can make small changes with the Plastic Free July Challenge towards helping the environment.
What began as a solution to stop harm on the environment has catapulted into the cause of the destruction itself, fueled by humans craving convenience and cheapness over quality and longevity.
When the first synthetic polymer was developed, it was a solution to a pressing environmental problem: the hunting of elephants to extinction for ivory. It was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt, who was inspired by a New York firm’s offer of $10,000 for anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory. They were starting to recognise the limits of nature, the invention meant for the first time, human manufacturing was not constrained by the limits of nature.
In 1907 Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic, meaning it contained no molecules found in nature.
During World War II plastic production in the United States increased by 300%. Nylon, invented by Wallace Carothers in 1935 as synthetic silk, was used during the war for parachutes, ropes, body armour, helmet liners, and more. The surge in plastic production continued after the war ended. However, the optimism about this revolutionary invention didn’t last, as concerns for the environment grew.
Plastic debris in the oceans was first observed in the 1960s, a decade in which people became increasingly aware of environmental problems. As awareness about environmental issues spread, the persistence of plastic waste began to trouble observers.
In the 1980s the plastics industry led an influential drive encouraging municipalities to collect and process recyclable materials as part of their waste management systems. However, recycling is far from perfect, as most plastics still end up in landfills or in the environment.
Single-use plastics are all around us. Plastic straws, takeaway containers, plastic cutlery, plastic bags, takeaway coffee cups, plastic bottles, cling wrap and more. The idea with the Plastic Free July Challenge is that you introduce more sustainable alternatives into your everyday life.
Less than 10 per cent of all waste plastic is recycled worldwide. Most plastic food packaging cannot be easily recycled if it has any food remnants stuck to it, because these residues can interfere with various stages of processing. As a result, many recycling plants will not accept food packaging.
What about other plastic waste? About 12 per cent is incinerated, but nearly 80 per cent ends up in landfills or the environment. In the ocean, currents aggregate plastic trash in large floating “islands” of garbage.
Over 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been made since its mass production began in the 1950s. Only 9% of this plastic has been recycled, the other 91% sits in landfill, floats in our oceans or has been burned. An estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean every year.
Even bio-based plastics will still exist for decades or centuries if they are thrown in the bin and buried in landfills. There are various products that claim to be biodegradable or compostable. However, more often than not, this claim is only true when disposed to a large-scale composting facility with controlled conditions. Compostable or biodegradable plastics that are unsupported by existing recycling systems go to landfill or incineration.
Okay, let’s talk about what’s best for the kitchen bin. I took this pic at Woolworths, and I’m a little frustrated…
This means that any breakthroughs in materials science need to be coupled with sustainable methods for bioplastic production and a well thought out system to direct bioplastic goods into composting facilities.
About the Plastic Free July Challenge
Plastic Free July provides resources and ideas to help you (and millions of others around the world) reduce single-use plastic waste every day at home, work, school, and even at your local café.
The movement has inspired over 120 million participants in 177 countries. You making a small change will collectively make a massive difference to our communities. You can choose to refuse single-use plastics in July (and beyond!). Best of all, being part of Plastic Free July will help you to find great alternatives that can become new habits forever.
It’s not about throwing out every single plastic item you own and replacing them with sustainable alternatives. That would defeat the purpose. A more realistic approach is if something is about to run out or needs to be replaced, you would then search for a more sustainable alternative eg you’re due for a new toothbrush, so instead of buying a plastic toothbrush, you look for a wooden toothbrush (possibly even with biodegradable bristles). While you’re slowly replacing items, the immediate action can take place in avoiding single-use plastic such as takeaway food containers or coffee cups.
For every idea under the sun about how you can take part, check out this list on Plastic Free July.
One of the best ways to start is a bin audit. This allows you to discover all the waste that could be avoided, recycled or composted. Throwing all your food scraps in the bin? Start a compost. Chip packets and bread bags filling your waste? Look for plastic-free snacks or make your own, and purchase or make your own reusable bread bag out of material such as a pillowcase.
The best thing about Plastic Free July is that you’re not alone! There are millions of people worldwide tackling the challenge with you. There are various support networks you can reach out to, including Newcastle’s very own “Plastic Free July in Newie” Facebook group.
It’s not about shaming others on their use of plastic but sharing the journey and your own experience, advice and helpful tips. It makes it a lot easier when you have a community supporting you!
Choose your own commitment & reduce your plastic use
With the Plastic Free July challenge, you choose your own commitment. 1 day? 1 week? 1 month? From now on? If you’re ready to take the challenge, sign up here.
What are you giving up for Plastic Free July? Are you taking it further than July and into your everyday life?
Science History Institute. (2019). The History and Future of Plastics. [online] Available at: https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics [Accessed 28 Jun. 2019].
Take 3 For The Sea. (2019). The Plastic Facts – Take 3 For The Sea. [online] Available at: https://www.take3.org/the-plastic-facts/ [Accessed 28 Jun. 2019].