Saying no to plastics is simple in practice. We switch to alternatives like reusables. We make simple requests, or we even opt out of purchases.
But we can come across situations where the choice to #SayNo2Plastics becomes a little grey.
As we join Discovery South East Asia and Greenpeace this Earth Day to #SayNo2Plastics, let’s discuss some of the nuances and how we can navigate them.
Health Vs The Environment
I’m sure we can agree that the health and wellbeing of people comes first. And we are only just beginning to understand the impact of plastics on human health.
The pervasiveness of plastic leads to long term health impacts that we don’t fully understand yet, with plastics posing distinct risks to human health at every stage of their lifecycle. Alarming headlines report how humans are now ingesting an equivalent of a credit card’s size worth of microplastics every week and evidence of microplastics have been found in human placenta.
On the other hand, during the most critical periods of the pandemic, even some eco-conscious folks switched back from reusable cloth masks to single-use surgical masks temporarily when health authorities advised towards more protective options. So while plastic can be very harmful, it can also save lives. Where do we find the balance?
The medical industry produces a staggering amount of waste when even perfectly reusable items are treated as disposable. After all, plastic is convenient, and disposables are easily incorporated into the cost of healthcare, which ultimately falls to the consumer.
There are already hospitals turning the tide on healthcare waste through the Global Green and Healthy Hospitals project. One great example is the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane which diverts 600,000 kgs of waste every year from landfills through simple changes in their processes, sourcing and waste segregation. Their waste also generates additional income for the hospital through selling valuable materials like copper and metals back into recycling.
My takeaway is, if we prioritise where waste is created to only the essentials that actually facilitates better healthcare and not just convenience, we can drastically reduce the rest through process changes and resource recovery.
Cutting The Impact Of Our Food Vs Plastic
The production, transportation and storage of our food is a hot mess of issues.
Our diet choices can present a moral and environmental quandary when it comes to choosing climate-friendly options. Here are some for us to ponder:
- The animal agriculture industry is responsible for not only 14.5% of all human greenhouse gas emissions, but the suffering of animals, deforestation, water degradation and biodiversity loss. Yet plant-based products alternatives often come packaged in single-use plastics and are made overseas.
- The way food is grown in the industrial agriculture industry causes soil degradation and water pollution. But food grown in healthier systems like organic farming or permacultures are often packaged in plastic too.
- Food waste is responsible for 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions. But plastic often helps us keep food fresher for longer and food rescue operations also rely heavily on disposables for redistribution.
- Plastic enables us to expand our options and meet different dietary requirements, sourcing from the world rather than locally – at the same time, our food now travels longer distances because of plastic and technologies in food preservation.
Packaged options are definitely helpful for us to address different needs. Here is my take on how we can reduce our reliance on single-use plastic:
- prioritise whole foods and fresh foods
- shift more demand towards food grown locally, especially from local farms growing with more sustainable systems
- better planning of food resources to minimise food wastage upfront
- planning meals ahead of time, and prepping
- eating closer to home instead of driving out
If we treat the use of plastic as a last-resort and not as a given, we can realise the benefits of making choices guided by other values while reducing plastic waste as well.
Alternatives and Solutions Are Available, But They Are Not Catch-All Solutions
The reality is – there are no silver bullets.
The media and public often buzz around any invention that promises to tackle plastic waste. But solutions are not a one-size fits all. For example:
- Recycled plastic has become a popular option touted as ‘sustainable’, but we often see it change the plastic resin from one form to the other. This effectively ‘downcycles’ it and renders that material unrecyclable e.g. PET bottles to recycled polyester, so it is by no means a circular solution.
- Many ‘compostable plastics’ like PLA are only compostable in industrial environments, and not home compostable. They behave and act structurally like plastic and are not naturally biodegradable. Without local infrastructure that can process these materials, this creates another form of plastic waste that cannot be recycled with regular plastic as well.
- Plant-based plastics can also lead to converting valuable, arable land to growing crops to
- Plastic-eating bacteria are not yet a scalable situation. So far, they have been found to only process PET plastic (the highest quality and most recyclable form of plastic) and cannot break down other more problematic and unrecyclable forms of plastics.
It is important to remember that these inventions can be incredibly valuable in the right context and application. It can potentially cause more harm when we try to use them without the right frameworks and infrastructure in place. Most of them are also not viable for scale (yet).
So, what can we do about it?
There are lots of tools and policies that already exist at our disposal to combat the rise of plastic pollution. The culture of low-waste living and efforts to develop sustainable communities and low carbon cities with better waste segregation and reuse systems are already creating change in many places.
The pitfall we must try to avoid is resorting to half-measures that perpetuate a disposable, consumer culture.
Let’s Take A Step Back
If we could limit the use of plastic to where the pros outweigh the cons, instead of indiscriminate use in every aspect of life, we can slow down plastic pollution.
Plastic is a lightweight, cheap and durable material that is incredibly useful. It’s how we use it and how much we use that causes serious problems.
Is plastic the only thing we have to be concerned about? No.
Is it the most important thing for us to focus on in the wake of the climate crisis? It’s one of the major ones, especially when plastic props up the fossil fuel industry as a high-growth sector.
When we pit different issues against one another, it is easy to fall into whataboutism – and that can stifle action.
I hope thinking through these nuances reveal that most situations are not as complicated. Most of the time, the choice to do less harm is simple, even beneficial to us.
We’re not aiming for perfection, we’re aiming for better. When all of us collectively take action to change the culture as we know it, we can chart a better course for our planet.
How do you think we can support other environmental issues with #SayNo2Plastics?
When do you feel conflict when you choose to avoid plastic? Let me know in the comments!
This post is in support and collaboration with the #SayNo2Plastics campaign by Discovery Channel and Greenpeace