Plastic has become both a blessing and a curse in our modern lives. While it serves countless daily needs, from packaging to medical devices, its omnipresence in our environment has escalated into a pressing issue. To address this challenge, one resounding solution emerges: we must embark on a journey to “deplastify” our lives.
From Himalayan clouds to the deepest ocean trenches, plastic is everywhere. In 2019, a whopping 460 million tons of plastic were produced globally, with this number steadily rising. Even more concerning, two-thirds of plastic items are used for less than five years, some for only a few minutes as packaging.
Consider this: approximately every ten minutes, a truckload’s worth of plastic materializes into the oceans, and it’s estimated that four times more plastic is scattered across land ecosystems. To make matters worse, plastic breaks down into microplastics during production, use, and disposal.
While plastic waste’s negative impact is well-known, the problem runs deeper. Fragments of plastic harm wildlife and enter the human food chain. A WWF report estimates that we ingest the equivalent of a credit card’s weight in plastic every week.
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Table of Contents
In the early 20th century, the world witnessed the rise of plastic, which brought a significant transformation in materials science. Plastic stood out due to its light weight, affordability, and ability to be molded into various shapes, making it a crucial part of modern industry. It opened doors to innovative uses across different sectors, resulting in an overwhelming variety of plastic types and applications.
This growth was made possible by the use of olefins, compounds obtained during the refinement of petroleum. By adding various substances, some of which were harmful, these plastics gained extra features like flexibility and resistance to fire, making them even more useful and convenient.
Plastic’s lightweight and adaptable nature played a crucial role in the globalization of trade by enhancing packaging and transportation. However, there was little consideration for managing these materials once they were no longer needed, which has led to the plastic pollution problem we are facing today.
The Impact on Human Health
Aside from environmental worries, the widespread presence of plastics is closely tied to human health, and this connection is becoming increasingly concerning with the rise of microplastics.
In 2022, a study conducted in the Netherlands revealed the presence of microplastics in our bloodstream. These tiny plastic particles have the potential to stick to red blood cells, reducing their ability to carry oxygen. Furthermore, even smaller nanoplastics can infiltrate our cells, potentially causing inflammation and increasing the risk of cancer. Some additives found in plastics are known as endocrine disruptors. Studies on animals and human cells have revealed that endocrine disruptors can significantly impact puberty, fertility, and blood sugar levels.
While governments have taken steps to reduce single-use packaging, it’s vital to remember that “the best plastic is the one we don’t buy.” Strong policies can certainly help reduce pollution, but individual action remains a crucial part of the solution. Each person can contribute to addressing this crisis, and in the upcoming sections, we’ll discuss practical steps you can take.
Taking Action in Daily Life
1. Cleaning Without Polluting
Marketing often entices us to purchase a vast array of products, such as window sprays, kitchen degreasers, and bathroom cleaners, when only a few essentials would do the job. 91% of these products release formaldehyde, a substance known to be irritating and classified as both carcinogenic and mutagenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Even on the laundry front, plastic is lurking within the very products designed to clean. Synthetic polymers are used to prevent fading and the appearance of “gray veils” on our clothes.
The Sustainable Approach
- Limit yourself to basic products like black soap, white vinegar, and baking soda. Buy them in bulk or in refillable containers (a single bottle can last for years). Dozens of online recipes explain how to combine these products.
- Dishwashing liquid, more complex to make at home, exists in solid soap form to rub on sponges.
- Use laundry detergent in powder form, as well as laundry sheets to place directly in the washing machine. You can read our article about Laundry Detergents Free From Toxins.
- No need to buy cleaning cloths; you can make them by cutting up old T-shirts or worn-out towels.
- Reusable garbage bags are starting to replace disposable ones.
2. Creating a Healthy Environment for Babies
Diapers, wipes, pacifiers – plastic surrounds babies. Just with their bottles, children ingest over 1 million microplastics daily, according to a study published in Nature Food in 2020. Many plastics contain toxic compounds, such as phthalates found in toys or flame retardants in plush toys.
The Sustainable Approach
- Swap out wipes for washable cotton squares or washcloths, or use disposable cotton. You can read our article about Biodegradable and Non-Toxic Baby Wipes.
- Be careful with the “BPA-free” label, as it is often replaced by other categories of bisphenols that may be dangerous too.
- Opt for glass or stainless steel bottles with natural rubber.
- Avoid PVC toys (like rubber ducks) that can leach phthalates.
- Try cloth diapers, although it requires more time.
3. Rethinking Your Wardrobe
According to the authors of the 2020 report “Plastic Pollution: A Time Bomb?” the average lifespan of a T-shirt is around thirty-five days. Most of our clothes are made from synthetic plastic fibers like polyester, acrylic, lycra, nylon, or polyamide. Each washing releases hundreds of millions of microfibers. Opting for natural materials is a solution (though expensive), limiting our purchases seems equally essential.
The Sustainable Approach
- Install a microplastic filter on your washing machine. In Europe, all new appliances will be equipped with them by 2025.
- Favor cotton, silk, wool, linen, as well as hemp or bamboo. The Ecocert Textile label guarantees that over 70% of the product is made from natural, recycled, or recyclable materials, and Oeko-Tex certifies the absence of toxic substances.
- Extend the lifespan of your clothes and reuse fabrics to make new clothing (upcycling), essentially creating new from old.
4. Ditching Disposable Items
Single-use items represent half of the world’s plastic production. Even though many such products, like plastic cutlery, plastic cups, paper plates, straws, or stirrers, have been gradually removed from the market, plenty are still available. Among the more difficult-to-replace products are masks and gloves.
The Sustainable Approach
- Swap single-use masks and gloves for washable masks and cotton gloves.
- Use a thermos instead of plastic bottles.
- Carry a lunch box for your take-out or leftovers.
5. Rethinking Your Bathroom
Microplastics also hide in shower gels, exfoliants, toothpaste, lipsticks, and nail polish.
The Sustainable Approach
- Choose a bamboo toothbrush instead of a plastic one.
- Use solid shampoo or soap bars and opt for products with minimal or no plastic packaging.
- Look for brands or stores where you can refill bottles or purchase in bulk.
- Avoid products containing microbeads or palm oil, which also contributes to deforestation.
Recycling and Responsible Disposal
Recycling plays a crucial role in our battle against the plastic crisis. It accomplishes several key objectives: reducing the demand for new plastic production, preserving precious resources, and lessening environmental harm. Recycling ensures that plastics don’t end up polluting our environment or in landfills. It’s a cornerstone of the circular economy concept, where materials are continually repurposed and reused, reducing the environmental impact of plastic manufacturing and contributing to the well-being of our planet.
To make recycling effective, it’s essential to differentiate between recyclable and non-recyclable plastics. Most recycling programs rely on resin identification codes, usually found at the bottom of containers, to classify plastics. These codes, numbered from #1 to #7, indicate the type of plastic used. For example, plastics marked as #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) are widely accepted for recycling, while others may have more limited recycling options.
Nonetheless, not all plastics can be recycled, and this poses a significant challenge. Some plastics, like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), are challenging to recycle due to their composition and are often considered non-recyclable. These non-recyclable plastics often end up in landfills or incineration facilities, contributing to environmental degradation.
To address these challenges and boost the recyclability of plastics, various initiatives have been launched. One such effort involves standardizing packaging materials, promoting the use of easily recyclable materials in product packaging. Additionally, the development of chemical recycling methods shows promise in breaking down complex plastics into reusable components, broadening the range of recyclable plastics.
Reducing plastic usage and promoting responsible disposal practices are vital steps in tackling the plastic crisis. Empowering individuals to make sustainable choices in their daily lives is a key part of the solution.
The future of plastics and the environment are intertwined, and sustained efforts to reduce plastic consumption, encourage recycling, and develop innovative solutions are crucial to protect our planet for generations to come.