The plague of plastic and reducing your plastic footprint

If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll recall a little over a year ago, I wrote some posts on plastic in our lives, and some ways I was trying to reduce my own contributions to the problem of the plastic plague. Why do I care? Mostly, I care because I don’t want the oceans ending up with more plastic than plankton. I like birds. I don’t like seeing birds (and other animals – especially turtles!) dying, starving and becoming poisoned from eating too much plastic.

Birds and turtles – I wonder if they’re eating plastic?

I am recently reminded of this with the news that Exeter University scientists exploring the Arctic found blocks of polystyrene at 80°N on ice floes in the middle of international Arctic waters. After seeing this, they decided to take samples of the water to look for micro-plastics in the Arctic ocean. I don’t even know how to describe how I feel about it.

Maybe David Attenborough (a hero of mine) puts it best when he describes watching albatross parents literally feeding plastic to their young – “it’s heartbreaking”. I agree, Sir David. It’s heartbreaking and disappointing. Not to mention my disappointment at that balloon ban that Vancouver Parks didn’t manage to get approved because, really, what purpose does a balloon serve?

And it’s not just the effect on animals. Our landfills are filling up and releasing methane. Many people might say, “just recycle it” but plastic is only recycled and used to a certain extent. So, what do we do? Try by reducing the plastic and waste in your life in a few ways. Here are a few ideas and some of the main ways I’ve tried to reduce my own waste:

  1. Don’t use single-use plastic.
    To me, this is the easiest one. Mostly, it’s a choice of laziness and convenience. This includes plastic grocery bags, plastic bulk bin bags, straws, plastic cutlery, disposable coffee cups and lids, beverage bottles, food wrappers and menstrual products.
    Instead, use re-usable grocery bags and bulk bin bags (Kootsacs, Flip & Tumble, LifeWithoutPlastic and heaps more, just google it). Say no to straws and plastic cutlery. You can bring your own, or just opt not to eat fast food. Its better for you, anyway. Bring a re-usable mug and water bottle with you. Bring your own container for leftovers when going out to eat. Use re-usable menstrual products instead of individually-wrapped plastic ones.
  2. Don’t buy goods in plastic containers if you can help it.
    Stuff like laundry detergent, shampoo, cereal, cleaning products, etc. Anything that comes packaged in plastic – especially electronics, single-packaged snacks, makeup and things like razors and toothbrushes.
    Wherever you can, buy bar soap and shampoo instead of products in plastic bottles. Buy laundry detergent and pasta noodles in a cardboard box instead of a bottle or bag. Buy cereal in bulk and place it in your own container to eliminate the inner plastic bag, etc. Look at everything on the shelf at the store that you buy and think about what comes in plastic and how you can reduce it.
  3. Don’t buy clothing made of synthetic fibres.
    Since the advent of plastic circa 1907, our clothing has shifted from well-made natural fibres to cheap, synthetic, plastic fast fashion meant to last a season until the next trend rolls in. What happens to it when we’re done with it?
    Instead, wear natural fibres like cotton, wool (unless you’re allergic to wool, obviously!) and linen. Buy items made to last or buy them second-hand.
  4. Own less. Buy less.
    Just buying less stuff will automatically decrease your waste output. You’ll have less packaging to dispose of. It will also help your bank account and probably free up some time, too. You could take up a new hobby.
    Remember that you are not defined by what you own. Our society and big companies go to a lot of effort to use advertising and psychology to get us to buy more new stuff, making us think we either need or want it in order to be successful or happy. Don’t fall for their brainwashing ways- just buy less stuff!

When you start to adjust to your changes, you’ll start to notice more ways to improve and things might start to make you upset. I made a lot of these changes in the last year, and its amazing how quickly it becomes the norm. I go to the grocery store and I see bananas and oranges wrapped in plastic wrap and it kind of enrages me. I mean, this fruit already grows with its own packaging and for some reason, people still feel the need to wrap it in plastic? I just don’t understand this. I see people who still buy plastic water bottles and I don’t understand it. It frustrates me. I thought that problem was settled with a million different kinds of reusable bottles about a decade ago.

I made big changes to my wardrobe in the last year, trying to eliminate plastic fibres and buy natural fibres and longer-lasting items. Here it is before, full of polyester (March 2016):


And here it is now:
Notice how after, there is just a lot less overall, too. I’m really trying to do more with less here. I guess you could call it my “minimalist wardrobe.”

Think about the idea of a Plastic Footprint – kind of like a Carbon Footprint. How much plastic do you use, consume and waste? Calculate your Plastic Footprint with the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Plastic Footprint Calculator. It might make you think about some of the things you own and the choices you make, both the small and the big ones. If we don’t, I start to worry about what the world will look like.

There’s always room for improvement. The CWF said I could do better in the kitchen and I agree. I’ve been looking at our waste bin and noticing most of it is plastic food packaging. I’m hoping to start buying noodles, rice and cereal at a bulk store in reusable containers instead of buying them wrapped in plastic in cardboard boxes. How are you reducing your plastic footprint? Take action today, even if its only one small change.

If you’re interested in learning more about plastic and consumerism, check out these documentaries:
Plastic Planet (2009) – Werner Boote, grandson of a plastic chemist explores how plastic is taking over our earth.
Bag It (2010) – Jeb Berrier investigates plastic pollution, the politics of the plastic bag ban and the toxins in his own bloodstream as a result of plastic.
The Clean Bin Project (2011) – A Vancouver, BC couple aim for a waste-free year.
The Men Who Made Us Spend (2014) – From the lightbulb to the iPhone, Jacques Peretti explores companies efforts in planned obsolescence and the psychology of consumerism.

If that’s not enough to make you pause and think about it, I will leave you with a quote from Jane Goodall, another of my heroes:

“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

Are we living in the ‘Plasticene’? & all the plastic in your life

Recently, I finally got around to watching the 2009 documentary Plastic Planet by Werner Boote. I’ve been interested in learning more about how plastic is made from oil, the potential health dangers of all the plastic surrounding us not to mention the environmental repercussions. Sure enough, after watching it, I found a new article about how the earth is becoming a plastic planet.

I was both fascinated and horrified about how many plastic products are actually a part of my daily life! Not only the regular things you might think of, like kitchen utensils, ziploc bags and food containers, but also your clothing, nearly every food from the grocery store is packaged in plastic, cables and wiring, the refrigerator and there is probably plastic in the shower and the window frames. Everywhere I look, there is plastic and soon enough, I was driving my significant other crazy as I pointed out everything around us that was plastic!

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All of the plastic water bottles in my house…and one lonely Sigg.

Watching this doco, I learned while the main components of plastic itself are not harmful, the unknown additives from manufacturing have known toxic health effects. Two common additives you may have heard of are Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates; both are endocrine disruptors. Boote had his blood tested as part of the doco and they found measurable amounts of BPA in his blood. However, I wouldn’t get too excited about BPA-free plastic because chances are, it is just being replaced with a different toxic chemical! (Time to get rid of all my BPA-free bottles…)

To be fair, let’s  take a step back and think about how plastic has benefited us, too. It keeps food fresh and prevents illness, it is hugely important in healthcare and its helped along the digital age of technology we are in…okay, that’s all I can come up with. And on the plus side, only 4% of oil production goes toward producing plastic, which is considerably less than I thought.

This water certainly looks clean, but how much plastic is hiding under the surface?

Plastic in the ocean
Besides the health effects, I am more concerned with environmental effects. Of course, now we all know how long it takes plastic to disintegrate and that we ought to recycle it, but there is already so much plastic in the environment its become a huge problem. Sea turtles are facing a huge struggle by ingesting plastic in the ocean.

We all know about the garbage in the ocean, is it any wonder its killing the creatures who call it home? Plastic is a big problem for sea turtles because they get tangled in it and drown or ingest it intentionally (thinking it is jellyfish) or accidentally which makes them very sick, causes intestinal blockages leading to starvation and an inability to properly digest food. (Source)

Aside from the plastic crisis, turtles are facing other threats from ending up as by-catch or on someone’s dinner plate, dealing with pollution and habitat disturbance to dealing with people like these idiots.

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And its not just sea turtles. Staggering numbers of seabirds are also ingesting plastic and dying. Here is a collection of sad and disturbing photos of dead albatross found all with plastic in their stomachs. Even environments far from large human populations we might typically think of as being pristine contain plastic debris. In 2012, a group of researchers discovered the first plastic found in the Southern Ocean.

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New Zealand mollymawks, a type of albatross. How much plastic is in their stomachs?

But maybe the majority of people won’t really care until the marine plastic epidemic starts affecting us…but it already is. If you eat fish, its highly likely that fish contains tiny plastic fibers which you are now eating, too. Just another great reason not to eat seafood.

Perhaps someday geologists will look back and call the era we are living in the ‘Plasticene’…

Looking around your home – how many plastic items do you see? Does it surprise you?

If you want to do something to help besides using less plastic in your daily life and ensuring your plastic is recycled responsibly, please look into helping or donating to the Sea Turtle Conservancy.