Upon deciding to start a blog about living a single-use plastic free and DIY lifestyle, I pledged to help others do the same by providing a space that would hopefully inspire you to change even just one habit at a time. But this was also the first time I had taken a deep dive into the actual statistics and history of the plastic industry, and frankly the results are scary. I couldn’t help but feel helpless about the larger problem at the sight of this daunting information.
My goal here is not to make readers feel like their actions don’t matter, or make them feel like there isn’t a point of trying if the problem is so big. This is called Ecophobia, where you feel powerless and overwhelmed at a larger environmental issue. Sometimes, this is how I feel, and I’ve come to terms with knowing that sometimes, this feeling is okay. This feeling means we care, and with some rational and less catastrophic thoughts, this feeling can begin to inspire more action. I do think it is important to know WHY we as a society should be changing our everyday habits, and all the things we use daily without thinking about it have a larger impact on the natural places we love. This is why I am writing about the statistics of the disposable lifestyle we’ve created, because everyone should be aware of what the zero-waste fuss is all about.
Synthetic Polymer, or “Plastic”, was first developed at the end of the 19th century (Celluloid), with the first completely synthetic version invented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland. This invention at the time was quite revolutionary, and served as a so called ‘solution’ to the ivory trade, advertised for saving the elephant and the tortoise. Little did they know, they were trying to solve the existing human caused issue of hunting and endangering animals for human purposes, by creating yet another human-centered problem: making a material that was indestructible and would be around on Earth for hundreds if not thousands of years. Fast forward 50 years, and the creation of plastic saw a boom of 300% in production after the second world war. It provided advancements in many departments including medicine, aircraft, technology, vanity, food storage, and the list goes on. But as you may have gathered, humans do not do things in moderation. The plastic industry continued to rise and the idea of a disposable lifestyle became more popular, replacing natural materials like real wooden furniture and other manufactured goods, with a cheaper and more convenient option.
Convenience and cost efficiency has created a way of living that is wasteful of resources and has us over using our way to a very polluted planet. Take the year 2015 for example, a year that emitted 448 million tons of plastic into the world. Roughly half of that amount was due to the packaging of products, some of which is only used for a few minutes before it is thrown away. Most of this also never makes it to a recycling bin, and even if it did, some plastics are too complex in their ingredients of oil-based composites, that it makes the process of recycling very difficult. In 2017 we had a total of 9.2 billion tons of plastic to deal with in the world, 6.9 billion of which has become waste. The first piece of plastic that was ever made is of course still in existence somewhere, and not even middle-aged. In the last decade, there has been more plastic produced then there was within the whole 20th century.
If only 9% of all plastic gets recycled globally, then where does the rest go? I’m sure this photo of a garbage collector in the Sungai Klang river, collecting floating garbage that isn’t theirs can answer that question.
Often, here in a first world country we seem to treat the idea of ‘recycling’ just like the iCloud; putting our waste in this thing which automatically takes it to a safe and trusted place that magically deals with the materials and turns them into something else, putting our minds at ease. This is not the case, in fact, humans are terrible at recycling in the first place. Most ocean debris comes from land and is blown into a water source, or like in Canada almost 90% of our used plastics end up in bodies of water or natural parks. Recycling started as a good addition to waste management systems, but it is clearly not the most helpful solution. Like my friend Tijana would say: If your kitchen is flooding because the sink overflowed, you don’t grab a mop and start cleaning it up, you roll up your pants, trudge through the water and turn off the tap first. You cut off the problem at its source.
If recycling isn’t the key to the problem, then what is?
I spend a lot of time figuring out how I can reduce something new everyday in my life, lessening my overall impact of plastic use. But, there is an even simpler way to make a difference that creates almost zero effort on your part and has the potential to make a HUGE change in the global production of plastic if many individuals and companies were to give it a shot. The first “R” is actually not ‘Reduce’, and it’s not ‘Reuse’ or ‘Recycle’ either, it’s ‘Refuse’, an idea from the David Suzuki Foundation. Refuse the bags at the grocery store, refuse to use a straw at a restaurant, refuse the bag when taking out food, refusing to buy the pre-wrapped produce and opting for packaging-free vegetables (and not putting them in plastic bags either). The idea of refusing something means you are making a conscious choice not to engage or accept those products, and in turn the necessity for these products will decrease followed by production. It doesn’t require any extra work on your part, with the exception of speaking up at a restaurant while ordering, supporting companies that make these choices too, or using the term “many hands make light work” when carrying groceries.
Considering that 500 billion plastic bags are used globally every year, you can imagine the impact this simple task would have if the 7 billion people on this planet opted for the bag free grocery trip each week. Everyone has the power to make positive choices, regardless of who you are, what you have, or where you reside. So the next time you come across a chance to skip a single use plastic item, I challenge you to use the first ‘R’, and refuse. Of course, there are always more ways to reduce and educate ourselves on what we can do, but the act of refusing is a good and important first step.