The Real Impact of Plastic and How to Kick the Habit for Good
Author: Joe Baker
Among the substances polluting our land and water, plastic is both insidious and destructive. Single-use plastic bags are among the most damaging. They heavily contribute to the ‘pacific garbage patch', which by some estimates cover an area larger than Australia. The garbage patch is made up of tiny plastic particles suspended in the upper water column. There, fish, marine mammals and birds consume these tiny plastic bits, transmitting toxins that can make it all the way up the food chain and back to us. Plastic bags floating in water are a particular risk to turtles and mammals like whales as they are mistaken for food.
Plastic bags impact life on land too. Besides marring the landscape when they're littered, they take a long time to decompose, filling up valuable landfill space.
Even though recycling systems exist, the vast majority of plastic bags are not recycled at the end of their life. That means we are stuck with the 10 million plastic bags used per day by Australians for a long time.
Given these serious environmental impacts, it's crucial that more people say goodbye to these disposable bags. It can take a little planning and a little foresight, but with a few changes, you can reduce your plastic bag consumption and your impact on the earth.
- Use Reusable -This is an easy one. Almost all supermarkets sell reusable bags at the checkout, so you can make the switch in time to take home your purchases, or keep a small pouch bag in your handbag or backpack so you don't get caught without one.
- Keep Reusables Everywhere - Many people take the initial step of buying reusable bags, only to forget them at home more often than not. I keep some in my car boot, some in my bike bag and a couple in my backpack, so no matter what mode of transportation I'm using, I'm never stuck without one.
- Say No Thanks -While supermarket plastic bags may be the poster child of the single-use plastic bag problem, the truth is, we get plastic bags from lots of places, including clothes shops, book and electronic stores, and so on. Dinner delivery often arrives wrapped in plastic. The key here is to get in the habit of saying no to plastic bags whenever possible.
- Make it political -On a state level, South Australia, the Northern Territory, the ACT and Tasmania have all banned grocery shops handing out free, single use plastic bags, and Fremantle has recently become the first council to take action. Lots of towns have voluntary bans and in the US there is a growing list of towns and cities that are going the same way.Many of these local bans were the product of action by everyday citizens who made the issue important to their local government. If you don't live in these areas, you can start with an online petition, which is free to create and a great way to reach people in your community to both educate them about the implications of plastic bags and rally support for an action.
What About the Ones I Already Have?Single use plastic bags are ubiquitous, so even the most eco-conscious consumers have trouble avoiding them completely. It's estimated that Australians throw away more than 7,000 recyclable plastic bags every minute.
First, there are lots of ways you can reuse the bags at home! I take them with me when I walk the dog to keep our neighbourhood streets waste-free. A few live in my suitcases for packing shoes, dirty laundry or wet things. I even keep some in the car, just in case I forget my more permanent reusable grocery bags. They're also great to keep around for the situations they're designed for: if you keep a couple with you, you can wrap up lunch leftovers in a pinch to protect the rest of your things from leaks.
For the ones you can't repurpose, take them to a participating supermarket to be recycled. Most Coles and Woolworths stores (especially in states without bans) have bins specifically for recycling shopping bags. Selected Coles and Woolworths stores (mostly in metro areas) will also accept other soft plastics like cling wrap, rice, pasta and confectionary packets for recycling through the RedCycle program.
It's very important to keep plastic bags out of your home recycling - they can cause big problems when placed in your kerbside recycling bin. Simply put your recyclable items straight into the recycling bin.
Eliminating single use plastic bags is going to take a lot of work from a lot of people. But every one of us can start at home and begin making a difference today.
Joe Baker is the Vice President of Editorial and Advocacy for Care2 and The Petition Site. A long time advocate for the environment, he serves on the Advisory Board of GiveForward.org and volunteers for the Sierra Club and Amnesty International. At Care2 he is responsible for recruitment campaigns for nonprofit partners, membership growth efforts, and all editorial content. Joe has a Ph.D. in Communication Systems and a B.S. in Economics/Systems Science from UCLA.