Modern life relies on plastic. The petroleum-derived material is found in everything from packaging, plates, cars, clothing and medical devices to money.
As we now know, the world’s addiction to plastic comes at a staggering cost. One small example: according to statistics published in the Guardian, the world consumed 480 billion bottles of water in 2016. Less than half of those bottles are recycled – most of end up in landfill or in the sea, where it takes them 450 years to biodegrade.
Of the four billion plastic bags Australians use each year, at least 50 million end up as litter in our waterways and oceans. The numbers are overwhelming; so big they almost defy comprehension. But it’s not just bottles and bags polluting our seas. A recent study found that in a single year, eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the planet’s oceans, prompting fears that, by 2050, the oceans will hold more plastic than fish.
Despite all we know, what happens to the plastic clogging our oceans is still a bit of a mystery. Some of it is ingested by marine birds, fish and other sea life. Turtles regularly become entangled in discarded fishing line and other plastic detritus. Some plastics break down into tiny particles known as microplastic fragments. Yet more ends up on beaches around the world, or collects in enormous sea-borne gyres of rubbish measuring kilometres in size.
So. How to solve a problem of such oceanic scale?
Rebecca Prince-Ruiz is a waste educator at Western Metropolitan Regional Council in Perth. After a visit to a recycling centre in 2011, she came to realise that recycling is a “complex, energy-intensive process.” In other words, not the feel good, environmentally friendly act she assumed it to be. More important than recycling, she realised, was reducing and reusing what we consume.
She came up with the idea for Plastic Free July. “It started off as me wanting to change what went into my bin,” she says. Forty people took part in its first year, sharing tips like where to buy pasta in cardboard packaging or in bulk.
Six years later, Plastic Free July is a global movement. People in more than 130 countries have registered for the challenge. This year Prince-Ruiz expects 400,000 registrations in Australia. As many as 60 times that number may actually take part – huge numbers for an initiative effectively run by one person.
Part of the initiative’s success lies in its practical nature. People can do the challenge for one day, one week or one month. They can go plastic-free, focus on single-use plastics, or just the “top four”: plastic bags, plastic bottles, takeaway coffee cups and straws.
Worth adding to the list is plastic cutlery, which is theoretically recyclable but, like the plastic straw, is not accepted by recycling centre sorting machines because of its odd shapes.
“Plastic Free July is unique because it offers solutions,” says Prince-Ruiz. “It’s a great example of that saying ‘think globally but act locally’. Plastic pollution is such a visible problem. There are no plastic pollution deniers,” she says. “All of that plastic out there in our oceans and our environment was once in someone’s hands. I always say, I believe those same hands hold the solutions.”
You may wonder how much difference your KeepCup really makes, but Plastic Free July has tangible results. In July 2016, 17 million kilograms of waste was avoided in Western Australia thanks to the initiative. Much of that saving was made during the manufacturing process, says Prince-Ruiz. “For every kilo that we consume, there’s already been 70 kilos of waste produced upstream before it gets to the shop.”
The War on Waste effect
Broadcast in May, ABC’s War on Waste started a long-overdue national conversation about Australia’s problem with waste. Host Craig Reucassel set his sights on takeaway cups, filling an entire Melbourne tram with 50,000 of them. He busted the widespread myth that they are easily recyclable and encouraged cafe owners to offer a discount to customers who bring their own reusable vessel.
Responsible Cafes is a volunteer-run organisation that encourages cafes to minimise the use of single-use plastic, including straws and takeaway cups. After War on Waste, interest in the organisation was “overwhelming,” says Justin Bonsey, founder of the Responsible Action Network. “The number of participating cafes shot up from 400 to 2200 in less than a month, with cafes reporting saving on average 27 cups a day, or nearly 11,000 a year just by offering a discount,” he says.
Multiplied across 2000 cafes, that equates to 20 million takeaway cups saved each year.
The fight to #banthebag
A high-profile campaign led by The Project co-host Waleed Aly is calling on state premiers in New South Wales, Western Australia and Victoria to #banthebag. So far more than 160,000 people have signed the online petition. It’s a cause also supported by Greenpeace and NSW Greens, the latter issuing a media release calling on Premier Gladys Berejiklian to announce a ban during Plastic Free July.
While Prince-Ruiz supports bans of items like plastic bags and microbeads in cosmetics, she believes there also needs to be more focused on “extended producer responsibility.”
The problem with plastic is that it’s incredibly cheap for businesses and retailers to use. But there is a cost, borne by waste management facilities, councils, litter-collecting volunteers and, of course, wildlife and the environment.
“The costs are externalised,” says Prince-Ruiz. “We need to move towards a more circular economy. Manufacturers need to be using recycled plastic in their packaging, they can’t keep using it as a one-off.”
And ideally, Plastic Free July should extend well beyond a one-month initiative, and provide the spark to create a permanent lifestyle change in all of us.