We’re not all do-it-yourselfers so I’m not going to suggest that you start baking your own bread and never getting take-out again.
But there is a lot you can do to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic you use to contribute to a measurable, positive impact on reducing plastic pollution and its associated harms.
Why is plastic such a problem?
Let’s start with plastic production. Plastic is made from fossil fuels. Drilling for oil and gas to make plastic causes methane (a powerful and damaging greenhouse gas) to leak, and is also often associated with clearing forests and wetlands that otherwise would sequester carbon.
Refineries that convert crude oil to plastic are some of the most significant industry contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. The factories that break natural gas into the chemical components to make plastic products are energy-intensive and highly polluting. All in all, plastic production is a significant contributor to climate change.
Plastic disposal is just as problematic as production.
Plastics don’t decompose like paper, food, or fabric products. Plastics can take as long as 400 years to break up, depending on the additives included in the plastic product.
They never break down like other materials. Instead, they break up into tiny particles that spread around the world, in the air, in the oceans and all over the land.
According to the National Geographic, about 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans from coastal nations every year.
There it is ingested by ocean life. We eat this ocean life with the microplastics inside. When plastics break up and are ingested by animals and us, the chemicals added to the plastic are also ingested.
These chemicals are known endocrine disruptors that can cause hormonal imbalances, infertility and cancer. Microplastics cannot be recovered. The only solution is to reduce the amount of plastic making its way into our drinking water, the animals we eat and the air we breathe for our sakes and the sakes of the millions of animals of all kinds that ingest it and die every year.
Unfortunately, recycling is not the answer.
Much plastic can’t be recycled. It is instead illegally incinerated releasing toxic fumes that cause all kinds of health issues from skin rashes to cancer.
Countries accepting plastic for recycling cannot keep up with the quantity. Communities are drowning in plastic. The only option is to reduce its use.
1) To begin, do not buy single-serving packages of anything. If you want to put chips, crackers, pudding, or literally anything else in a lunch, buy the large package and divide it up at home.
It may seem simpler to buy the single serving, but when there is nowhere to turn without literally consuming plastic you may regret your decision to save yourself 30 seconds. (See no. 11 below)
2) Single-serve yogurt is also a no go. Not only are the plastic containers not recyclable in the Town of North Hempstead, but they also involve significantly more plastic than if you bought the larger container and scooped out a serving.
3) Try making your own peanut/almond/sunflower butter. It’s surprisingly simple. All you need to do is put your nut or seed of choice into a food processor with a touch of oil and let it run for 3-5 minutes. Once a ball is formed it’s done. Or, bring your own container to a store that has its own grinding machine and fill up there.
4) Use reusable bags for all your shopping including for produce.
5) Bring your own containers for leftovers. Once we are past the COVID-19 pandemic you can even bring your own containers for take-out.
6) Never take a plastic straw, coffee stirrer, plastic cutlery (carry your own) or a single-use coffee cup.
7) Do not ever buy a drink in a plastic bottle. Bring your own in a reusable container or buy only glass bottled drinks.
8) Buy bamboo toothbrushes or at least electric ones.
9) When it comes to buying bottled water, know that bottled water undergoes less testing, is not required to be disinfected and is subject to less oversight than tap water.
Whatever concerns you have that are driving you to buy bottled water, you are not addressing them. At least with tap water you know exactly what you’re getting because of the requirements for every water supplier to provide an annual water quality report.
You cannot be sure of what you’re getting in a commercial bottle of water.
10) Buy in bulk. If buying from a bulk bin, use a reusable bag or container. Buy other items in larger quantities to reduce the amount of plastic packaging and use containers at home to store the extra.
11) Don’t use plastic wrap or plastic bags to store food or for lunches. Use reusable containers, paper sandwich and snack bags, beeswax, silicone reusable bags or at least reuse the plastic zippered bag.
These are all low demand recommendations in terms of time and energy. Try it for a day or a week and see how much less garbage you generate. Then multiply that by every day and by every person. It would be impressive, effective and consequential.