Plastic cannot biodegrade – it breaks down into smaller pieces and accumulates in the environment. In Australia, we generated about 2.5Mt of plastic waste in 2014-15 (107kg per person). Of this, only 14% was recycled – the remaining 2.2Mt went to landfill. Check out this handy guide by Sustainable Living Tasmania on which plastic products can be recycled (may differ in other states).
Wildlife including fish and birds are threatened by ingesting and becoming entangled in plastics that drift into their habitat. Plastic particles also accumulate in landfill where toxic chemicals may seep into groundwater and downstream water sources. It is estimated that around eight million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans each year!
Microplastics are ingested by vast numbers of marine species, enabling toxins to enter our food chain
(including heavy metals which are readily absorbed into plastic). Plastic toxins may also leach into food through packaging, with exposure linked to potential health problems including immune disorders, endocrine disruption (hormone complications), cancers and birth defects.
What is the solution?
As consumers, we need to acknowledge the problem and rethink our consumption
of plastics. There are many plastic waste hierarchy’s on the web, but they all have the
4 R’s in common:
Refuse single use plastics wherever possible – when grocery shopping purchase loose items not packaged in plastic, bring your own reusable bags and containers for takeaway food.
Reduce your plastic footprint – choose products that contain less plastic packaging and fewer plastic parts – what happens to those products at their end-of-life?
Reuse existing products where possible – glass and stainless steel are long-lasting, durable, healthier alternatives to plastic. If you do end up with plastic containers, you may be able to re-purpose them (storing seeds for the garden, nuts and bolts in the shed)
Recycling programs are struggling to keep up with the massive amounts of plastics they receive. Recycling is a band-aid solution rather than a prevention – and should be considered only if you cannot refuse or reuse. There are REDcycle programs across Australia for soft plastics, and most hard plastics can be recycled. Learn more about what plastics you can recycle in your kerb-side recycling here.
While single use plastic containers are convenient – the rate in which they are being used and discarded leaves behind a long term environmental and social problem. For this to change, we may need to forgo a little convenience – but the benefits of this outweigh the consequences of inaction.