Eight ways to kill our passion for plastic

Why not try to cut down? Try reusable cups, bottles, nappies, bags...

Environmental campaigners hold a demonstration outside the Dáil.

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Admit it: you cried a little bit at the David Attenborough show Blue Planet. When the mother pilot whale was carrying around her newborn calf, killed by plastic pollution, you shed a tear and silently swore off disposable plastic.

And while the sceptics may question whether plastic was the culprit, it still doesn’t quite erase the memory of a whale refusing to leave her dead baby.

We live in a disposable culture. Fast fashion, fast food, and a lot of plastic. We’re dumping the equivalent of a truck of plastic every day into the oceans, and by some estimates, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. It’s not a particularly palatable thought, as you survey your tuna sandwich or fish and chips. And before non-seafood eaters start feeling a bit smug, a recent study found plastic was in drinking water too. Try avoiding that.

Recycling would help a little. Globally, more than 110 million tonnes of plastic is produced each year, and only a little over half of that is recycled.

We’re facing a bit of a crisis though. China, the place that took away 95 per cent of our plastic and dealt with it, has had enough of dealing with foreign rubbish.

Iceland was the first supermarket to make a serious move towards cutting back on its plastic footprint. It has pledged to remove plastic from all of its own-brand products by 2023. And this month, the EU declared war on plastic with a series of measures that would ban single use non-recyclable plastic by 2030.

In the meantime, there are some simple (and not so simple) things you can do to cut down on your own plastic usage.

Bags

This is one that most of us are pretty good at, thanks to a gentle nudge from the government a few years ago. The plastic bag charge was introduced in 2002, initially at 15 cent per bag. The effect was swift; the number of plastic bags used by shoppers fell by 90 per cent and we all started to carry “Bags for life”, some of which turned out to consider life shorter than others, for our shopping instead.

You can take it a step further though. Small produce bags in supermarkets are still free of charge, but chances are you don’t use them more than once. Swap for paper or small cotton produce bags instead.

Plastic wrap

While rigid plastic containers have some chance of being turned into another product, plastic wrap such as cling film is among the types of plastic that are least likely to be recycled. Ditto for that plastic film that seems to cover most of our vegetables these days.

To cut down on the amount of unrecyclable plastic in your bin, choose unpackaged fruit and veg over prepackaged trays where possible. For covering food, wax wraps – beeswax or soy – can be used in place of most cling film. The wraps are heavy and have a bit of cling to them when you wrap them around a container or even the food itself.

They’re easily washed in lukewarm water and soap, and can be used over and over again.

The catch? They can’t be used for hot food or meat and poultry. High temperatures would melt the wax, and if wrapping raw meat in anything, you’re going to want to wash it well after. Glass dishes with lids or a good old-fashioned plate on top of a bowl will also work.

Coffee cups

Do you remember a time before we all walked around clutching coffee cups bearing the name of our chosen chain? Apparently it did exist. But now we’re all too busy to sit for 10 minutes and drink our coffee. The downside to all that – apart from your stress levels – is that disposable coffee cups have flourished. Millions are binned every year in Ireland. Most disposable coffee cups can’t be recycled, and compostable cups don’t break down in landfill.

So your choice is sit in for your drink, or go reusable. There are different types – glass, plastic, bamboo, ceramic – and different styles, from plain and functional, to decorated and a little more interesting. It might even get you a discount, with some places offering money off your coffee if you bring your own cup. Just make sure it’s clean.

While you’re at it, ditch the plastic cutlery in favour of metal or bamboo while you’re out and about. Most plastic cutlery is rubbish anyway and always seems to break just at the wrong moment.

The plastic bag charge was introduced in 2002, initially at a charge of 15 cent per bag
The plastic bag charge was introduced in 2002, initially at a charge of 15 cent per bag

Plastic bottles

We have a serious plastic bottle habit, and it needs to be addressed. According to environmental charities, about 2.5 million bottles are being disposed of through landfill and incineration every day in Ireland alone. In some European countries a deposit-and-return scheme means you pay an extra few cent for your drink but you get it back when you return the empty bottle.

Until we have something like that in Ireland, options are limited to choosing cans over plastic over bottles, or bringing your own drinks in a reusable bottle.

Straws

In 2015, a video of a turtle having a plastic straw removed from its nose went viral. It makes for unpleasant viewing, especially when you realise the number of them that are discarded every day after about 20 minutes’ use. But it seems like the tide is already starting to turn on this one. A number of chains have already begun to reduce their use – only on request – and drinks company Pernod Ricard is banning unrecyclable straws and plastic stirrers.

If you can’t live without straws, there are plenty of reusable options: stainless steel, silicon, bamboo. If the thought of having to clean them is too much for you, opt for paper straws. It’s still a single-use product, but at least it will break down over time.

Wipes

Baby wipes, make up wipes, antibacterial wipes: there’s a wipe for almost everything these days. Grab one, use it, throw it away. Like most conveniences though, there are consequences. Those fatbergs dug out of sewers in cities like London or New York are usually made from grease and wipes that people have flushed, thinking they will break down. Most won’t because they contain plastic fibres. But that’s not their only problem. If they get into the sea, the wipes can be mistaken for jellyfish by hungry turtles. Also, the cost adds up, and you’ll end up having to pay to dispose of them.

The solution? Use a cloth.

Teabags

You might be surprised to see the humble tea bag on the list of plastic offenders. Not only do brands come wrapped in plastic to seal the box, some – not all – have a little bit of plastic in the bag itself. Some brands don’t contain polymer, but it’s hard to find which ones.

The other option is loose leaf tea. This one conjures up memories of fishing tea leaves out of the bottom of teacups, but things have evolved a bit. From tea infusers that drop into a regular tea pot, to pots with the strainer built in, it’s not quite as much of a change in habits.

Personal care

This one is a plastic minefield of unrecyclable tubes, pumps and packets. Some are easier than others – use a bar of soap instead of plastic packaged liquid varieties, unpackaged shampoo bars, cotton buds with paper rather than plastic stems.

Watch out for products with plastic micro beads.

They may help with exfoliating your skin but they end up in oceans where they’re eaten by sea life and ultimately make their way into the food chain.

Other changes require more of a lifestyle shift. Ever heard of a mooncup? How about a Jam Sponge? If you are open to the idea of swapping out disposable sanitary products, they are two of the options to replace them. You can also get washable pads if tampons aren’t your thing.

Nappies

Disposable nappies are a relatively modern phenomenon. Up until the early 1980s in Ireland, it was more common to have terry cloth nappies and plastic pants than Pampers. Sure, most of us would like to have as little contact with the messier end of babies as possible.

The problem? Nappies take a lot of time to biodegrade.

The solution: cloth nappies. Before you start gagging at the thought though, modern cloth nappies are a lot easier to use than their predecessors. They go on just like disposables, with poppers or Velcro to fasten, and have absorbent material inside. Plus they come in better colours and designs than their disposable counterparts.

And if the thought of baby poo touching your skin is what’s holding you back, you may want to dial down your expectations of parenthood. It’s inevitable.

Kick the plastic: some substitute products

  • Punc reusable bottle from €12, https://puncbottles.com/
  • Kleen Kanteen steel straws €12 for 5-pack, www.earthmother.ie
  • Ecupán cup, zerowasteireland.com/ecupan/
  • Abeego beeswax wrap from €16, Littlegreenshop.ie
  • Ikea Riklig teapot €12, Ikea.com
  • Jam sponge €17.50 for two, Fluffybums.ie
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