July has become a significant month in the plastic free world, so June gets me thinking about plastic. A product that was such a game changer in the second world war has become a major scourge of the modern world, so this month I’m going to discuss how we got here, what the problems are, and how we might start to solve them.
Plastics are everywhere – in remote mountains, in Arctic snow, in the air we breathe and the food and water we eat and drink. They’ve even been found in the placentas of newborn babies. Nobody actually knows what the effects on us are, but it seems fair to assume they are unlikely to be positive and there are some pretty dire theories about how bad they might be.
But there are actions we can take. We might not solve every problem immediately, but as consumers we can begin to reject plastic. And we should. Rejecting plastic packaging is actually something you can do reasonably easily and I’m here to tell you that it is your responsibility to do so. This is your problem, and the solutions are in your hands.
Are microplastics really that bad?
So, what’s the problem? Plastics are synthetic polymers – comprised of long chains of atoms, often much longer than those found in nature – which is what makes plastics so flexible and useful. These polymers can be made from natural substances like cellulose, but more often they are made from fossil fuels. The fundamental and extremely concerning problem is that most plastic lasts forever in the environment and this is compounded by the fact that many plastic items are designed to be used very little or only once before being discarded. Plastics then will break down, but only into ever smaller particles.
Most of us now have recycling options for our waste disposal, which is definitely an improvement on sending plastic to landfill, but recycling is a far from ideal solution to the problem of plastic pollution. It was the plastics industry itself that offered recycling as a solution when it started to become apparent in the 70s and 80s that plastic waste was a problem. Fifty years on, it is a little discouraging that we haven’t done better at removing more plastic from our consumer supply chains. In fact, we’ve done quite the opposite. An estimated 5 billion tonnes of plastic waste has already accumulated in landfills or the environment to date. This figure is projected to double over the next three decades.
Can’t we just recycle our plastic bottles?
Recycling is not actually an effective solution at all. In the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s plastic waste pyramid, recycling is only one step above the worst solution, only slightly better than regulating its disposal. Most plastics still end up in landfill or the environment. By far the most effective solution is to refuse plastics.
Our plastic problem is growing - and overflowing into our waterways
In the marine environment, plastics are significant – the great pacific garbage patch is a floating island in the Pacific Ocean which is about the size of Texas. And we only hear about this one because it is the biggest – both the Indian and Atlantic Oceans have their own garbage vortexes.
So, there are these huge patches of floating rubbish – mainly plastics – in our oceans, about 80% of which has come from land (the other 20% is mainly fishing gear). We can see these patches, and we should be worried about them. But wait, there’s more (unfortunately). There’s a whole lot more plastic that we can’t really see. Because the majority of these patches are actually micro and nano plastics (plastic items that have broken down into tiny little bits) which just make the water look like a cloudy soup. And the ocean floor underneath is probably just a dump as well – scientists estimate 70% of waste falls to the bottom of the ocean.
The effects on marine creatures are myriad, and grim. They can simply mistake plastic items for food and kill either themselves or their young by ingesting them, dying by starvation or ruptured organs. Or, they can die by becoming entangled in plastic waste, especially in abandoned fishing nets. Seals and other marine mammals are especially vulnerable to drowning in these nets.
Even if animals avoid these larger plastic items, their food supplies can be affected by the smaller plastics. The trash and micro plastics on the surface stop sunlight from reaching the algae and plankton below the surface, meaning they can’t produce their own nutrients. If these communities are threatened, the entire food chain is.
But wait, there's more (plastic)...
I haven’t even addressed our air, food or water yet. It’s estimated that we all eat about a credit cards’ worth of plastic every week in our food. A 2017 study found 80% of drinking water samples contained plastics, a figure which rose to 94% in the United States. Closer to home, an academic study published last year found microplastics in the air in Christchurch. Microplastics are in our atmosphere and their presence has implications for climate change and our weather.
So, are you really telling me you can’t be bothered trying a solid shampoo bar now? Do you really need that bottle of body wash rather than a soap bar? Do you really think it’s not worth at least trying a dish detergent bar? Is it really that much of an inconvenience to choose to buy products that are not packaged in plastic, or shipped in plastic?
If you don’t like plastic free products, you just haven't found the one for you
I often hear people say that shampoo and conditioner bars don’t suit their hair, which is nuts. If you tried a liquid shampoo that wasn’t right for you, would you say that shampoo doesn’t suit your hair? As with all shampoos, they differ. Try some different ones until you find the one for you. Watch out for people selling soap as a shampoo bar, because that won’t work (you can read about that in my December blog, here).
I also hear people say that they don’t use soap bars because body wash keeps their shower cleaner. It’s true, that especially if you have hard water, bar soap will capture those minerals in your water and deposit them on your shower or bath. But seriously, after reading what you just have, how could you not just put a bit more effort into keeping your shower or bath clean? Buy a squeegee, for god’s sake, use it after showering and that will stop soap scum forming. Another of my pet peeves is people telling me they’re allergic to soap. I’m willing to bet that much of the time that is utter rubbish- far more likely that they’re allergic to artificial fragrance or the synthetic chemicals added to soap to make it easily processed in a factory. Comparing a bar of handmade cold process soap to a soap bar from the supermarket is like comparing a restaurant quality dinner to a frozen ready-meal.
Reinvigorating old concepts with sustainability in mind
I’m constantly told that soap cages were used with Sunlight Soap for dishes. Yes, they were, and they became obsolete because Sunlight Soap was rubbish for dishwashing. That’s why my dishwash bar is a solid detergent – once you get it in the water, you’ve got the equivalent of dishwashing liquid – way more effective than soap.
Some of you will have noticed my packaging has changed a bit over time. I ditched glass jars because I couldn’t find a decent lid that wasn’t plastic, so my butters and balms are now packaged in tin. My soap, shampoo, conditioner and dishwash bars are unpackaged. Everything I send out is in 100% plastic free packaging.
Become a part of the solution!
I don’t think anyone on the planet wouldn’t want to become part of the solution to these problems once they were aware of them. So now you are, please do something about it. And please tell your friends and family. Make them aware. Tell them what you’re doing. Give them gifts which will help them use less plastic.
It is up to all of us.