5 Steps To Be Plastic Free

Congratulations! – you have registered yourself for the Plastic Free July challenge! Be proud of yourself for taking the leap. (If you haven’t signed up yet, that’s okay too… just click here to go to the registration page). I can guarantee you that after this challenge you will look at your buying habits very differently. Even the seasoned ethical consumer can trip up on an overzealous plastic addiction because these polymers are just so damn abundant in our society and sometimes very sneaky too! This is why it is great to be as organized as possible for the challenge. I will borrow some pretty words from a Mr Henry Hartman here;

“Success always comes when preparation meets opportunity”

Thanks to this amazing Western Earth Carers initiative we have all got the opportunity, now we just need to get ourselves prepared! Here are my Top 5 tips on how to get prepared;

Step 1: Audit Yourself

Monitor your plastic habits. Look at everything you consume for at least a few days but ideally try for a week. There are plenty of ways to keep track of how much plastic you are accumulating depending on how pernickety you want to be;

  1. Mark it in your diary.
  2. Keep a notebook on hand.
  3. Keep all your receipts and highlight every product that contained plastic.
  4. Collect it all. One of the rules of the challenge is to have a Dilemma Bag to store every bit of plastic you accrue. Why not have a ‘Before Bag’ and collect all the plastic you use when you aren’t being conscious about it. Then you can compare it at the end of the challenge to see how much you saved. It can be kind of like those infomercial diet adverts – except it would actually be real!

If you want to be particularly fastidious about it be sure to note down the incidental plastics too, things like drinking straws.

Step 2: Highlight Your Problem Areas, Create Solutions

After you’ve monitored your habits you will basically have your own tailored infographic detailing how much plastic infiltrates your life on a day-to-day basis. This is a great way to forecast any problem area’s and ensure that you have a contingency plan in place!

I originally listed every possible problem area I could think of within the article but it is such a heeeuuuuge topic that the post started to look like War and Peace.  So I am formulating that to be a separate article for next week. In the meantime, here are some examples of my problem areas and solutions I am thinking about employing;

Lunch on the run

I always seem to end up with a bunch of Chinese takeaway containers that once carried my salady goodness. It is all down to being rushed and disorganized!

Solution #1: Going to make up a task board at home to be more organised.

Solution #2: Will take my own container everywhere

Solution #3: Will eat at the actual café more – enjoy a good ol’ fashioned plate of salad!

Cosmetics – mascara and concealer especially.

Solution: Researching companies that do not use plastic.

Skittles

I am pregnant and slightly obsessed with these delicious little pebbles…

Solution:  BUT they have no nutritional value so I am happy to cut these out altogether.

Crackers 

Why do they come wrapped in plastic in a cardboard box?

Solution: Investigating how to make my own.

Milk

Unfortunately all rice/soy/oat milk containers come in those tetramilk packs which are lined with plastic and often have plastic lids too.

Solution: I am currently investigating how to make my own.

**Editors Note: Since last year I am now pretty professional at making my own nut milks! See how here.

Step 3: Assemble Your Plastic Free Living Kit

There are a few tools that will make living a plastic free life a hell of a lot easier. I have made the rule that if the only option is plastic I will abstain from buying it – you can draw your own line in the sand on that one – but with this kit you will rarely need to go without. One thing I do recommend is having a slightly roomier handbag, satchel, laptop bag or backpack to accommodate for the extra loot. Here is my list of must haves;

Reusable shopping bags

If you go to the E-String Bags website they have a plastic bag counter in the left navigation column. It shows the Australian and Worldwide Year To Date usage of plastic bags. Watching those numbers fly by really drives home the scale of the issue with plastic bags. I don’t think there is anything more tragic than a major problem that has such an easy solution. Either way, hopefully you already have a few of these but if not you can find them everywhere.

The Original Onya Bag

I can’t go past a WA hero Onya BagsBONUS you get to support a sustainable local business! They are convenient, colourful and made from recycled bottles. You can buy these online as well as all around the country (in cities and regional areas). See the stockists here.

Onya also have a bazillion other awesome products like a reusable food cover and FINALLY a reusable doggy poo/nappy bag.

String Bags (for fruit and veg)

Using plastic bags for vegetables is really bloody unnecessary. It is a funny one though because I bet most people don’t even realise they are doing it – I certainly didn’t. One day a friend picked me up on the fact that I was wrapping one capsicum in a bag; I was on autopilot. Since that day I just load all my lose fruit and veg into my basket but some people may find it a bit time consuming. If you are one of those people then…

  • E-string bags are perfect and they are only $3.25 each. They’re made of organic cotton and can be bunched up to be really small but are also super stretchy so can accommodate for any surprise shopping excursions too! Buy them here.

E-String Organic Cotton Bags

BYO Coffee Cups

Here’s a mindboggling thought – 500 billion disposable cups are manufactured globally every year; that’s about 75 disposable cups for every single person on the planet! There is no need. Reduce your waste by getting yourself a BYO Coffee Cup. Here are my faves;

  • Onya Bags are back to the rescue. They have a range of colours and sizes of BYO Cups (I am partial to the Olive Green one) and are all made from food safe silicone. See the range here. You can buy everything online too!
  • For international readers there are local options too! Keep Cups have offices in Australia, UK and USA and allow you to not only order online but also customize your cup size and colour into the craziest combination you can think of! Have a play and make your perfect cup here.

Needless waste.

Water Bottle

Here are some interesting stats on bottled water (care of The Gruen Transfer). “It costs more than petrol. It takes 3 bottles of water to make 1 bottle of water. Fill an empty bottle a quarter full of oil and that’s the content of petroleum used to make it. So why is it a $500 million dollar industry in Australia when we have some of the healthiest drinking water on the planet straight from our tap?” Couldn’t of said it better myself!!! Get yourself (and your family) a reusable stainless steel water bottle and take it everywhere you go. They are available at supermarkets, chemists, health-stores, kitchen stores and sports stores.

  • Again (I swear I don’t get commission – I can’t help the companies I love!) Onya have great Reusabele H2O bottles in a massive range sizes and colours. See them here.
  • If you have teenagers that are a bit finicky about their ‘dorky’ mum buying them things then SIGG (another Australian company) have bottles with all sorts of designs on them (see here). Kids will love getting involved and being able to pick out a sustainable style that suits them.
  • Envirosax (based in Queensland) have a great range to (see here). They also sell Internationally!
This is one of those images that really hit me hard. It is an amazing image by Chris Jordan and it depicts 2 million water bottles – that is the amount of water bottles that are used in USA every 5 minutes

Amount of bottles used in USA every 5 minutes. Image by Chris Jordan

(For the full Bottled Water episode of The Gruen Transfer see the link here. Very, very clever. Did you know Mount Franklin water is not from Mount Franklin? It is just filtered tap water.)

BYO Food Container 

If you know you are going somewhere that will require you getting a ‘takeaway meal’ be prepared and take your own containers. I remember chatting to Jess from Plastic Freo (amazing girl who is going plastic free for a whole year! Read more here) saying that most cafe’s or food vans or whatever were really impressed with her and were more than happy to use her container instead. It is also a great conversation starter in the food line – if you are a chatty type – and again spreads a really fantastic message.

BYO Knife and Fork 

I keep two sets of knives and forks in my bag at all times. I consider plastic cutlery one of the sneaky plastics. Sometimes you don’t even ask for them but before you know it they’re in your hand and out the door. If you don’t want to ruin your kitchen set then just pop into an opshop – they always have mismatched cutlery there which won’t set you out more than $2.

 Metal Straw – optional

While some of us are plenty accustomed to using those funny pink pillows that line our mouths to drink, some peeps are particularly partial to straws – and what’s not to love about a straw. Tubes of yum! Avoid the wasteful plastic varieties though and get your mits on metal straws like these ones from the Ash n’ Jules Eco Everyday Basics.

Step 4: Get Inspired

Aren’t we lucky that we have so many fantastic people to look up to and so many helpful resources available when it comes to fighting for our planet?

Tim Silverwood – Take 3

  • Wise Up – If you want to get a few more tips and tricks (as well as meet like-minded people) then head to any of the free Plastic Free July events that the Western Earth Carers are holding. See the event details here – there are cooking classes, movie screenings and workshops. Fun fun.
  • Tim Silverwood / Take 3 – What a hero. Tim really shows people that one person can make a massive difference. As an ocean lover he founded the  Take 3 Organisation where the message is simple – “take 3 pieces of rubbish when you leave the beach, waterway or…anywhere and you have made a difference”. Follow his facebook page for daily information and inspiration about being plastic free. Why not add the Take 3 rule to your Plastic Free July? 
  • Lisa Griffin / Plastic Free Freo – Again, one girl who made a massive difference. I was lucky enough to be spending a lot of time around Lisa when this initiative was getting off the ground. This lion haired (and hearted) maiden knew that a ban on plastic bags was a huge step towards keeping her beloved community beautiful. So she lobbied. And lobbied. And got local attention. Then national attention. Then won! Check out the Plastic Free Freo website here. Why stop at banning plastic from your life only? 
  • Beth Terry / My Plastic Free Life – The epitome of the ethical consumer. Beth saw practices and effects that she didn’t like and then voted with her dollar. If a company used plastic she would avoid it and then go one step further. She would write to the company, let them know that consumers do care enough about the environment to avoid purchasing the product and would have great success. One company changed their whole packaging from one bit of feedback. Keep that in mind throughout your challenge! (You can see Beth’s amazing story within this post or see her website here).

Step 5: Think Positive – You Are Doing Something AMAZING!

Well – you are ready to go! Before you set out on this crazy mission though make sure you remind yourself of all the fantastic benefits you get from abolishing plastic from your life. Your health, the oceans, money, time – the benefits are endless.

I think the best thing is you can wake up every morning knowing that you are consciously focused on making a difference to the planet and setting a great example for everyone around you. Remind yourself of that every time you say no to a piece of plastic. Good luck!

Leave the world a little better than you found it. 

– Baden-Powell’s Last Message (1941)

Make Your Own Toothpaste

My finished toothpaste

I discovered how to make my own toothpaste on Saturday and now I can categorically say that I won’t be turning back. In this previous post, I explained the reasons why you might want to look into this alternative rather than your average over-packaged, chemical-ridden, animal-tested varieties… But on top of that, there is something so fun about making it yourself! Getting your nutty professor on and testing out different mixes and scents.

The mix that Shani (from Ecoburbia and The Painted Fish) showed us works well for me, but is also the first I have tried. She also gave two other recipes which I will try once I am up with this batch. But for now…this one works swell. Give it a try.

Ingredients

(For tips on where to get these ingredients, see Notes)

  • 4 tsp Bicarb Soda (aka Baking Soda)
  • 1 tsp Salt (table is fine, or crush sea salt)
  • Glycerine (or Glycerol) – as much as needed to make a paste
  • Recycled jar or container

Optional ingredients

  • Essential Oils (like peppermint, vanilla) – make sure they are food-grade!
  • Lemon or Lime peel (dried and ground)
  • Mint leaves – finely chopped
  • Stevia leaves – dried and ground

Method

  1. Mix the Bicarb soda and salt in your container with a spoon
  2. Add Glycerine bit by bit while stirring until you get a smooth paste
  3. Add one of the optional ingredients here and stir. I used Peppermint Oil and it was lovely. It gave the traditional toothpaste-y smell which is good when you are getting used to a new taste.

My finished product! Peppermint Toothpaste.

Note – Where to buy

  • Bicarb Soda – Found in supermarkets, deli’s  etc. Try and aim for bulk to reduce packaging – Planet Ark in Freo sells it in 5kg boxes
  • Sea salt – best found at stores like Kakula’s Brothers or Sisters where you can buy bulk herbs and spices for a low price.
  • Glycerine / Glycerol – can be bought at chemists.
  • Essential Oils – Food grade essential oils can be found at healthstores. Manna Wholefoods in Freo definitely stocks it.

Review

The most important thing you need to realise here is also a very obvious point – this is not your standard toothpaste. You don’t have the Sodium lauryl sulfate in there to make it all foamy, there aren’t artificial sweeteners to make it taste like an after dinner mint and you have put a teaspoon of salt in the mix! At first, I was a very excited…

Eager beaver…

There is definitely a salty tang to it but there is also a sweet minty taste too (if you used the oil, as I did). The Glycerol has quite a sweet taste to it and gives it the smooth pasty consistency which is quite nice – it almost feels like you are just brushing with a wet brush. The bicarb soda acts as the cleansing agent (you can actually feel that working) and the salt is the abrasive. All in all it is not bad. Whenever I felt myself noticing it I just imagined I was at the beach and asked myself if I would mind if a little salt water got in my mouth. Nope.

hmmm… Think about the beach….

But then… I lost my head. I swallowed a bit of the stuff. Shit got crazy…

DON’T SWALLOW THE TOOTHPASTE

I really did consider not putting that photo and tip in… and this is not only because of how physically flattering it is for my face (obviously). I wanted to be honest about the experience and not promise some amazing flavour just to get you to try it! This is not a reason to consider not trying it… It is no different to your average toothpaste: If you swallow it you are going to be met with a few fairly unpleasant sensations. Don’t swallow it. It tastes like salt. Imagining I was at the beach did nothing to help me then, although my husband (the photographer) thought it was the funniest thing he had seen all week.

After our first few teething problems I am truly sold on this DIY toothpaste. My husband has converted as well and we honestly feel that it does wonders. Our teeth look whiter and we have breath tested each other at different points throughout the day and passed with flying colours. It is also just a damn good feeling to know that you are not contributing to environmental damage, animal cruelty and an overall bad system every morning and afternoon. I hope you enjoy it.

Toothpaste – Not So Squeaky Clean

How can something so minty fresh be so sinister? Whenever I picture the great villains of this world they never smell nice. Freddie Kruger, Gollum, Colin Barnett… I just don’t get a peppermint-y vibe from them. Maybe this is how toothpaste snuck into our bathrooms, seemingly unnoticed? It seems so non-threatening. However toothpaste has earned the title of Head Villain in our bathrooms. Why?

Image by Em Ehlers – Old Envelope

Packaging

I have never found toothpaste that has been wrapped without the use of plastic. Whether it is polyethylene coated aluminium or an upright container, whatever way you look at it is an item designed to be thrown away made from a material that is designed to last forever.

About 1 billion toothpaste tubes and dispensers are sent to landfills every year, many of which are recyclable. Though both typically end up in landfills, the average tube of toothpaste produces about 70 percent less waste than a pump dispenser, so is the preferable packaging option.

– Green Your.com

Animal Testing

I am not for shock tactics. I think conning someone into reading an article about DIY toothpaste and then punching them in the face with pictures of rabbits and puppies having chemicals poured into their eyes is not the way to go. But, if you in anyway doubt that this is the reality of the situation – google it. It is happening in cosmetic labs across the world every day and approximately 100 million animals suffer or die from testing and experiments every year. As hard as it is to look at, I think the alternative of looking away is harder.

Image by Emily Ehlers

Health

It is pretty hard to find a scientific study that categorically proves that toothpaste is unhealthy for you. Then again, I trust my common sense far more than a piece of paper handed to me by a scientist being commissioned by a cosmeceautical company. Here are some ingredients you may find written on your standard tube, and some side-effects that I am sure you won’t…

  • Triclosan – registered pesticide
  • Aspartame – Street talk for sweetener. AKA a neurotoxin linked to lupus, Parkinson’s Disease and Multiple Sclerosis.
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS): Suspected carcinogen.
  • Methylparaben, Ethylparaben (Parabens) – linked to fertility problems (and hell for the environment)
  • Potassium Nitrate – a water soluble mineral that is toxic to the environment
  • Polyethylene glycol (or PEG) – Suspected carcinogen (especially linked to breast cancer)

And what about the highly contentious Fluoride? Here are some quotes I found…

“A 14oz tube of toothpaste, theoretically at least, contains enough fluoride to kill a small child”

– Proctor and Gamble, “Fluoride the Aging Factor”, Page 14

“In point of fact, fluoride causes more human cancer death, and causes it faster than any other chemical”

– Chief Chemist at the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Dean Burk, Congressional record 21 July 1976

(also a reason you may want to look into a water filter for the home).

Environment

All the aformentioned chemicals are the reasons that it is unhealthy to swallow toothpaste. It is the reason we spit them out and wash them away. But where is away?

wAterWAY

Parabens reak absolute havoc on animal hormones, triclosan (a toxic antibacterial) kills off good bacteria in ecosystems and sodium pyrophosphate contributes to the growth of algae in water which leads to lower oxygen levels that kills marine life and creates deadzones.

Even though you only use a little toothpaste imagine every person in every household sending all those chemicals into our delicate ecosystems with our birds, froggies and fish. Not good.

Image by Emily Ehlers

So what are the options?

There are eco brands around that cancel out some of the issues associated with your standard tube of whitening goo – but rarely all. You will never avoid the packaging but you can at least cancel out animal testing and chemicals.

If you are shopping in an Aussie supermarket the best you will probably find will be Naytura (Woolworth’s brand). It still has loads of nasties in it but is guaranteed cruelty-free at least. Otherwise health stores can provide organic alternatives. While these are better you could always go one further…

Make Your Own!

I learnt how to make my own toothpaste on Saturday at the Less Is More Festival. I am not going back. It is all natural, leaves my teeth feeling and looking amazing, isn’t tested on animals and has virtually no packaging associated with it. And an added benefit… you food doesn’t taste gross after you use it!

Come with me and learn how to make your own toothpaste here!

The Less Is More Write-Up

Earth Carers run yet another gorgeous community event.

Anyone that follows this blog, my Facebook or my Twitter would know that I was pretty damn excited about the Less Is More Festival that happened on Saturday. It has now been and gone and I can tell you all – I was not disappointed. It was a glorious day full of great people, ideas, food and workshops.

Festival organiser, Claire Litton, chats with arrivals

The festival organiser (hot-pink haired sensation, Claire Litton) should feel very proud to have fulfilled her objective; to show people how to consume less but enjoy more. I sat through a few workshops (and  poked my head into some too) and learnt something from each one. The classes were all buzzing with conversation with the presenter providing a framework but the crowd sharing their stories and tips. There was such a feeling of community.

Shani explains that you need to check your essential oil is food grade!

My fave class was definitely Shani Graham’s (from Ecoburbia and The Painted Fish) tutorial on DIY toothpaste and deodorant. Shani did a quick survey on why we were all there and it was lovely to hear so many people taking a stand against some of the unnecessary and downright unhealthy elements of modern day consumption. Too much packaging, animal testing, concerns for human health or a commitment to living organically.

"Is is meant to be this gooey?"

After the introductions Shani (like a mad scientist in her lab) started showing off the DIY ingredients. Bicarb soda, essential oils, corn flour, sea salt… no Sodium Lauryl Sulfate here! With recipe sheets in hand we all started shovelling salt and bicarb into our jars and dripping in coconut oils and glycerine. It was almost like year 8 science class and we were all testing out different concoctions and questioning whether we had the right consistency. Walking away from the class I realised something really nice – I now never have to give Colgate a cent of my money every again! (**I have been using my DIY cosmetics since the festival and I am absolutely loving it! For a recipe to make you own toothpaste click here).

My finished product! Peppermint Toothpaste.

After that I went for a bit of a wander and saw people making their own ginger beer, mango ketchup (Wow – delicious!) and even sanitary pads. I ended up in a workshop that is close to my heart… how to live plastic free. Fremantle couple Nathan and Jess (find them at Plastic Freo) have decided to go one whole year without plastic and they spoke about the challenges that they had already encountered and gave tips on how to go about reducing your plastic intake. As a dairy addict, Jess now has to order her milk ahead of time from Perth Organics as it comes in a glass bottle. As yoghurt only seems to come in plastic they have also learnt how to make yoghurt from it. They were a bloody inspiring young couple and have certainly given me some ideas on how to eliminate plastic completely from the Ehlers household. All in all I know that it is going to take effort, discipline and some organisation but I feel confident that I am up for the challenge. (Apparently the Fremantle Council is too – check out the Plastic Free Freo campaign).

Jess from Plastic Free gives a presentation

There were loads more classes that I didn’t manage to get to. If you went to one that I didn’t and want to share it please leave a comment. All in all it was an absolutely fabulous festival that really showed creative ways to reduce your impact on the planet. Personally I have taken a lovely lesson from it – I have realised that I need to slow down a bit and get back to basics. So on that note, I had friends over for afternoon tea and they sat down to vegetables with two homemade dips (beetroot and capsicum & walnut) followed by a warm slice of banana and cranberry bread. It tasted all the better knowing that I made it myself.

Less packaging = More homemade

Scroll down for more pics of the festival.

Cute kids game - Instead of Snakes and Ladders it was "Worms and Shute's"

Making concoctions

My finished toothpaste... mmm Peppermint!

My deodorant and the ingredients

Cooking lessons to make...

... Mango Ketchup. Nom Nom Nom

Ginger Beer making class.

Tackling The Plastic Bag Problem Around The World

The Bangladesh Jute industry has bounced back due to the plastic bag ban – Image from http://www.hello.news352.lu

A wise man once said “with great power comes great responsibility”. I believe that man was Spiderman? Never mind – the point is that thought-provoking little hybrid got me thinking about Australia. We really are ‘the lucky country’ sitting pretty on the comparative global scale. Sure, we complain about drought but last year more than 29,000 children under age 5 died in 90 days in southern Somalia. We complain about ignorant politicians but despite my loathing of his attitudes (and taste in swimwear) I still prefer Abbott to the likes of Gaddafi, Mugabe or al-Assad. We complain about the rising price of groceries while 75,000 people die every day from starvation. We are unbelievably privileged.

‘Australia is a lucky country, run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck.’

Donald Horne, The Lucky County, 1964

This fortunate position should inspire Australia to become leaders in technologies, ideas and attitudes that will help the planet, yet sadly we are lagging behind. A prime example is the great plastic bag debate. Why are we not employing a bit of forethought and banning plastic bags like many countries (developed and developing) around the world are? South Australia and now the Australian Capital Territory have led the charge but we need to do more. Clean Up Australia says that Australians use in excess of 6 billion plastic bags per year. It isn’t good enough.

Maybe we can take some inspiration from other countries around the world that are reducing (or have already significantly reduced) their plastic appetite…

Bangladesh

The Bangladesh Jute industry has bounced back due to the plastic bag ban – Image from http://www.hello.news352.lu

As I explained in my post about the effects of plastic, in 1988 and 1998 plastic bags were determined the main cause of devastating floods that submerged two-thirds of the country. In 2002 Bangladesh was the first large country to impose an outright ban of the use of polyethylene bags. Not only was there a significant reduction in plastic pollution but it also revived sustainable industries which have biodegradable alternatives such as the Jute Bag industry.

Italy

Italy used to be responsible for 25% of all the plastic bags in Europe which equates to roughly 25 billion a year.  As of January 1st 2011 single-use non-biodegradable plastic bags were outlawed. Retailers – predictably – warned of pandemonium at the checkouts but evidently people have survived. Maybe the customers were smarter than the retailers thought and noticed those wonderful appendages at the end of their arms that can be used for carrying things?

South Africa

SA really came to the table! Not only did they ban the use of thin plastic bags in 2003  but also imposed a 100,000 rand ($12020AUD) fine and a 10-year jail sentence for any retailers caught handing out bags! This has encouraged shoppers to either take their own sustainable carry bags or invest in plastic bags that can be used more than once.

More information can be found at the BBC South Africa bans plastic bags.

Ireland

This is my favourite example of plastic bag reduction because (to me) it absolutely typifies the flippant Western attitude towards plastic bags. In May 2002 Ireland placed a 15 euro-cent (25cAUD) levy on supermarket checkout bags. Within 3 months Ireland had cut its plastic usage by 90%. There was a 95% decrease in plastic bag litter. This model has been so successful that the Department of Environment (Department of The Environment, Ireland ) have since increased the levy to 22euro-cents. The health of the planets oceans, animals, people and atmosphere proved to be worth less than 15cents. I guess the ends justify the means?

China

More than 1.3billion people live in China. If they had not recognised the danger of plastic the results would be catastrophic.  It has been estimated that 37 million barrels of crude oil are used to produce China’s annual supply of plastic bags – 3 billion every year! In June 2008 (before the Olympics) the Chinese State Council put a nationwide ban on plastic bags. It prohibited all shops, supermarkets, and sales outlets from handing out free plastic bags and banned the production, sale, and use of ultra-thin plastic bags less than 0.025mm thick.  Since the ban China has reduced its bag consumption by half which saves 1.6million ton of oil! Looks like the red is greener than the green and gold! ()

India

Similar to Bangladesh, India also had severe flooding and landslides due to plastic bags blocking drain systems during monsoon season. Many cows also died after mistakenly ingesting the plastic bags. A ban was imposed banning the manufacture, sale and use of all plastic bags.

New Zealand

Our Kiwi kinsman used to have an impressive appetite for plastic consuming 1 billion bags per year. A five-year initiative (the New Zealand Packaging Accord 2004 – 2009) was introduced to attempt to reduce plastic bag usage by a fifth. While they still have a way to go AC Nielsen data shows that consumers are now taking on average 5.8 bags down from twelve months earlier (6.5 bags). It sounds measly but actually equates to 100million less bags!

Europe

Similar to some companies in Australia (Officeworks for one) a select few countries throughout Europe have decided to take matters into their own hands. Instead of waiting for government legislation to force their hands, most retailers in Germany, Switzerland and Denmark charge for plastic bags at the check-out.

Kenya

The late, great Professor Wangari Mathaai – Image from http://www.elleafriquemagazine.wordpress.com

Last year Kenya (and indeed the world) lost an amazing woman – Professor Wangari Mathaai, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner.  Before she died Mathaai had spoken out about the effect that plastic bags were having, not only in Kenya but all across Africa. Discarded plastic bags were filling up with rainwater and were becoming perfect little pools for mosquitos to breed in which caused a dramatic rise in vector-borne diseases such as malaria. In early 2005 the Kenyan government (with the help of UNEP and the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis) imposed a ban on thin plastic bags as well as placing a levy on the heavier varieties. Any money raised is put towards recycling schemes.

San Francisco

In 2007 San Francisco became the first state in the USA to ban the use of plastic bags in grocery stores. Biodegradable bags made from materials such as paper or corn by-prodcuts are allowed. Just two years after the ban was imposed San Fran saw a reduction of 18%.

USA

Around the US many towns, cities and sometimes entire states are taking note of the dangers of prolific plastic bag use. In January 2010 bans were placed in the following counties – Brownsville, Texas and Kauai (Hawaii). While a complete ban was overthrown in Californies various Cali cities agreed to it (Malibu, Fairfax and Palo Alto). Other notable cities were Bethel (Alaska), Edmonds (Washington) and Westport (Connecticut). Slowly, slowly America is starting to act on their 100billion bag a year habit.

Last and… well, probably least… Australia!

South Australia – as always – are leading the plastic free charge. In 2009 a ban was placed on all lightweight shopping bags. The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science at UniSA has reported that before the ban six in ten shoppers would take their own reusable bags to the shops, which has now risen to nine in ten! What a fantastic success. The Northern Territory and the ACT are now also taking steps to reduce their consumption. The ACT are trialed a four-month transitional ban (July – November 2011) and is now in full effect after getting a great result from an environmental perspective as well as from consumer attitudes.

The is more information about the South Australian plastic bag ban here.

What are we waiting for?

The above list is just a small selection of forward thinking countries that are fighting the war on plastic. Honourable mentions go to Bhutan, Cameroon, Eritrea, Brazil, Canada, France, Holland and Nepal. We really have no excuse not to act. Beyond that it is our responsibility  to act.

If the government fails to act then there are always steps that you can take, at an individual level or within your community, to make a difference. Tomorrow I will upload my post on reducing plastic in your life. If you want to learn more about the issues, here are some fantastic resources;

The Effects of Plastic

A hero of mine – Tim Silverwood [Image originally from http://www.surfwx.net

The use of plastics in Western society is so illogical and so blatantly flawed that it makes my head spin. We are using plastic (a man-made material designed to last forever) to create products that are designed to be thrown away! It wasn’t always like this. You just need to sit with your grandparents for a chat about the good ol’ days to see where we started going wrong. Milk used to be delivered in little glass bottles that would be collected and reused. My Grandma used to send soda and beer bottles back to the factory to be sterilised and refilled. When she would send fragile things in the mail it was wrapped in newspaper – not bubble wrap. She would wash my mothers’ material nappy rather than throw them in the trash. It is all making sense now. We are so focused on convenience that we are literally turning the earth into a trash can.

“We currently recover only 5% of the plastics we produce. What happens to the rest of it? Roughly 50% is buried in landfills, some is remade into durable goods, and much of it remains “unaccounted for”, lost in the environment where it ultimately washes out to sea” – 5 Gyres Institute

Since watching “Plasticized” (a documentary about ocean plastic pollution) I have declared not only to make it Plastic Week here at Olive on Blonde, but also to entirely banish plastic from my life. Before I make massive life changes though I always like to have a really good understanding as to why I am. So I got out my reading glasses…

The Problem with Plastic

Firstly, where it comes from. Plastic bags are made from ethylene, a gas that is produced as a by-product of oil, gas and coal production – all non-renewable fossil fuels. Ethylene is then made into polymers which are in turn made into pellets. These pellets can be used to produce a whole range of items. The problem is a huge amount of plastic products fall into two main categories; Single Use Items or Short-term Use Items.

Single Use Items

Items like plastic bags, water bottles, packaging or lolly-pop sticks. These items can have a usability of 2 minutes but a lifespan of 1000years! To put this into perspective, the amount of petroleum used to make one plastic bag would drive a car about 115 metres! By that logic, in Australia we use approximately 6.9 billion plastic checkout bags every year which would be enough to drive a car 800 million kilometres which is nearly 20,000 times around the world or 4 round trips to the Sun!

Short-term Use Items

Do you find that every time you buy something a better, more efficient, trendier product has replaced it the next day? This can range from TV’s to phones or even toothbrushes… “Wow – that brush has a unique bristle design to clean my tongue and cheeks… my old one only has whitening cups. I better go get the new one”. And then there are all those dentist recommendations telling you to buy a new brush every 3 months. These are very well-thought out marketing ploys by the name of either ‘Planned Obsolescence’ or ‘Perceived Obsolescence’. It is basically a way to shame you into buying a new product when your existing one is still completely functional.

Effects on the Natural Environment

The polluted coastline of Kamilo Beach, Hawaii [Image by http://www.rozsavage.com

Other than being unbelievably ugly, disposed of plastics have massive effects on both the urban and natural environment. Details about the natural environment are spoken about in all the below points; things like animal death and injury, biotoxificaton and the fact that it is non-biodegradable. Biodegradable plastic is not all it is cracked up to be; some plastics only degrade when in contact with sunlight (not buried in landfill), others can take 500 years to decompose and others are actually more dangerous as when they finally do breakdown they release methane into the atmosphere. With roughly 50% of the plastic we use ending up in landfill this is all of serious concern.

Effects on the Urban Environment

Flood victims waiting to receive aid at flooded port city of Narayangonj. Aug 26, 1998.[Image by Pavel Rahman

Plastic can also be extremely dangerous for urban environments and the people that live in them. In 1988 and 1998 over two thirds of Bangladesh flooded – the capital, Dhaka, aws 2m underwater. In the 1998 floods 1,070 people died and 30million were left homeless. The main culprit for this flooding was discarded plastic bags covering and getting caught in drains. This led to a complete ban on plastic bands being imposed in 2002. Similarly I went to Bali last year and could not believe my eyes! Along the streets, in the rivers, in the ocean even in the jungles of Ubud – plastic rubbish was everywhere. In Bali (also a developing country) it is too expensive to dispose of so they just have to leave it there unless they come up with their own solutions…. I walked past as a Balinese man lit his pile of plastic on fire to destroy it. It was horrendous seeing the plumes of black smoke whirring up into the atmosphere, and watching people and children talking near the fire and surely inhaling the toxic chemicals it was producing.

Effects on Animals

A very famous image of a Green Sea turtle eating a plastic bag                       – Image found at http://www.kropes98.global2.vic.edu.au

According to Care2 “more than a million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals die every year from ingestion of or entanglement in plastics”. These animals (including whales, seals, turtles and dolphins) die slow and painful deaths either from intestinal blockages or drowning. Considering  we use approximately 500 billion plastic bags alone every year that is a lot of potential deaths – especially when you realise that plastic bags can be serial killers. The animals that swallow the plastic decompose quicker than the plastic inside them which then releases it back out into the water for another poor soul to mistake as a jellyfish.

“24 August 2000 – a Bryde’s whale died in Trinity Bay (2 km from central Cairns). An autopsy found that the whale’s stomach was tightly packed with plastic, including supermarket bags, food packages, bait bags, three large sheets of plastic, and fragments of garbage bags. There was no food in its stomach”

                                                                                                        ~Federal Department of Environment & Heritage website

Effects on Human Health

Mahi Mahi Fish full of plastic – Image from RozSavage.com

As I also explained in my last post fragments of plastic are also breaking up into small nodes – can be microscopic – allowing a large range of animals to eat and then absorb it into their bodies. Our throw-away items are leading to mass bio-toxification of our oceans and consequently our food chain. Scientists are only now starting to really understand the long-term effects this plastic will have on our own biochemistry, but many studies have linked our increased plastics consumption to cancer (breast and colon), infertility, birth defects and obesity.  These scary statistics should not just be attached to the plastic that is in our food chains either. Considerable findings are starting to point to how we package and heat our foods as well. Plastic bottles, cheese, tofu, canned goods (inside of cans are lined in plastic), meat on Styrofoam trays and wrapped in cling wrap – these products have all been linked.

(If you are interested, Mens Health had this fantastic and thorough article about plastic and how it effects our health)

Effects on the Economy

Public perception is that plastic is cheap. Hell! It is better than cheap… it is FREE! However, this is a classic case of not looking at the embodied cost of the product – the true cost! As reported by Planet Ark plastic bags, for example, are not free to consumers – they add an estimated $173 million a year to Australia’s grocery bills! Additionally the Australian local and state governments spend over $200 million a year clearing litter. Right there is $375million that the Australian taxpayer is contributing to pollution. In the 2010-11 budget our government cut $250 million from urban water initiatives and $80million from major national environmental protection program (Caring for our Country) because of ‘hard financial times’. Could we not just cut the pollution, saving the consumer $173m, the taxpayer $200m and the environmental devastation which is unmeasurable? That’s $375million which could be injected back into the economy, towards useful ends, not just a lazy convenience. I know that producing a budget for the entire country is more complicated than that but the overall solution is simple. Stop investing in pollution. Start investing in sustainable technologies and solutions.

Effects on our Self-Respect

Image by Manan Vastsyayana original found at CoastalCare.org

It is not fair that we treat our environment, other countries (predominantly third-world), the animals that live in it, our health or our oceans this way. It is not even for a noble cause. There is not one application that we use plastic for that could not have an eco-alternative that uses renewable energy sources. I throw down the challenge for you to think of one? We need to start having a bit more self-respect and respect for the rest of the planet. We need to stop biting the hand that feeds us.

“Don’t blow it – good planets are hard to find”

~ Quoted in Time Magazine

My Conclusion

Researching this post has really strengthened my resolve to eliminate plastic from my life and I hope it has you too. I will be documenting my challenge to be plastic free as I am sure there will be some hurdles but I am willing to jump them after the information I have read this week. It isn’t all doom and gloom – tomorrow I will be looking at solutions (individual and otherwise) to this massive problem. There are little and big things that we can all do.