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.

Do You Know What Your Carbon Footprint Is?

If everyone on the planet lived your lifestyle how many worlds would we need?

So many companies are using “green” as an advertising strategy that really useful eco tools and terms are being drowned in the green-wash. One such tool (and term) is your Carbon Footprint. We hear about it daily, but how many people really know their carbon shoe size or even what a carbon footprint is?

DID YOU KNOW…? Australians currently emit more than 550 million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year. About a fifth of this is generated through every day activities. – 1degree

What is a carbon footprint?

Individuals, countries, products and industries all have carbon footprints. In fact, every single thing that involves human activity has a carbon footprint. Human activities demand natural resources and produce waste and the measure of these impacts on the environment is known as an ‘ecological footprint’ (or carbon footprint). The impact that these activities have on the environment has, in recent times anyway, been measured in terms of climate change.

Here is a really clever and simple way of looking at how little things can have large and environmentally damaging footprints…

Thanks to WWF for providing that amazing little video – doesn’t it put things in perspective?

Something to also consider is that we also have two different types of footprints;

 Primary Footprint:

A measure of our direct emissions of CO2 from burning of fossil fuels such as domestic energy consumption (our household gas, electricity etc) and transport (car, plane, whatever you use to get from A to B)

Secondary Footprint:

A measure of our indirect emissions of CO2 looking at the entire lifecycle of products from their manufacture to their breakdown. It is a simple equation… the more new things buy, the more emissions you cause.

Here is a fantastic graph thanks to Carbon Footprint which breaks down all our basic needs and modern luxuries and codes whether they Primary (Green) or Secondary (Yellow).

Green = Primary Footprint ; Yellow = Secondary Footprint

So what is your Carbon Footprint?

So are you ready to know? There are a million calculators around and they go from being extremely comprehensive (wanting to know how many kWh you use, litres of heating oil) to just getting an approximate summary of your habits and uses (travel distances, modes of transport, dietary choices). Below I have put a link to my favourite calculators – one basic, one thorough, a kiddies calculator and my fave of all.

The end result (represent by worlds) will show you how many planet earths we would need if everyone (all 7 billion of us) lived the lifestyle that you live. A lot of them also give you a detailed synopsis of what you use and where your problem areas are (i.e. travel, home energy, food) like the picture below;

An example of a typical synopsis after calculating your carbon footprint (from WWF ‘Fun Calculator’ link below)

To use these calculators you need to have some idea on the systems that your home uses and general energy consumption – to a varying degree depending on which calculator you use. It takes about ten minutes and will also ask about your diet, household and travel. If you don’t feel confident doing it by yourself then sit down with your partner or family to do it – it also has the added benefit of starting a conversation about sustainability. It is very interesting and really shows the areas that you need to make changes to (and areas that you can pat yourself on the back!).

Tip from Blonde Olive – Having your bills at the ready can make this easier but you can guesstimate without as well.

Basic Calculator

Advanced Calculator

My Favourite Calculator (This calculator is fantastic as it gives you options on whether your answer is detailed or vague. You also get a cute little avatar that walks around a little street which eventually – through your answers – builds itself into a virtual representation of your eco-habits – check out the picture below)

My little olive avatar roaming around Emville!

And there is even a calculator for school kiddies! (It is American so you may need to pick a random school but it is recommended on a load of Australian sites, including state governments)

Reduce your footprint…

If you are not happy with how many earths you are eating up with your habits then commit to making a difference. When I first calculated mine a couple of years ago it came as quite a shock. I was eco conscious but it was very clear that even with my good habits the world was going to fly way beyond its carrying capacity. The great thing was I could see exactly where I was going wrong and change it. For example, my husband and I were not using enough public transport and we lived too far away from work, uni, friends and family. Solution? We moved closer and we carpool to work everyday (halfway at least and then I walk the rest). As well as some other lifestyle tweaks we have more than halved our households footprint!

If you are stuck for ideas check out my list of Eco Resolutions or my post about how to save water around the house. You could even reduce the impact that your diet has on the planet. Carbon Footprint also made a really helpful list of quick tips.

Personally my favorite way to cut emissions is one of the most logical too – cut out pointless single-use items such as plastic bags, bottles or cutlery. Actually, get rid of plastics altogether. If you want my 5 Steps to Cut Out Plastic then click here.

My favourite of their suggested solutions are listed below;

Tackle your Primary Footprint

  • Turn it off when not in use (lights, television, DVD player, Hi Fi, computer etc) Click here to find out which electrical items in your household are contribute the most to your Carbon Footprint
  • Turn down the water heating setting (just 2 degrees will make a significant saving)
  • Fill your dish washer and washing machine with a full load – this will save you water, electricity, and washing powder
  • Fill the kettle with only as much water as you need
  • Do your weekly shopping in a single trip
  • Hang out the washing to dry rather than tumble drying it
  • Use energy saving light bulbs
  • Use the bus or a train rather than your car
  • For short journeys either walk or cycle
  • Try to reduce the number of flights you take

Reduce your Secondary Footprint

(this is the easiest one because it all depends on your buying habits, your choices!)

  • Don’t buy bottled water refill from the tap. If you are concerned about the quality – buy a water filter. Why not give Plastic Free July a go (see the information here).
  • Buy local fruit and vegetables, or even try growing your own
  • Buy foods that are in season locally
  • Reduce your consumption of meat
  • Buy organic produce
  • Don’t buy over packaged products
  • Recycle as much as possible
  • For the full list please click here.

Good luck and let me know how you go!

Eco Resolutions

Resolution: A firm decision to do or not to do something.

Why not take a stand and make your firm decisions in favour of our planet this year? In Australia, the 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998 and each decade since the 1940’s has been warmer than the last. Those are pretty scary statistics which I think we all need to take heed of. So here are some suggestions if you are looking to green up your resolutions.

Save water

“Thirsty World” – A photo-essay by Brent Stirton

Australia is the driest inhabited continent on the planet yet we are often completely carefree with our water usage. I often think of what a bizarre comparison it is when I drive past Aussie kids playing in sprinklers when there are kids in Africa that literally have to walk kilometres to get a bucket of water to live off. Especially when you realise that it is so, so, SO simple to save a couple of litres every day. I wrote a blog post that lists lots of simple ways that you can save water. Challenge yourself and see how many things on this list you can adopt.

Did you know… Only 3% of the world’s water is fresh and only 0.3% is available to humans.

Choose social activities that are eco-friendly

There is such beauty in the simple things in life. My husband and I the other day just went into Fremantle and lay down on the grass and looked up through the trees. It was so relaxing and lovely that we have decided we will be doing it a lot more often. Give it a go! Here are some suggestions of low impact activities that do you some good as well.

  • Instead of a restaurant meal… Go for a bike ride and finish it at a coffee shop (make sure they are Fair Trade conscious though!)
  • Instead of going clothes shopping… Make a map of the op-shops in the area and go exploring there instead. (you’ll save money and not look like everyone else)
  • Instead of playing Wii or Kinect or any other computer game… Play a boardgame. Beware – Trivial Pursuit can get aggressive. In our household anyway.
  • Instead of lying on the couch watching movies all day… Volunteer! Go walk dogs at the local shelter or be a companion for an elderly person. There are plenty of opportunities out there and you feel a hell of a lot better than you would have sitting on your bum all day.
  • Instead of ordering a cheap book online… go to a second hand bookshop or charity store and find a pre-loved beauty to bury yourself in. Appreciate what is the magnificence of a truly old book. I found a beauty the other day – see below!

My fave vintage find ever! A worn and pre-loved Dr Seuss ‘Yertle the Turtle’ book (which also happens to be one of my faves)

Reduce your household energy use

My husband and I have been graphing our power bills for a few months now and we challenge ourselves to reduce our energy consumption month on month. It has really worked for us and we have reduced our energy costs significantly. Amazing what a bit of competition can do? Here are some simple ways you can cut energy costs this year.

  • Close blinds and curtains during the day to prevent your house heating up
  • Try cold showers in summer! It can be really invigorating and cold water is better for both your skin and your hair.
  • Wash your clothes in cold water. It cleans just as well and saves 80% of the energy used in hot washes. (Exceptions for bedsheets or reusable nappies for health reasons)
  • Use the shortest washing cycle possible
  • Abolish your clothes dryer during summer!
  • Microwaves and gas burners use less than a quarter of the energy as an electric stove and half of a conventional oven
  • Use low watt lamps where possible. It often creates a far nicer atmosphere and uses a lot less power
  • Turn your fridge off when you go on holiday
  • Turn off all appliances at the plug!
  • Never leave lights on that don’t need to be on.

Did you know… Australia has the highest emissions per person in the industrialised world, 35% more than the US?

Green up your diet

His name is Winston

The great thing about this one is that it generally goes hand-in-hand with another very common resolution – Be Healthy. Eating organically, cutting meat and dairy from your diet, cooking whole foods; these are all small steps that we can all take towards a healthier body and a healthier planet. If you want to see how you can reduce your carbon footprint just by altering what you eat then see my comprehensive list here.

“When you go to the grocery store, you find that the cheapest calories are the ones that are going to make you the fattest – the added sugars and fats in processed foods”

Michael Pollan

Let your voice be heard

At the Walk Against Warming Protest with the Save Our Marine Life Crew

If you are passionate about something then let it show. There are social groups, organisations and companies all around the place crying out for volunteers. Volunteers can be involved in organising functions or fund-raisers, tend to animals, be part of the protest, rattle a tin for a day, man a stall or even just to write a letter to their local government. These places are great for meeting like-minded people, talking about new ideas or discovering new opportunities. Here are some ideas if you want to give it a go;

Ban completely useless crap from your life!

Plastic water bottles, plastic bags, paper towels – these are all completely useless products that you use one time and then throw away. Rid them from your life! There are so many funky reusable options that are around. Get yourself a reusable shopping bag, buy an insulated bottle to keep your water cool, get a microfibre cloth. Look at anything that you throw out and ask yourself if there were any alternatives that you could have used that won’t end up in landfill.

Here are a two of my favourite reusable shopping bags.

The FEED Bag ($70), By Lauren Bush

The brain behind this is Lauren Bush (pictured) who is also – surprisingly – the niece of former president George. She took inspiration from her travels as UN ambassador on the World Food Program. She is now CEO of FEED which has spawned an iconic range of reusable shopping bags made of burlap and organic cotton. Each bag purchased provides school meals for one child for one whole year.

(L) The converted clutch (R) The full bag with it’s designer, Lauren Bush

Buy it here.

The Big Fair Bag ($8.95), by Oxfam Shop

As soon as I saw these bags in Oxfam I loved them. They are eye-catching, fun and – best of all – Fair Trade. They come in four colours and are made by the Federation of Tibetan Cooperations in India (FTCI).

The FTCI provides an income for producers (Indian and Tibetan) and also supports the refugee community in India. The biggest part of profit is used through the Tibetan government in Exile for education and health with some of the profitsalso going towards better working conditions.

I love ’em!

Fun, Functional and Fair

Buy it here

Did you know?… In March 2002 Ireland introduced a tax on plastic bags. Each plastic bag handed out costs the consumer an extra 15 cents. Since the tax scheme began it is estimated that plastic bags available at stores have been decreased by 90%. 

Green Up Your Diet

Given that food is one of the four basic human needs it is safe to say that what we all eat has a huge impact on the planet. Take a good look at what you eat. Not just what you eat – how it is produced, where it is produced, is it heavily packaged, were any humans or creatures harmed or wronged to produce it. Our food choices are not flippant decisions that should be governed by our taste buds. There are not only ethical implications here but also a hell of a lot of potential emmissions. So as your New Years resolution why not try green up your diet. Here are some ways to go about it.

Go Vego

His name is Winston

Switching to a vegan diet saves 6.5 tonnes of CO2 per person every year. As renowned journalist and food writer Michael Pollan famously said;

“A vegan in a Hummer has a lighter carbon footprint than a beef eater in a Prius”

If veganism sounds a bit too scary at first, try vegetarianism or Freeganism (conciously making predominantly vegan choices as much as possible). Not only will you feel better for it and dramatically reduce your carbon footprint in the process but you will also save the lives of hundreds of animals every year. That’s reason enough for me.

Stop shopping at the supermarket

Ditch your supermarket for small local businesses or farmers markets. These large corporations are creating a scary monopoly in Australia and forcing prices down which is driving small businesses completely out of the market and backing producers into a corner. Farmers are forced to lower their costs (to ensure they get a slice of the Woolworths pie) but these rates are barely enough to cover the cost of production anyway. It leads to unsustainable practices (growing chemically is cheaper) and cruelty to the animals (quick processing or lack of basic care). And after all that what are we left with? Farmers, small businesses, consumers and our communities are unhappy or out of business and the end result is of poor nutritional quality anyway. Support local businesses and your own community.Here are some places you can start!

Buy Local

Now that you are avoiding supermarkets you will get to explore all the amazing local producers! There is nothing that I like more than going down to a farmers market and chatting with the producers or comparing notes with your fellow browsers. Some have live music, you can taste to fruit and it some places even let you take your dog. Not only is the experience nicer but buying local produce cuts down any emissions related to long travel times or produce that is grown out of season. Get to know your community while you shop – it is a really rewarding experience. I have listed a few of my favourite farmers markets here.

Speak with the growers!

Eat Seasonally

A big part of buying local is eating seasonal produce. I used to have a standard menu that I would eat rain, hail or shine and it never crossed my mind that it was being shipped from interstate or even internationally! Not only will you reduce energy usage (travel, refridgeration, petrol) but you will also save money as seasonal produce is cheaper due to availability. If you need to know what is in season in your area see this handy guide.

Go organic

Eating organically is better for you and the planet. It just makes sense. Eating up to 40 pesticides, fungicides and herbicides every apple just doens’t make sense. Spraying our land with chemicals that kills whatever unfortunate being it lands on is not good. Organic farmers work with the land to get the best from it and while it is a little more expensive you do get what you pay for in nutritional value and taste. I wrote an article about how you can make the transition to organic eating a bit easier, even on a budget. Healthy you, healthy planet.

Avoid Palm Oil

Palm Oil is in a lot of pre-packed foods and products and when it is not sustainably produced it is bad news.

I wrote this article explaining the ins and outs of palm oil (what it is, why it’s bad) and wrote a follow up guide to avoiding unsustainable palm in your products.

Make sure your not killing orangutans with your biscuits!

Buy Fair Trade

World Fair Trade Day

Make sure you look for the Fair Trade logo when buying food – especially when buying chocolate, coffee and tea. This excerpt from the FTA organisation website explains exactly why you should buy fair trade –

“Fairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world. By requiring companies to pay sustainable prices, Fairtrade addresses the injustices of conventional trade, which traditionally discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers. It enables them to improve their position and have more control over their lives”.

Look for this logo!

Cook wholefoods, avoid packaging

These days we have tablets for everything, artificial flavours, frozen meals and the other day I even saw ‘Chicken In A Can’ – please hold my hair back for a moment while I barf. The bizarre thing is that all these magic pills we are ramming down our throats are derived from plants – why not just eat the plant? If you have a diet full of organic fruit and vegetables you will get all the vitamins you need all the while avoiding wasteful packaging. Frozen meals are labelled as ‘convenient’ but what on earth is convenient about paying ten bucks for a small tasteless meal in a non-recyclable container? Even for a week try and make all your food from scratch. You will end up feeling better and you will reduce your household waste.

Avoid GM Foods

Image courtesy of Tribal Energies

Genetically modified foods come from crops or food sources that have had their DNA modified by gene technology. In simple terms, scientists are trying to produce ‘Super Crops’ that have new characteristics making them cheaper, quicker and/or easier to grow. An example – scientists can take a gene from a deep water fish that lives in very cold ocean and fuse it into a strawberry DNA so it can survive in frosts. It is a contentious subject with some hailing it the solution to global hunger but others (including me) fearful of potential impact. No one knows what effects GM technology will have on our health and the environments. I will leave you with a principle that was first introduced at the Earth Summit of 1992 –

The Precautionary Principle

“Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation”

Principle #15 of the Rio Declaration, Rio Conference (or Earth Summit), 1992