10 practical ways to reduce plastic waste in our daily lives
15 July 2021 | Celia Topping
Awareness has been growing for years around the problem of plastic pollution, and how to reduce plastic waste. But the reality is stark. If we want to save our environment from the plastic invasion, we need to act now.
Why has plastic become a global problem?
Plastic is everywhere. And to be honest, it’s an amazing invention – being durable, economical and incredibly versatile. Millions of lives are saved every year because of plastic in the healthcare sector, and much of modern life would grind to a halt without it. But it’s also toxic, and is causing devastating harm to our environment, and the wildlife within it1.
Humans have produced 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic since 19502 – of which only 9% is recycled. Plastic takes hundreds, if not thousands of years to break down completely. And most of it ends up in landfill, or on our streets and in our oceans, where it disintegrates into microplastics3. These tiny microplastics pollute our water and air, enter the food chain, seriously harm wildlife and ultimately end up back on our plates in the food we eat.
With 367 million tonnes of plastic produced in 2020 worldwide4, plastic is quite literally taking over the world. At these rates, it’s estimated that by 2050, there’ll be more plastic in our oceans than fish5. But what can we do to stop plastic pollution?
Why should we reduce plastic waste?
Firstly, producing plastic requires vast amounts of energy and resources, which releases carbon emissions, and contributes to climate change. Cutting down on the amount of plastic produced would significantly lower our carbon footprint.
Also, plastic is made up of many chemical products which can cause harm to humans, animals and plants when they break down. Something as simple as a plastic supermarket bag takes 20 years6 to biodegrade. And for those 20 years, it’s creating toxic and physical hazards to wildlife and organisms, from plankton to whales.
What are single-use plastics?
“Single-use” is a term that refers to any plastic items designed to only be used once before they are thrown away. Examples include:
- Plastic supermarket shopping bags
- Plastic coffee cup lids
- Plastic water bottles
- Plastic take-away food containers
- Plastic straws
- Plastic cutlery
Single-use plastics account for around half of the plastic we use each year7, and have a typical useful life of less than an hour, yet can take up to 500 years to biodegrade8. That’s just not sustainable. So we’ve put together some practical tips on how you can reduce single-use plastics, and cut down on all plastic pollution in your daily life.
10 ways we can cut down on plastic waste
It’s not going to be easy or quick to become plastic free. But little by little, we can start cutting down on our own personal plastic waste and teach our children to become the plastic purgers of the future. Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Carry a reusable bag
Before the plastic bag charge was introduced by the UK government in October 2015, over 7.6 billion single-use carrier bags had been given to supermarket customers in 2014. That’s around 61,000 tonnes of single-use plastic waste, or 140 bags per person9. According to the Environment Agency, who released a life cycle carbon analysis for supermarket carrier bags, each single-use plastic bag is equivalent to 1.578kg of carbon10. That equates to 221kg of carbon per person.
The Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) reported that in 201411, the main retailers in England issued 7.6 billion single use carrier bags before the carrier bag charge was introduced. Based on 2020 data, the UK Government says there’s been a 95% drop in the number of bags sold by the main retailers (over 7.4 billion bags less) compared to 2014. Plus, retailers gave over £9.2 million – money made from the charge – to good causes between April 2019 and April 2020.
So if you don’t already, now’s the time to pack a foldable reusable bag or tote in your everyday bag, so you’re never caught short again at the supermarket checkout.
2. Pack reusable cups, bottles and utensils
So you’re out and about, and fancy something to eat. But the food stall only has plastic cutlery sets, wrapped in – yep, you guessed it – plastic. So instead, you dig out your reusable fork and get stuck in. Hey presto, a plastic pollution solution!
You may have been carrying a reusable water bottle and/or a reusable coffee cup for a while now – so why not take it to the next level? Online stores like Life Without Plastic have tonnes of innovative ideas for how to purge plastic from your life once and for all. If you’re going to go all the way, why not pack a reusable food container, too?
3. Get your milk delivered
Remember the soft early morning hum of the milk float, with milk bottles clinking and tinkling gently in the back? Our parents used to get their milk delivered – so why don’t we?
Glass milk bottles are used, taken back, cleaned and reused, which avoids the whole recycling process. Plus they’re delivered by the original Electric Vehicle! Many places in the UK still deliver milk in glass bottles, so find out if there’s one near you, and you need never run out of milk again. Just remember to cancel your order when you go on holiday!
4. Find your local zero-waste shop
Zero-waste shops are a growing trend on our high streets. Dry goods like pasta, rice, grains, coffee, flour and cereals can all be scooped up and poured into your Mason jar or other (reusable) container, to reduce plastic waste. You’ll also find household detergents and cleaning products, and some offer other beauty and hygiene products in glass jars and bottles too. Examples of zero-waste stores are Harmless Store, Bulk Market and Zero Waste Shop
5. Say no to plastic straws
The UK government banned the use of plastic straws in 2019 – but some still slip through the net. Plastic straws aren’t generally biodegradable, so if they do break down, the particles release nasty chemicals into the soil, air and water, causing terrible damage to animals, plants and people12. Basically, straws suck. So buy your own eco-friendly version, and add it to your travelling utensil kit.
6. Wear clothes made from natural fibres
Man-made fibres cause a huge microplastic pollution problem. Fashion has a lot to answer for. There’s no such thing as a sustainable sequin or plastic-free polyester. In fact, textiles release half a million tonnes of microfibres into the sea every year – which is roughly the same as 50 billion plastic bottles. It’s time to say no to nylon, and go for natural fabrics instead.
7. Ditch the clingfilm
If not correctly used, cling film can leach nasties into your food13, and it can’t be recycled – so we need to find an alternative to pack our sandwiches and keep food fresh. One eco-friendly option is a Beeswax Wrap. These delightfully patterned wraps are made in the UK from 100% cotton, pine resin, Jojoba oil and local beeswax, making them 100% natural, reusable, and compostable. And they make lovely environmentally-friendly gifts, too.
8. Give up gum
Brits are a nation of gum-chewers. And gum, believe it or not, is made of plastic. 80 to 90% of gum is not disposed of properly14, meaning it’s the world’s second most common form of litter after cigarette butts15. The polymers in gum cause serious environmental damage, from our cities to our oceans. Try swapping your favourite brand for a plastic-free alternative like Glee or Chewsy.
9. Toss the teabags
It seems nothing is safe. Even something as unassuming as your morning cuppa could still be causing untold environmental damage. The bags around your tea are actually sealed with plastic, which leads to microplastics entering our waterways, and eventually, our food chain16.
But fear not! Brands such as Pukka Tea and Teapigs are eco-friendly options. And even some of the big brands like PG Tips are jumping on the biodegradable bandwagon. Or you could simply go the more old-fashioned route of straining loose-leaf tea with a tea strainer, just like granny used to do.
10. Spread the word
Making friends and family aware of the dangers of plastic pollution is one of the best moves you can make in reducing plastic waste. Lead by example, by not buying single-use plastics, using reusable containers, recycling properly, and following our guidance above. If you set an example, you’ll make an impact on others. It’s up to all of us to save our environment.
Want to cut your home’s carbon footprint?
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Sources and references:
17. Each year, OVO plants 1 tree for every member in partnership with the Woodland Trust. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so tree-planting helps to slow down climate change.