Plastic pollution and what to do about it

plastic.jpgTips on what you can do about plastic pollution for each type...

What's the deal with plastic pollution? First, check out this great video that gives an overview of plastic pollution.

Now check out this chart from The Boomerang Alliance's submission to the Senate Inquiry into the threat of marine plastic pollution in Australia. It tells us a lot:

  • How much of which types of plastics Australians consume (bigger circle = more consumed)
  • How likely they are to end up in the marine environment (further right = more likely)
  • How much of a threat they pose within the marine environment (further up = greater threat)

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So, what can we do about these various sources of plastic? Let's start with the one in the top-right corner as the most likely to end up in the marine environment and do damage, and work our way down to the bottom left.

Nano Plastic from your laundry

You've probably got a bunch of clothes with synthetic fibres in them. That is, fibres made from petroleum. Things like polyester, nylon, lycra, elastine, viscose, etc. With each wash, countless tiny fibres make their way from your washing machine, through the sewerage system, into rivers, and eventually into the marine environment where they are ingested by organisms with unknown consequences, and biomagnify through the food chain and end up in our own flesh and blood.

What you can do about it:

  1. Avoid synthetic fibres. Unfortunately, even natural fibres have negative environmental impacts (e.g cotton uses a great deal of water and pesticides, and wool uses a lot of land), so the best overall solution is to purchase quality clothing that will last the distance, and/or second clothing. Then mend it to keep it going longer.
  2. Use a Guppy Friend. This is a bag that you put your synthetic clothes in, that (a) reduces wear and tear on your clothes in the washing machine, thereby reducing the amount of fibre shed, and extending the life of your clothes; and (b) catches the fibres that are shed, so they can be disposed of in your garbage bin, rather than down the drain ending up in the ocean. Unfortunately, they are not yet available in Australia, so... um... yeah. I guess you'll have to wait.

Microbeads in personal care products

Some manufacturers thought it would be a good idea to put tiny bits of plastic in their personal care products. Like clothing fibres, they get washed down the drain and end up in the marine environment.

What you can do about it:

  1. Avoid products containing microbeads. Check the ingredient listing for Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), Nylon (PA), and Polyamide (PA). If they contain any of those ingredients, don't use them. Better still, contact the manufacturer and tell them what for! Some products (e.g. some toothpastes) will only show active ingredients. If that's the case, call the manufacturer and ask them. I just did with Colgate and they assured me they don't put microbeads in any of their products.

Cigarette butts

No explanation required... What you can do about it:

  1. Avoid smoking.
  2. Ensure butts are put in the rubbish. Consider carrying a small air-tight container with you to hold your butts until you reach a bin. A small glass spice jar does the trick, and won't melt if hot butts are put in it.

Tyre dust

You know that vehicle tyres wear down, but have you ever thought about where the spent material ends up? Most of it is washed off roads by the rain into the storm water system and out into the river and sea.

What you can do about it:

  1. Drive less.
  2. Practice eco-driving. Keep your tyres inflated to the correct pressure. Keep wheels aligned. Remove unnecessary weight from the vehicle. Drive in a manner that minimises the need for heavy braking and hard cornering. Check out our short video on eco-driving - it will also save you money and reduce greenhouse emissions!

Grocery bags

Littered plastic bags often end up in the marine environment.

What you can do about it:

  1. Use material bags. Jute (hessian) is the best option, environmentally speaking, due to the relatively low energy, water, greenhouse emissions, and pesticide usage to produce them; combined with their durability.
  2. Don't litter. Enough said.

Plastic bottles and other takeaway containers

The Boomerang Alliance estimate Australians consume 7.8 billion plastic bottles per year, and that only 37% of them are recycled. The beverage sector is the single biggest contributor to litter and marine debris; with plastic bottles, lids, straws, and cups representing around half of all litter (by volume) and 60% of all plastic rubbish recovered along our beaches and waterways.

You might be excused in thinking it's okay if you recycle them, but get this... PET bottles (the clear ones that fizzy drinks and juices usually come in) contain than 5% recycled material. Instead, most recycled PET ends up as synthetic fibre clothing, and as we saw above, that's almost certainly going to find its way into the body of some marine organism or another.

What you can do about it:

  1. Don't buy products in plastic bottles. Avoiding fizzy drinks and juices is also good for you - it's much better to drink water and eat whole fruit. But what about milk and milk substitutes? At least one Tasmanian dairy supplies products in glass bottles that are actually returned, cleaned, and refilled (rather than being downcycled into bricks and road base, as is the case for the glass you put in your recycling bin). Failing that, the best you can do is to limit your consumption.
  2. Dine in. Take some time to enjoy your food/beverage.
  3. Bring your own reusable cup/container. No longer is this an unusual thing to do. In fact, it's become the cool thing to do. You can be cool too! Some shops will even give you a discount to reflect the avoided cost of supplying a throw-away cup/container. 
  4. Don't litter. Again, enough said.

Other sources

With paints and coatings, you can avoid them to some extent, and you can prevent them from entering the marine environment with good up-keep, and careful disposal. The other sources shown in the chart above are largely out of your control (unless you work in manufacturing, fishing, or similar).

What about compostable plastics?

Some plastics, usually but not always made from plant oil rather than fossil oil, are claimed to be compostable. Are these a viable solution to plastic pollution? Not really. They are just as likely (if not more so) to be littered, and while they don't take nearly as long to degrade in marine environments, they still likely take years. Read our post on compostable plastics here.

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