Let's Refuse Single-Use

If your household is anything like mine, underneath the sink stashed away behind those delicious cleaning products is a big pile of plastic bags. Every week, my family goes grocery shopping only to forget our reusable bags at home, leading us to bring back a never ending supply of No Name (™) brand plastic grocery bags. Even though, technically, I’m reusing the bags that I get from the grocery store, I never really see that plastic pile shrink. So what are single use plastics? Single-use plastics are disposable plastics that are intended to be used only once before they are thrown away. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) notes that these products as the most common single-use plastics found in the environment: cigarette butts, plastic drinking bottles, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, and straws (6). While no single person can deny the miracle which is plastic, the shear impact of what single-use plastics are doing to our planet is staggering.

Recently, there has been a huge push to end the supply of single use plastics, and for good reasons too. The City of Vancouver will be issuing a by-law effective June 1st, 2019 which prohibits business license holders from providing single-use utensils unless requested by customers. This Vancouver by-law is a part of a city-wide Zero Waste 2040 long-term strategic environmental initiative (1).  Although governing bodies can limit the choices we make in terms of plastic consumption, the onus is on us, the consumers, to make the right choices. Are we going to eat out at that trendy Korean restaurant in south-side Edmonton which has all the delicious snack side portions but everything is served in single use bowls and plates, or are we going to bring our own containers these venues? The choice is ours and so is the responsibility.

Everyone knows about canvas bags and Hydroflask(™)  so below we have listed a few awesome alternatives to our least favorite single-use plastics.

Alternatives to single-use plastics:

  • Plastic straws: Choose reusable straws. Some options include silicone, stainless steel, glass and bamboo materials.

  • Plastic water bottles: you already know.

  • Plastic grocery bags:

    • Carry a few reusable bags in your car or bag for those unexpected runs to the groceries. Tip: you can match two colour of your double-cuffed beanie to the colour of your tote.

    • Credobags Mesh Produce Bags are made of regular cotton or cotton mesh.

    • ECOBAGS use cotton in India under the Fair Trade or Fair Labor policies.

  • Plastic takeout containers:

    • Consider bringing your own reusable food containers when eating out. It both doubles up as a container for your leftovers and hassle free meal prep for lunch tomorrow.

    • Stainless steel food carrier

  • Plastic food storage bags: Consider this option.

  • Cotton buds usually have plastic stems: Opt for paper stemmed cotton buds.

  • Plastic utensils:

    • Consider portable reusable utensils such as these: Light My Fire Spork is a spoon, knife and fork combo.

    • Wash plastic utensils for reuse instead of disposing them.  

    • If disposable utensils are preferred, use a compostable option.

  • Disposable coffee cups: While coffee cups are predominantly composed of paper, they are lined with plastic polyethylene which disqualifies them from being recycled.

    • Bring a reusable coffee mug to coffee shops. Tim Hortons and Starbucks provide a 10% discount when you bring your own mug!

  • Plastic trash bags: here is a compostable option.

  • Shampoo, conditioner and lotion bottles: try bar forms of these products

  • Plastic food wrap:

    • Etee Wraps are made with organic cotton muslin infused with beeswax, tree resin, organic jojoba, cinnamon & clove essential oils, and non-GMO soy wax. Wash with cool water using an eco-friendly soap (not ethanol-based) then let dry.

    • Bee’s Wrap is composed of organic cotton that has been covered in beeswax, jojoba oil, and tree resin. The warmth of your hands softens the wrap to create a seal. To clean, simply wash it in cool water with a mild dish soap then let air dry.

  • Teabags: Paper tea bags are commonly sealed using polypropylene, a plastic polymer (2). Opt for loose tea leaves and use these methods:

    • French press: Here is a video demonstrating how to use a french press. Here is a review of what french press to buy.

    • Tea infusers are designed to hold loose tea leaves when placed in hot water for steeping (4): tea ball


Written by Kanesha Calo and Allen Gao

References:

  1. https://vancouver.ca/green-vancouver/zero-waste-vancouver.aspx

  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tea_bag#Paper_and_plastic

  3. https://www.waterdocs.ca/water-talk/2017/12/19/8-single-use-plastic-items-you-can-quit-right-now

  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infuser

  5. https://www.businessinsider.com/eco-friendly-alternatives-everyday-products-2018-1

  6. https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/25496/singleUsePlastic_sustainability.pdf?isAllowed=y&sequence=1

1907: The Beginning of the End of the World

Plastics were first made in 1907 but became widely used in the 1960s, thus marking the beginning of our ‘disposable’ lifestyle. The incorporation of this material into our products makes financial and logistical sense for manufacturers and consumers as it is a cheap and versatile material. Unfortunately, because of plastic’s popularity, it has since become an environmental issue. This is also due in part to our ‘use once and throw away’ attitude, marking it to be an unsustainable material. We now produce more than 300 million tons of plastic a year; half of which are single-use plastics. Out of the 300 million, 8 million gets dumped into the ocean. So far we have created 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic, a number which is difficult to conceptualize. Imagine 1 billion elephants or twenty-five thousand empire state buildings and you’ll be on the right track. This ridiculously large amount is made more difficult to comprehend as many of us North Americans are shielded from the effects of plastics. In fact, most of these materials are being dumped in our oceans or placed in landfills. Plastics in the western world bring a new meaning to Not in My Backyard (NIMBY). There have been new ways to combat the rise of our dependency on single-use plastics, and the “Four Rs” is a method with a lot of impact.

The “Four Rs” include reduction, reuse, recycle and recover. Businesses all over the world have had to employ the “Four Rs” due to new regulations and public pressure. With the lack of space to dump their waste, they can no longer just manage waste; they must now consider prevention. Recycling is the process of converting our waste into reusable items. It is one of the four waste prevention techniques that people participate in.

The Canadian government has interpretations of what waste prevention looks like, and the regulations that are placed on Canadian corporations. Companies, whenever possible, have to reduce the amount of waste they create. If waste is made, the company should try to reuse the products if applicable. Recycling should be considered if the waste items cannot be reduced or reused. And if the product cannot be reduced, reused, or recycles, there can be the recovery of the waste. This is an empirical method to make companies’ initiatives more cost-effective.

However, we are not corporations that are trying to reduce the amount of packaging we use to make a singular product. We are people that are functioning in a world where life in plastic is not so fantastic. Plastic materials are hard to avoid, but we can find ways to reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover in our own day to day practices.

In Edmonton, this What Goes Where sheet summarizes what we can recycle and what can go to the Eco Stations. We have to note the importance of knowing exactly what can and cannot be recycled since improper recycling can lead to damaging of machinery/equipment. Little details like cleaning out a peanut butter container completely before tossing it in the recycling bin can change its ability to be recycled. You should remove the lids of coffee cups and water bottles because not all parts belong in a recycling bin. Also, checking the label of the container before recycling is super important. There are many variations of plastic, and they can't all be discarded in the same fashion.

At the moment, in Edmonton, single-use items like straws, plastic bags, and takeout containers are not accepted for recycling. There is no actual regulation as of yet of what items should be considered restricted, should be penalized, or eliminated. It is our role to try and make legislation that exists in other cities across Canada that will eliminate/restrict these single-use plastics.

Using recycling bins is not the only way that someone can recycle. As conscious buyers, we can choose to buy plastics that are made from recycled material, and meant for multi-use purposes. Going one step further, we can also avoid purchasing single use plastics altogether. This could include purchasing glass containers instead of plastic bags or opting for disposable bamboo toothbrushes instead of the traditional plastic options.

In Edmonton and other cities including Toronto, around 25% of items meant for the landfill are thrown into the recycling instead. Other regions of Canada, like Vancouver, have been able to reduce this number to 5%. It shows that proper recycling is possible to achieve as more people become aware of pressing environmental issues. Edmonton Waste Services has many resources that can help us become more environmentally friendly in our recycling endeavors.

If you are looking for information that will give you a more global perspective on how the recycling of plastics is handled around the world, listen to this episode of 99% Invisible by Radiotopia. This segment brings up important legislation that impacts the redistribution of North American recyclables to China.

Written by Lydia Mutoni

References

The 4Rs - reduction, reuse, recycling and recovery

https://www.iisd.org/business/tools/bt_4r.aspx

Plastic Oceans

https://plasticoceans.org/the-facts/

A running list of action on plastic pollution

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/07/ocean-plastic-pollution-solutions/

What Goes where?

https://www.edmonton.ca/programs_services/documents/PDF/What-goes-where-fall-2018.pdf

7 Recycling Mistakes You’re Probably Making (Because You Can’t Always Trust The Recycle Symbol)

https://www.chatelaine.com/food/kitchen-tips/how-to-recycle-in-canada/

Tips: Top Ten Ways to Recycle

https://eponline.com/Articles/2007/11/12/Tips-Top-Ten-Ways-to-Recycle.aspx

Let's Keep Talking Future of Waste for Residents

https://www.edmonton.ca/programs_services/garbage_waste/lets-talk-future-of-waste-for-residents.aspx


Life in plastic? It’s not fantastic.

Plastic pollution has spread all over the world and the steps to remediate this issue are long overdue. Since the start of global production of plastics in the 1950s, the use of plastics has increased exponentially with plastics being used in every aspect of our daily lives, including phones, cars, clothing, and home appliances. Out of the 8.3 billion tons of plastic produced throughout this time, only 23% was recovered or recycled. In Canada, only about 11% of the plastics used are recycled, leaving the rest in landfills, incinerators, oceans, and the Great Lakes.

There have been discoveries of five offshore plastic accumulation zones in the world’s oceans to date, with the largest one being the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex. It’s an island of floating plastic located halfway between California and Hawaii, three times the size of France in 2018. Plastics with high levels of buoyancy and resilience stay afloat and are transported over long distance through the ocean’s current and houses the patch. Once these plastics are accumulated, it is unlikely that they’ll disperse until they degrade under the sun, waves and marine life.  

The ‘benefit’ of using plastic is its durability, which is, unfortunately, also its downfall. Plastics are made of petroleum, so they don’t fully decompose. Instead, these products break into microplastics which contaminate the environment and enter the food supply. Furthermore, it is estimated by the World Economic Forum that the amount of plastic will exceed the amount of aquatic life by 2050. Plastics are endangering 700 species of animals including seabirds, whales, and dolphins who mistakenly ingest plastics, thinking its food.

There are considerably less research and media coverage on the effects of plastic on land. Researchers in Germany estimated that terrestrial microplastic pollution is 4 to 23 times higher than marine microplastic pollution, depending on the environment. Microplastics further degrade into nano plastics which then seep into the soil as fertilizer and water. The surface of tiny fragments of plastic potentially carry disease-causing organisms and act as the disease itself. Plastics are also being mistakenly ingested by land animals such as stray dogs and raccoons, and pose a threat to them when these animals get caught in tangled plastic bags and beverage rings.


Moving forward - how about bioplastic?

Bioplastic or bio-based plastic is essentially plastic made from a more sustainable source like plants or other biological material instead of petroleum. For example, bioplastic can be manufactured from starch, cellulose, sugar and vegetable oil that can be derived from maize, potatoes or sugar. About 8% of the world’s oil supply is used to make traditional plastic. By manufacturing bioplastic, there will be a major reduction in the usage of non-renewable energy. Advantages of using bioplastic include reduced carbon footprint and nondegradable waste, and they don’t contain substances that are harmful to our health such as phthalates or bisphenol A (BPA).

Hopefully, by understanding the impact of plastics, we can be more mindful of our consumption of these products. Stay tuned for next week’s post where we’ll discuss every-day tips for your own household!


References

Good, K. (July, 2018). 700 Marine Species Might Go Extinct Because of Plastic Pollution. One Green Planet. Retrieved from http://www.onegreenplanet.org/environment/marine-species-extinction-and-plastic-pollution/

Lacurci, J. (Februar, 2015). Update: 700 Marine Species Threatened by Plastic Debris. Nature World News. Retrieved from https://www.natureworldnews.com/articles/12846/20150219/update-700-marine-species-threatened-by-plastic-debris.htm

Material Science of Plastics. (n.d). Plastic Garbage Project. Retrieved from https://www.plasticgarbageproject.org/en/plastic-life/

Plastic Planet: How tiny plastic particles are polluting our soil. (n.d) United Nations Environment. Retrieved from

https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/plastic-planet-how-tiny-plastic-particles-are-polluting-our-soil

Plastic World, Plastic Nightmare. (September, 2016). Retrieved from

http://blog.nus.edu.sg/plasticworld/2016/09/14/impacts-of-plastic-pollution-on-land-environment

Talking Trash: Canada’s Plastic Pollution Problem. (n.d). Environmental Defence. Retrieved from https://d36rd3gki5z3d3.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/FINAL-Talking-Trash-Primer-Oct-2018.pdf?x59301

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (n.d). The Ocean Cleanup. Retrieved from https://www.theoceancleanup.com/great-pacific-garbage-patch/

What Are Bioplastics?. (n.d). Sustainability for All. Retrieved from https://www.activesustainability.com/environment/what-are-bioplastics/