Refuse, reuse, and reduce plastic!

Back in the day, supermarkets didn’t sell bottled water.

Most of us got our water directly from the tap.

Water just wasn’t something people thought about buying from the grocery, anyway.

Those were the days, my friend, when milkmen (no women that I can recall) delivered fresh milk daily or every other day to those milk boxes — now sold as “antiques” and “collectibles” — next to our front doors. Similarly, Louie Armet delivered a case of seltzer water (carbonated or “tonic” water) to our house weekly. Soft drinks (soda or pop, depending where you lived) were sold in groceries. But that’s before we became health-conscious and learned that soda was bad for us, while, for the most part, milk and water were good.

Nonetheless, most beverages came either in glass containers (jars and bottles) or metal cans.

You paid a deposit on them at the check out and many a youngster earned extra cents (sense?) foraging, gathering, and returning this glass and aluminum in exchange for the deposits.

I don’t know when — exactly — it happened that plastic became the packaging of our lives … but I do vividly remember the black and white “Plastics Make It Possible” television commercials in which plastic was heralded as the scientific “miracle” that would improve our lives.

Think about it: just try to go an hour without touching something plastic.

Greenpeace partnered with Protecting Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana (PKO) and Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) to do a beach cleanup and brand audit at Kanapou beach on Kaho’olawe Island, Hawaii. Trash washed up on the beach.

The stuff is everywhere: from our toilet seats to the electronic devices we constantly use (sometimes, it’s safe to ass-u-me, while likely sitting on said toilet seat) are made of plastic. In fact, try as we might, there’s not much in our day-to-day lives that doesn’t contain plastic.

“I just want to say one word to you. Just one word … Plastics.”

Remember that line from The Graduate?

More recently, however, plastic has begun to bother me in its excess.

If these words weren’t about a former boss, they could aptly apply to plastic: “Some is good; more is better; too much is just enough.¨

Maybe for the producers, vendors, and plastic distributors, but definitely not for us and our world.

Why must water be sold in single-use plastic bottles? And those plastic bottles then wrapped in layers of plastic? And, again, as we check out, those plastics inside of plastic put in plastic bags?Why is there so much hard plastic packaging around razors, cds and dvds, tooth brushes and floss? Almost everything that now hangs from retail store shelves?

It’s bad enough trying to remove it to begin with … but, time and again, I cut myself and end up bleeding from the plastic shards.

But, I’m being self-centered here. There are communal and global reasons why we need to reduce our dependence on disposable plastic. Primarily because they’re not disposable!

Plastic, undoubtedly, has revolutionized society, introducing a huge amount of convenience and affordability, and allowing for the development of things like computers, cell phones and many modern medical devices.

But our obsession with it also comes at a steep cost. Although originally hailed as a miraculous innovation that could reduce a rapidly industrializing society’s reliance on scarce natural resources, plastic has also created a monumental environmental mess. Worldwide, more that 400 million tons of the stuff are churned out annually, generating a huge amount of waste of which less than 10 percent is recycled. The rest either ends up in landfills, where it will take an average of 500 years to decompose, or in waterways and oceans. 

A study by a scientific working group at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), concluded that every year, eight million metric tons of plastic end up in our oceans. What is more concerning is that, according to the study, the cumulative input for 2025 would be nearly 20 times the eight million metric tons estimation.

One of the most concerning problems that our oceans are facing nowadays – if not the most important – is plastic pollution. Plastics are the cause of increasing ocean pollution, which in turn affects marine life and, consequently, humans as well.

Did you know:

  • Plastic causes many adverse effects in wildlife because chemicals include reproductive abnormalities and behavioral effects.
  • All sea turtle species, 45% of all species of marine mammals, and 21% of all species of sea birds have been affected by marine debris.
  • Plastics can absorb toxins from surrounding seawater, such as pesticides and those in the class of chemicals known as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). They can also release harmful components.
  • Plastics can be ingested by many organisms. This can cause damage to their health.
  • The main cause for the increase in plastic production is the rise of plastic packaging.
  • The drilling of oil and processing into plastic releases harmful gas emissions into the environment including carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, ozone, benzene, and methane (a greenhouse gas that causes a greater warming effect than carbon dioxide) according to the Plastic Pollution Coalition.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency or EPA estimated that five ounces of carbon dioxide are emitted for every ounce of Polyethylene Terephthalate produced (also known as PET – the plastic most commonly used to make water bottles).

What can we — you and me — do about all this plastic pollution?

The solutions are simple and can be applied by everyone, everywhere.

The best way we can all help is to reduce new litter entering the environment. This may sound naïve, but it is a fact. To do that, there are three Rs that can remind us to do this:

  • Reduce: Choose products with less packaging, or shops where you can refill your own container.
  • Reuse: Use reusable products.
  • Recycle: Separate items that can be recycled (i.e. plastic, paper, cardboard).

Short of lobbying for government intervention in plastic packaging, there’s lots we can do to reduce our individual plastic pollution footprint: Have three receptacles in your kitchen–one for recycling, one for compost and one for trash. Collect all your plastic trash for one week just to see how much you actually use. It may make you think twice about how much plastic you buy. Stop buying single use plastic bottles and fill a reusable bottle, instead. Notice how things are packaged and opt for items packaged in cardboard vs. plastic whenever possible, for example laundry detergent. Minimize your use of plastic bags. Keep reusable bags handy. Use a thermos for your morning cup of coffee and bring it with you to your local coffee shop. Don’t buy disposable razors. Swap out or minimize all those plastic food storage containers you’ve collected over the years, especially those without lids or bottoms. Use glass or metal containers. Buy from bulk bins. This doesn’t mean buying in bulk. Bring your own reusable cloth containers or bags. Stop using disposable plastic plates. Donate plastic household items or decor you don’t love or are no longer using. Don’t just throw them out.

Don’t just throw them out!

Shared here are personal observations, experiences, and happenstance that actually occurred to us as we moved from the USA to begin a new life in Portugal and Spain. Collected and compiled in EXPAT: Leaving the USA for Good, the book is available in hardcover, paperback, and eBook editions from Amazon and most online booksellers.

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