It’s great to see the increasing range of options to reduce single use plastic use. While reusable water bottles and cloth shopping bags have been around for many years, there is now a growing range of options from stores where you can bring in your own reusable container (at least you could before Covid) and products you can purchase that have no plastic packaging like solid shampoos and laundry detergent strips.
Single use plastics are, in some ways, an easy target. In many cases, I’ve actually found that the plastic free option is more convenient – solid shampoos are amazing when going through airport security. I also love that I’m no longer having to store empty plastic detergent bottles until I can fit them in my recycling. In some cases, the inconvenience has just moved: I have to remember to take my bags or my mug, but I don’t have to dispose of the waste after the fact. I also don’t have to worry about pandemic buying preventing me from having tissues thanks to my Last Tissue packs.
But, there’s still new plastic coming into my house. In the work from home world, I’ve had to update my computer and monitor, both of which include plastic. I also had to replace my drive chain on my bike and there was plastic there. Electronics, furniture, household items, building construction, and automobiles all often include plastics in their structure and this contributes about two thirds of plastic going to US landfills (Heller, Mazor, & Keoleian, 2020).
It’s easy to pat ourselves on the back when we down our drink without a straw or take our reusable produce bags to the farmers market or throw our face mask in the laundry so that it’s ready to go the next time we go. But reducing plastic use is about much more than these acts. It’s about reducing the amount of petroleum products available in the future so that the petroleum itself can stay in the ground can never release it’s greenhouse gases (plastics account for about 8% of annual global oil and gas production). It’s about finding sustainable alternatives. And most important, it must be about consuming less and making less waste. As Heller et al explain, recycling is not the solution as less than 8% of annual plastic use in the US is actually recycled.
That last point actually goes back to my comment about changing where the inconvenience is. Sure, it might take me a bit more effort to take my large container to the store, fill it, and then come home and fill my small container of hand soap, but I don’t need to deal with any waste at the end. No need for an extra bag of recycling that may or may not actually be recycled, when I run out, it’s just a trip back to the store, something I’d be doing no matter what container I was using.
So, let’s not stop with the straws and water bottles, let’s look at all the other plastics we use too and try to think about the entire life cycle of a product from design to disposal and continue to head towards a plastic free world.