Abuja, Nigeria: Plastic Free July is here.
It is the time for a more conscious effort to push back against this love of plastic that is choking our earth and drowning our oceans. From straws to milk cans, from shoe soles to the phone cases we adore, plastic is an integral, if not a healthy part of our lives. It is like our everyday lives have been designed to not function without the convenience of plastic. Thus, giving up plastic for an entire month is not a very easy decision.
But we know it can be done, we are inspired daily by people engaging more and more in these practices. From my incredible editor, Jennifer Nini who loathes single-use plastics, and zero waste pioneer Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home to Beth Terry of My Plastic Free Life, all around us are many who have gone steps further and successfully adopted the plastic-free and zero-waste lifestyles. While these are certainly people to emulate, my multiple efforts to hop on this particular train has so far proven unsuccessful. Given the fact that we still face a plastic crisis, I am inclined to believe that most people out there are like me.
In Nigeria, and presumably, throughout most of Africa, plastic containers are rarely thrown away. PET bottles are converted to detergent bottles, ice cream buckets are used to pack food for refrigeration. In my kitchen, repurposed plastic containers store everything from salt to teabags. The reasoning is simple, why throw these containers away when you can use them for a million other things? The “plastic” culture is strong here and most of the cities do not have the well-defined waste management systems found in more developed nations. The “reuse” culture though is even stronger.
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Giving up single-use disposable plastic – whether for a day, a month, a year or forever – is a giant stride. One of those habits you never know you have until you try to quit them. So, what then can we do in the meantime as lovers of plastic? Perhaps, we ought to look deeper at the underlying problem, the single biggest reason for our over-dependence on plastic.
This is the problem of over-consumption, over-indulgence and the endless search for even more convenience.
Plastic as we know it has been around since 1907 according to the Science History Institute. It was hailed as the wonder substance that solved the packaging problems of many manufacturing and retail companies, would save elephants and the environment. Plastic changed everything. The more it was used, the more it was produced. This was not a problem until the 1960s when the disposable culture took hold and the budding dependence on plastic climbed higher. From grocery bags to milk bottles, every shop, company and brand began to produce and package their goods with plastic. This was about the same time that we began to realize that the ones previously disposed of wouldn’t decompose.
There are of course alternatives to plastic; the synthetic alternatives that various companies are producing and touting will decompose faster than plastic. These options, however, have not caught on and may in time pose the same problem as plastic: The problem of being harmful to the environment by refusing to decompose. There’s also innovative biodegradable packaging made from sugar, seaweed and corn but these aren’t problem-free either.
Now the most popular alternative to plastic (at least for packaging purposes) is paper. Paper is generally eco-friendly. It decomposes easily and is relatively easy to recycle. However, when it comes to its production, the toll it takes on the environment is certainly unfriendly. On average, it takes about a tree (which took 5-10 years to grow depending on the species) to produce twenty to forty reams of paper. Seeing that we are cutting down trees faster than they can grow, any further demand for paper as a replacement for plastic will most likely have dire consequences for the environment.
On the flip side, glass bottles take about one million years to break down when left in the natural environment. It takes 10 times longer than plastic to decompose. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, twelve million metric tons of glass waste was produced in the US alone in 2014. If we use glass as a substitute for plastic – for example in milk bottles – imagine the amount of glass waste that will be released into the environment annually. Of course, in developed regions, recycling is the norm. In the EU, 73 percent of glass is recycled, so what happens to the rest? And what of other parts of the world and particularly, the developed world where recycling infrastructure is poor? Surely glass is as much a problem as plastic, right?
It really is neither here nor there. No matter the material or substance, organic or synthetic, if consumed in inappropriate quantities, the direct or indirect toll on the environment is massive. This is because in whatever scenario we come up with, we cannot control the adverse effects the materials have on the environment.
There is something we can control though and that is, just how much of these materials we consume. If we make a conscious decision to, then we can control the amount of plastic released into our seas. This would mean the loss of certain conveniences but we would eventually adapt to a new way of living. I read here about the steps my editor had to take to live a plastic-free month and let me tell you, it didn’t seem easy.
Related Post: Is Boxed Water Really Better Than Bottled Water?
A plastic straw weighs less than an ounce. It is not difficult to carry one around with you. However, to do that, you would have to forego the convenience of not having to think about taking your reusable straw with you when you leave the house. Can you forego that convenience? As the plastic crises has shown, the answer for most people is no. That right here is the problem, not the plastic in itself.
For whatever material we consume, moderation is key.
We may not know this but three hundred million tons of plastic produced annually is slowly killing our environment. The same amount of paper translated to millions of trees will kill the environment as well, and probably faster. The same goes for glass. So, as we make the momentous decision to be part of the #PlasticFreeJuly campaign, let us do a bit more.
Let us make it the stepping stone to a #ModerateConsumerLife.
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