Can seniors contribute to the greening of Melbourne? Of course they bloody can. Following the tried and true ‘Avoid, Reduce, Reuse & Recycle’ mantra we can all do our bit and contribute to slowing the effects of pollution and its partner-in-crime, global warming.
With the shops seething with Christmas shoppers and the big day less than two weeks away we are buying gifts faster than the factories can manufacture them. Food shows are televised every night and our growing passion for all things that enter through our mouth means popular food items on the supermarket shelves, are being replenished many-times-a-day as they keep pace with the festive demand. Many of us will be traveling long distances, prior to getting down to the serious side of eating all the food and giving out the presents, placing added demand on our limited resources. There will be tons of plastic packaging to be dealt with after the gifts have been opened and the food and drinks consumed. It seems like just about everything we buy these days has a gross amount of plastic associated with it.
Australian local councils report a 30% increase in household waste over the silly season as people shop, spend, eat, drink and discard more than any other time of year. Most of us are actively adhering to the "A & R’s" – Avoid, Reduce, Reuse & Recycle. I reckon "Avoid" is often the deal breaker. Having to do without seems to go against the whole commercialisation and capitalism tide. I think we've been living with the "R’s" for so long we're on automatic pilot. But if you're like me, when it comes to plastic, I'm often unsure if it's the recyclable type or not? What do you do with the plastic that doesn’t go in the green recycle-bin each week?
Over the last-ten-years we have produced more plastic than we did during the whole-of-the-last-century! Furthermore, 50% of this plastic is used only once before it’s thrown away. In Australia, and many other parts of the world, much of our free time and recreational activity is spent around waterways such as rivers, lakes, streams, beaches etc and tons of plastic culminates in the ocean. You may have seen photos of the five-rubbish-gyres in our oceans, each one the size of Tasmania (http://www.5gyres.org/the-plastic-problem/)? When I was a kid mum and dad didn’t have to think about what material our Christmas gifts were made from, let alone country of origin, or if child-labour had been used to assemble them. However these days plastic in all-its-forms is creating an epidemic all-on-its own.
Plastic pollution involves the accumulation of plastic products in the environment that adversely affects wildlife, wildlife habitat and humans. Plastic pollution impacts on our land and oceans, people, animals and the air we breathe. To help with this plastic debate we have enlisted the services of an environmental expert and a member of the Victorian Greens, Lisa Owen. Lisa has kindly provided us with some good and bad news about plastic.
PACKAGING - The good, the bad and the ugly
By Lisa Owen
Victorian Greens campaigner and a South West Victoria community conservation groups organiser.
First, the bad news.
Just about everything comes in packaging....well almost everything and unless otherwise indicated it's often made from non-biodegradable, unsustainable, fossil-fuel sourced, single-use plastic (we might call that NBUSFFSSUP.) The world is drowning in plastic packaging and other single-use plastic, such as takeaway coffee cups, drink containers, plastic bags, glad wrap and ring pulls. Many of us thought that this had been sorted by sending plastic to recyclers but the Earth's population produces and throws away millions-of-tons of plastic each day and recyclers simply can't keep up. Many companies are burying plastic packaging, and single-use plastic, in farm paddocks and landfill and some is being exported overseas for processing.
Although plastic does break down over time, the bacteria and microorganisms that feast on much of our waste and by-products can’t eat plastic and often birds and fish mistakenly see it as food; food that kills them. After eating it they die slow deaths as the plastic sits in their stomach never to digest. As the animals decompose, the plastic remains in the water and soil, slowly breaking down into smaller pieces becoming what’s called ‘plastic sand’ and eventually turning into a toxic sludge in our paddocks, rivers and oceans; it never goes away. Scientists tell us that a certain percentage of the world's beaches today are now made up of ‘plastic sand' which will eventually turn into toxic sludge.
Another major issue with plastic is oil; plastic is made from oil which is a fossil fuel. Oil requires the production and use of huge amounts of power to transform it into usable packaging whether single-use plastic or not. So it’s not just what happens after we discard plastic, in addition, the production of plastic is a major contributor to pollution and climate change. Many of us think that plastic is one of those man-made materials we can’t live without. We see it used in our medication containers and packaging, food packaging, drink containers, computer packaging and the gifts we will be giving our family and friends this year. It’s true some plastics simply can't be avoided but it’s important these plastics are carefully recycled.
The recycling process itself is also fraught with many problems because it takes huge amounts of power to melt-down plastic and other waste and re-manufacture into something usable. This makes the practice unprofitable and not an environmentally friendly process. Sadly, it can also be an unjust process as a large proportion of our plastic waste is being sent overseas to poor, developing countries where people are being exploited through unfair employment contracts, working in toxic, filthy and unhygienic conditions.
So, that was the bad news. Now here's the good news. There are solutions.
Reducing plastic waste
The production of single-use plastic is driven by consumer or customer demand. The less demand we have for single-use plastic, the less will be created. Here are some strategies to reduce your use of plastic while saving money.
Some manufacturers are making biodegradable plastic items such as takeaway coffee cups, disposable plates, crockery, water tumblers and cutlery. What this means is those single-use products will not eventually turn into a toxic sludge but will be eaten by microbes and fertilize the earth. To speed the process you can put them in your compost bin and watch the worms eat them away. Because biodegradable plastic takes awhile to break-down it will kill birds, fish and other animals if eaten hence the importance of disposing responsibly. Best choice is in the compost bin and second in the rubbish bin.
WHAT YOU CAN DO?
Carry your own reusable coffee cup when you go shopping. Presto, no need for plastic lined cardboard cups with plastic lids. Yes, the cardboard cup is lined with a thin film of plastic. Some cafes offer biodegradable plastic coffee cups and if you have one lying around you can throw it in the compost. When asking for a take-away coffee request a biodegradable cup and if they don’t have them you're creating demand. Many of Melbourne’s coffee houses can provide these greener coffee cups.
Carry your own reusable water bottle everywhere you go. Cafes are usually happy to fill it for you.
Carry your own reusable shopping bags. Single-use plastic bags are clogging up everything. We see them flying from trees and filling the stomachs of poor unsuspecting animals. Some businesses offer biodegradable plastic bags, and remember biodegradable still takes a long time to break down in the environment, so after reusing until they are no longer viable place them in the compost bin.
Reuse and re-gift when possible. Visit your local op-shop for cheaper, packaging free, shopping alternatives. You can find crockery, glassware, vases, cutlery, books, frames, furniture, carpets, electrical products, clothes, shoes, linen, garden-ware, jewellery, watches, clocks, toys, art work and so on at local op shops. Buying Christmas presents from op-shops will save your pocket and the environment while at the same time helping a charity. Some of my best Christmas presents have been sourced from op-shops. Like our good-old op shops, Craft and Farmers markets are often places where you can choose your own packaging or use your own.
Seek out unpackaged products or products packaged in biodegradable plastic made from sugar cane, hemp, mulch or bamboo. The best packaging is newspaper as long as the black print is not going to mark and damage the contents! Many organic, sustainable, Fair Trade stores use biodegradable packaging. Oxfam is generally reliable.
Avoid buying wrapping paper as it's often made with a thin film of plastic and the paper is sourced from unsustainable forestry practices. Re-use paper that you've kept from previous celebrations, or better still, put presents in reusable cardboard bags with string handles. We have some that we've given away and received back again many times over.
DID YOU KNOW THAT COLES & WOOLWORTHS HAVE PLASTIC RECYCLING BINS?
Although it's often worth being skeptical about some of the corporate social responsibility claims and practices of big industry, the fact that most Woolworths and Coles supermarkets provide recycling bins for plastic bags and for the slightly firmer-molded-plastic (like strawberry punnets and biscuit trays) is something worth knowing. This firmer, often more brittle form of plastic is the type that should not be placed in your home recycling bin. The two supermarket giants will take any soft plastic, like glad wrap and soft packaging and also plastic bags from things like chips and lollies to biscuit wrappers. Make use of their efforts as the separation of these plastics from the rest of your rubbish or recycling has a great impact on global, conservation efforts.
A merry plastic packaging free Christmas to you all!
Lisa Owen is a Victorian Greens campaigner and a South West Victoria community conservation groups organiser
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