Has the world reached peak plastic?

Living Well | Tianna Nadalin | Posted on 19 August 2019

The world's plastic pollution problem is reaching epidemic proportions. Here's how to reduce your environmental impact – and why you need to. 

Love the beach? Lap it up while you still want to swim in it. If current trends continue, the ocean is expected to contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish by 2025 and, by 2050, more plastics by weight than fish. 

According to the Government of South Australia’s recent Turning The Tide On Single-Use Plastic Products report, about 3000 million tonnes of plastic waste are produced globally every year (almost equivalent to the weight of the entire human population) and, of that, at least eight million tonnes ends up in the ocean.

Turtle in the ocean surrounded by plastic and rubbish

A snorkeler frees a tortoise that is caught in plastic ribbon. At least eight million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the ocean each year.

And while we reached peak plastic in 2016, producing 395 million tonnes of the stuff – or 53 kilograms for each person on the planet – if current projections are correct, the plastic pollution epidemic is set to soar by 40 per cent over the next decade.

“Plastic became prevalent in the 1950s and every piece made since then still exists,” says Sustainability Victoria spokeswoman Katie Pahlow. “It’s kind of been this hidden secret that when you throw plastic in the bin, it doesn’t just go away. 

The problem with plastic is that it never biodegrades, it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces – or nanoparticles – which eventually end up in our water systems and even the air we breathe, Katie explains. 

But this isn’t the only reason it’s toxic to the planet, Katie says. 

“It takes huge amounts of energy to produce,” she says. “And it creates big environmental impacts when we stop using it.”

And Australia is overrepresented when it comes to plastic waste generation per capita. 

The Department of the Environment and Energy’s recent Australian Plastics Recycling Survey found that Aussies generated about 2.5 megatonnes of plastic waste in 2016-17. That’s 103 kilograms per capita – one of the highest rates in the developed world. 

So, what action can we take to reduce our plastic footprint?

In simple terms, the easiest way to reduce our plastic footprint, Katie says, is to just stop buying plastic. What you shouldn’t do, though, is start going through your house and binning everything that isn’t eco-friendly. 

“Don’t do that wholesale ‘plastic is evil, now I’ll get rid of it’,” she says. “If it is in use and effective, keep using it until you can’t anymore. When it is at the replacement point, then you can choose a greener option.”

Pile of plastic bottles
Pile of plastic rubbish

About 3000 million tonnes of plastic waste are produced globally every year.


Easy ways to use less plastic

Avoid buying things that come in plastic

Rather than going, ‘oh my god, how can I get rid of all this plastic’, Katie says it’s better to think about how plastic is coming into the house in the first place. “So much of what we buy is pre-packaged,” she says. “So the first place to start is to avoid buying things that come in plastic.” 

That can be as simple as swapping your bottle of milk for a carton, choosing laundry detergents that come in a box or scooping nuts from the pick and mix area into your own reusable bag.      

Learn how to recycle properly

One of the big issues when it comes to recycling plastics is that consumers often get it wrong. There is a misconception, Katie says, that plastics will get sorted at the facility, but this isn’t true. Throwing the wrong kinds of plastics in the recycling bin means you’re contaminating everything else, so it’s all sent to landfill. 

“It’s critical to dispose of plastic in a way that it actually gets recycled,” Katie explains. “The main thing to think about is whether or not it is hard or soft plastic. Your recycling bin is primarily for hard plastics; think Tim Tam trays or shampoo bottles.”

Soft plastics, on the other hand, require specific treatment. “There are RedCycle bins out the front of the supermarket for all your soft plastics. That includes plastic wrap, chip packets and plastic bags. Basically, if you can scrunch it up and it stays that way, you can’t put it in your regular recycle bin.”

Get out of the single-use mindset.

As well as opting for foods that don’t come in plastic, choosing more sustainable products is also important. We’re talking coffee cups, drink bottles, straws and lunchboxes. “When you’re out and about or travelling, it can often be easier to just buy a bottle of water or use disposable cutlery,” Sarah says. “But small changes like bringing a reusable bottle for water, keep cups for coffee and even remembering to bring your reusable shopping bags make a huge difference.”

A box of water
Reusable wooden cuttlery
Reusable material shopping bag

 Choosing more sustainable products is important.

Six easy plastic swaps

Plastic (saran) wrap

Instead of buying endless rolls of plastic wrap, opt for beeswax wraps instead. These eco-friendly food covers are made using organic cotton, which is then coated in coconut or jojoba oil, tree resin and beeswax. These reusable plastic wrap alternatives are waterproof and freezer-safe and, with proper care, can last up to 12 months. They are also biodegradable and completely compostable, so they won’t end up at the bottom of the ocean when you’re done with them. You can also find cruelty-free wraps that are coated with soy or other vegan-friendly plant waxes. 

Plastic straws

Aussies throw away an estimated 10 million plastic straws a day. Instead of adding to the straw pile, it’s easy to switch to more sustainable alternatives, such as glass or stainless steel. Having a party and don’t want 30 kids running around with glass tubes? You can also find recycled – or recyclable – cardboard straws, too. 

Plastic bread bags

While it has become commonplace to wrap bread in plastic bags, paper packaging is becoming an increasingly popular and easy-to-find option. You can now find bread in paper bags at most supermarkets and they have long been the preferred option for local bakeries – so if your local grocer hasn’t gone green yet, this might be a good opportunity to support small business. You’ll also be avoiding those pesky plastic bread tags and, if you want to go totally paperless, you can even BYO bread container. 

Plastic toothpaste tubes

Forget folding up your toothpaste tube to try and squeeze out every last bit of toothpaste; toothpaste tablets are the latest eco alternative. These are a plastic free, zero-waste toothpaste solution and are made from simple, certified organic ingredients. As well as being eco-friendly, they’re also a healthier alternative, as they’re free from the chemical nasties often found in regular toothpastes, such as preservatives, fillers, aluminium and harsh chemicals like triclosan and SLS. They’re also a great option to take camping or travelling.

Plastic toothbrush

While you’re at it, you may as well ditch the plastic toothbrush and opt for a bamboo brush instead. Aussies dispose of 30 million toothbrushes every year, which ultimately end up in landfill. Bamboo is technically a grass and it is one of the fastest-growing plants on earth so as well as being an eco-friendly plastic alternative, it is also sustainable (it is low maintenance and regenerates itself naturally, requiring little rain) and does not contribute to deforestation.

Plastic-wrapped toilet paper

Be kind to the planet and never run out of toilet paper again by switching to a more environmentally friendly bum wipe. Who Gives A Crap toilet paper is made from either 100 per cent recycled paper or 100 per cent recycled bamboo, and 50 per cent of the profits are donated to helping build toilets for those in need. And the best bit? They’re packaged in a box, instead of plastic wrap, which is delivered directly to your door.