This week we just want to say one word to you — just one word — “Plastics.”
But while the businessman who spoke (something like) this immortal line in the 1967 film The Graduate viewed plastics as the key to the future, and fortune, our aim this week is to put them in their proper place.
Plastics are not Satan in shiny disguise. They have many important functions. They’re not so benign, though, when produced at great environmental expense, used briefly, then, tossed away to pile up in landfills or go through an energy-intensive collection, sorting and recycling process.
The Challenge: Eschew all major plastic items this week. in particular — no plastic bags, disposable plastic cups and bottles (that includes styrofoam), and plastic wrapping.
Motivation: Every year, Canadians use about 10 billion plastic shopping bags and 8 billion disposable cups. Each requires just a tiny amount of resources and energy to produce, but the total is huge. This is not only a waste. Production of plastics — mostly from petroleum — emits greenhouse gases. Recycling, when it happens, consumes ever more. It's also sporadic and difficult. Plastics last virtually forever in landfills, and emit toxic fumes if not burned hot enough. Bags create a mess in the environment. Birds and animals can get entangled in, or choke on, carelessly discarded plastic bags. Huge rafts of plastic float in the Pacific Ocean: After the sun breaks them down into their molecular bits, they’re swallowed by jellyfish and other creatures and begin a poisonous trek up the food chain.
Process: The challenge involves five simple steps: Use cloth or other reusable bags for groceries and most other shopping. Keep produce loose instead of bagging it. Get a permanent coffee cup for work. Use a refillable, preferably metal, water bottle. Don’t buy anything in a blister pack or one of those plastic shells that require a chainsaw to open.
The key to this – since reusables require more resources and energy to make — is to keep using them over and over. There is plenty of controversy over whether styrofoam cups are better than ceramic or metal on this score. A 1994 study from the University of Victoria concluded that when you take manufacture and washing into account, you’d need to use a cup 1,006 times until it’s energy consumption got down to that of foam cups. But that analysis is criticized for its assumptions about water use and the fact it ignored the impacts of disposing of all those cups. A more recent study concludes that a ceramic cup beats styrofoam after 46 uses. Unless you’re prone to toss cups at your boss, that’s an easy figure to hit. I’ve used the same favourite coffee cup almost every morning for 10 years.
Of course, since you likely already have an extra cup or mug at home, simply use it and you'll use zero resources and produce zero emissions.
Since we don’t like to make the challenges overwhelming, we’ve proposed just a few steps. But there are many more ways to cut your consumption of plastic. For a start try Living Plastic Free. If you'd like to go further, try Life Without Plastic.
Cost: Not a big deal. A few dollars, perhaps, for reusable grocery carriers and a couple more for a cup — or just bring one from home. A good water bottle might set you back $10. If you’re worried about bpa, then, fork out around $25 for a metal water bottle.
Savings: Again, it’s a minor factor. Some stores charge a few cents for each bag; others take a penny or two off your bill if you bring your own. Starbucks and some other coffee outlets reduce the cost by 10 cents if you use your own mug.
--- Peter Gorrie