We need to take a long, hard look at our throwaway culture and change the way we go about our daily lives if we are to solve the plastics problem.
While plastics help us to live a more convenient lifestyle, the downside is that a lot ends up in landfills and the environment.
Here are five things to consider when it comes to eliminating problem plastics in your life.
Avoid The Dirty Dozen
Problem plastics (sometimes called single-use plastics) are those items that we see in places we would rather not – on our streets and beaches, and in our rivers and oceans.
In South Africa, researchers have identified 12 items, dubbed the Dirty Dozen, as most likely to turn up in these places.
Among them are straws, crisps packets, lollipop sticks, water bottles, cool drink bottles, bottle caps, individual sweet wrappers, carrier bags, cigarette lighters, fishing line, and light sticks.
Many are linked to our on-the-go lifestyle of takeaways and convenience foods.
What you can do: Track your plastic waste for a week and identify how many of the Dirty Dozen regularly feature in your life. And then do something about it.
Refuse, Reduce, Reuse… And Then Recycle
When we think about plastics, we tend to focus on litter, but the problem actually starts upstream – with production and consumption.
This is not only true for consumers, but also applies to retailers and brand owners who have control over what is produced, and how goods are packaged.
As consumers, we should challenge ourselves to think about our spending habits, and follow the mantra “refuse, reduce, reuse” before we even think about recycling. And we should expect the same of the people who supply our goods in these materials.
What you can do: Invest in reusable alternatives such as water bottles, coffee cups, and shopping bags.
As a consumer, you can also make your voice heard in a call for more sustainable packaging options.
Read The Labels
A common mistake is assuming that an item is recyclable if it has a material identification code or resin code – which is the number inside a triangle with chasing arrows.
This symbol simply tells us what the packaging is made of – if it is number 1, it is PET, if it is number 5, then it is polypropylene. But the resin code does not mean that the item gets recycled. It is simply a form of material identification.
This is why WWF recently worked with six major retailers in South Africa to secure agreement for standardised on-pack recycling labels (OPRLs).
These OPRLs provide the consumer with information on whether the material gets recycled, or not in South Africa.
The OPRLs state “recycled” or “not recycled”, and also suggest information about disposal (for example, whether you should rinse before putting in the recycling bin, or separate components of the packaging).
For something to qualify as recycled, it has to be collected and recycled at scale (with established recycling infrastructure in place) in at least one major centre in South Africa.
This will be reviewed regularly as the recycling industry and markets are dynamic.
What you can do: When you are out shopping, look out for the new simplified labels and make your choices accordingly.
So What Items Are Recycled The Most?
As much as 80-90% of recyclables that are collected are by informal waste pickers, mostly on landfill sites or in the environment. (Sadly, very few households separate waste.)
These waste pickers collect and sell recyclables to buy-back centres and recyclers for their livelihood, which is why they will only pick up items that are worth their while, such as cans, glass, cardboard boxes and clear PET bottles.
These items are valued by weight, so you would need large volumes of light-weight plastic to make a good amount of money.
Less valuable items such as crisps packets and green or brown PET bottles, although technically recyclable, do not get picked up because they are not worth the informal recyclers’ time.
What you can do: Be more discerning at your point of purchase. A clear PET bottle, for instance, is better than one with colour.
Go one step further, and sign up with a recycling collection service, or drop off your recycling at a centre where it will be sorted properly.
And Then There Are Microplastics
Another hidden source of plastic pollution surprisingly comes from our clothing, which is often made of plastic-based textiles.
When we wash these items, very small plastic fibres or microplastics are released into our waterways. Another more toxic source of microplastics is dust from car tyres.
This not only enters the air we breathe, but also gets washed into our drains when it rains and ultimately ends up in the ocean.
The impacts of microplastics on human health are not yet well understood, but there is evidence that they are affecting marine ecosystems.
What you can do: Wash your clothes less often (which saves water). You can walk more, carpool, and use public transport, which will also help to reduce our carbon footprint.
As they say, everything is connected!
To find out more about how to change your plastics habits, visit wwf.org.za/plastic
You Too Can Give WWF Wings
Another great way to support the wonderful work of WWF South Africa is to donate your SAA Voyager miles. Donating your miles is easy:
- Log in to your Voyager account at www.flysaa.com
- Choose Voyager Shopping, and select Donate Miles
- Under Target Account, select WWF, and make your donation
- You can also do it via the new Voyager app
By donating your miles, you will help WWF South Africa work towards its conservation goals, and free up valuable organisational resources that can be ploughed back directly into environmental work.