On our first date, my husband, Dani, and I went for drinks in one of my favourite bars. He ordered the first round, and I ordered the second. When I asked him what he wanted, he specified he didn’t want a straw. This was in March 2017. I had never heard about zero waste or single-use plastics.

I ordered the drinks at the bar and made sure to pass his ‘no-straw’ request. The waiter forgot and when he realised he quickly took the straw out and threw it in the trash. When I got back to our table, I explained what had happened. Until that point, I thought Dani had some random aversion to straws. That’s when he explained why he wasn’t using straws and how the waiter’s action just sent another straw to the landfill.

As I continued dating Dani, I was surprised over and over again by his lifestyle. I learned that there were supermarkets where you could bring your reusable cotton bags and fill them up with ingredients sold in bulk. When I stayed over at his place for the first time, I was shocked to see that he didn’t have a toothpaste tube but a jar of homemade toothpaste. Every time I found out something new, I would text it to my friends 😂.

Before meeting Dani, I never thought about plastic. I would buy kiwi’s in a plastic net, put every type of fruit in its own disposable plastic bag, and buy all kinds of food packaged in plastic. It never crossed my mind that there was a problem with what I was doing. I never wondered what happened with all that plastic once I didn’t need it anymore.

I’m a curious person, and I like to make decisions based on information, so I started reading about single-use plastics.

what’s the problem with plastics?

I’m writing this article because I have the impression that people start making efforts to reduce their use of single-use plastics without fully understanding the problem or how they can have the largest impact.

As far as I have figured out until now, the consumption of plastic leads to three main problems:

  • Large pieces of plastic ending up in nature, harming animals.
  • Microplastics, ending up in the water, and as a result, end up being consumed by the living species on our planet (that includes us).
  • CO2.

Let me explain to you how I got to this conclusion.

what happens to the plastic we put in the bin?

The first step to understanding the problem is to understand what happens to plastics once you throw them in the trash. In Belgium, there are generally speaking two scenarios: non-recyclable and recyclable plastics.

non-recyclable plastics

Non-recyclable plastics go in the general waste bin.

Most general waste is burned in Belgium. The problem with this is that plastics are made from fossil fuels, and when they are burned, large amounts of CO2 are released. Not great as we’re desperately trying to reduce our CO2 emissions to stop the rising temperatures and all related effects on our climate and planet.

If general waste is not burned, it is dumped in a landfill. Plastics break down over time because of the rain, wind, and sun. The tiny pieces leak through the soil into the groundwater. And the groundwater? It might be pumped up to use as drinking water, to irrigate crops or flows to our oceans.

recyclable plastics

Recyclable plastics (e.g. plastic bottles) are collected separately. In Belgium, a large percentage of these plastics are transformed into plastic granules. Those granules can then be used to make products like outdoor furniture.

I’m not a specialist, but from what I understood, after some research, this outdoor furniture can not be recycled again. So while we are guilt-free recycling our plastics, they are just being transformed into the next product we will end up throwing in the trash.

governments, the packaging industry, and recycling companies try to make us believe that recycling is the solution, but it’s not. There’s a reason they want us to believe that: because that way they can keep doing what they’re doing, i.e. using cheap plastics.

what about the plastic that is not put into the bin?

So the plastic that we actually put in the bin is a problem. But what about the plastic that never made it to the bin?

We calculate that 275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean. (Source: Science Magazine)

Tons and tons of plastic end up in the oceans every day. It would never cross my mind to throw any trash on the floor, but I do see people throwing trash on the street to my shock and horror. This trash ends up in our rivers where, again, it flows into our oceans.


having an impact

Once we have a better understanding of the problem, it’s time to investigate how we can have the biggest impact.

A few years ago, I saw a presentation based on the book Doing Good Better by William Macaskill.

Cover of Doing Good Better
Doing Good Better by William Macaskill

I later also bought the book for my husband, as he loves to read and make a positive impact. The book talks about how you can be efficient when you want to do good. One example I remember is the one of saving lives. You can become a doctor or you can focus on earning money and spending it efficiently on a disease that kills many people worldwide, like diarrhoea. In 2019 1.5 million died of diarrhoea (source: WHO). By focussing your money and efforts in this area you can save more lives in a lifetime than you ever could as a doctor.

Let’s have a look at what the main causes are of the problems associated with single-use plastics.

large pieces of plastic ending up in the oceans

According to this article of Sea Sheperd:

“The single biggest single source of plastic choking out the life in our oceans is made up of purposefully or accidentally lost, discarded, or abandoned fishing nets, ropes, FADs (fish aggregating devices), long lines, and plastic fishing crates and baskets.” (Sea Shepard)

And according to this article from Surge:

“Moreover when it comes to plastic in the ocean, it is reported that as much as 70% of macroplastics found floating on the surface of the ocean are fishing related. A recent study of the “great Pacific garbage patch”, an area of plastic accumulation in the north Pacific, showed that 86% of the macroplastics in this area were fishing nets. “ (Surge)

The number one source of plastics in the ocean is not single-use plastics. It’s the fishing industry.

microplastics

An article of the European Parliament lists very clearly what the source is of microplastics:

“Primary microplastics

  • Directly released in the environment as small particles
  • Are estimated to represent between 15–31% of microplastics in the oceans
  • Main sources: laundering of synthetic clothes (35% of primary microplastics); abrasion of tyres through driving (28%); intentionally added microplastics in personal care products, for example microbeads in facial scrubs (2%)

Secondary microplastics

  • Originate from degradation of larger plastic objects, such as plastic bags, bottles or fishing nets
  • Account for 69–81% of microplastics found in the oceans” (European Parlement News)

If I interpret this article, the main sources of microplastics are:

  1. Larger plastic objects ending up in our oceans and degrade into microplastics (69–81%). The big bulk of those larger plastics are related to the fishing industry.
  2. Washing synthetic clothes (5%-11%). Every time we wash items made of synthetic fibres, microplastics come off. As the washing machine drains the water, the microplastics start their journey through our sewer system, pass the filters that are not fine-meshed enough to stop them and… end up in our oceans eventually.
  3. Abrasion of car tires (4%-9%). Tires partially consist of a plastic polymer. As a tire is worn down, small plastic particles are left on the roads. These are washed away with the rain and end up in waterways. This article from national geographic gives a lot more information if you’re curious.

CO2

An Oxford study of 2018 shows that changing to a plant-based diet is the single biggest thing you can do to lower your environmental impact, including CO2 and other greenhouse gasses. A plant-based diet has a far bigger impact than flying less or buying an electric car. One of the authors, Joseph Poore, was a guest at the Deliciously Ella podcast. I can highly recommend it.

impactful solutions

We identified the problems caused by (single-use) plastics. We understand now what the main causes are of these problems. So now it’s clear that we can have the biggest impact by:

  • not eating fish and other seafood
  • eating plant-based
  • buying clothes with natural fibres, like cotton, hemp, linen. As a vegan, I don’t promote wearing wool.
  • being conscious about using your car.

so should we care about (single-use) plastics at all?

It’s nice to make an effort with single-use plastics, but the actions listed above will have way more impact. Does that mean that it’s useless to limit your plastic consumption?

No, for me, it’s part of a bigger picture.

being a conscious consumer

I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this feeling. It’s like there is the person I was before being conscious about plastics and the person I am after. Something clicked in my brain. From that point on, it was so shocking to look at the habits I had created. I was buying everything in plastic, and I never realised that once I removed the packaging, it had served its purpose and ended up in the trash.

It’s not only about plastics. Step by step, I became a more conscious consumer. Can I reuse or repair something? Do I really need a new item? When I buy something, can I find it second hand? If not, can I buy something new made of sustainable materials, made using a sustainable end-to-end process, etc. I’m far from perfect, and there is still a lot of room for improvement, but I have become a very different consumer in the last few years.

sending a message to producers, suppliers and policymakers

I strongly believe that how we spend our money is a way for us to make a change in the world.

Supermarkets and producers didn’t all of a sudden, become conscious of the plastic problem. Maybe it’s cynical, but I believe that most of them don’t really care about plastic or the environment. They care about profit and money.

If enough people care about plastic, they will care about it out of fear that consumers will start buying alternative products without plastic packaging or go to other supermarkets that do make an effort.

Eventually, this will drive the search for cheap alternatives to plastic, and as a result, innovations. Once this innovation exists, other companies might see the benefits of using it and make the switch as well.

The same goes for policymakers. If enough people care, if the lobby gains enough power, they will care too.


zero waste

Finally, let’s get real about “zero waste”.

there’s no such thing as “zero waste”.

I use the term zero waste sometimes because that’s what people google or recognise as a term, but is anything really zero waste if you look at the bigger picture?

Even if you buy at bulk shops, the products you buy were still packaged in some way to get to the supermarket. Since they buy big wholesale packaging, it was probably less packaging. When you buy a product, there was a production process that most likely had waste. The product had to be transported to you or a local pick up point or supermarket.

the most “zero waste” thing you can do is not to buy anything.

Do you really need to send Christmas cards? Even if they use super ecological FSC recycled paper, it is still a product that:

was produced

that needs to be shipped twice (from the producer to you and from you to the recipient)

will probably be thrown in the trash in no time.

For other things, however, that’s not really an option, e.g. we need to eat. So, in that case, you can try to figure out what the least impactful option is.

it’s a business

Zero waste has become a business. Companies with absolutely zero interest in the environment’s wellbeing will try to sell you ‘zero waste’ solutions. I definitely need to be critical with myself sometimes.

Do I want the cute wooden hairbrush because it helps me be more “zero waste” or because it looks better in my bathroom than the old plastic one that still works fine? I’ve even seen bamboo toothbrushes in plastic packaging. My point: don’t let the zero-waste label fool you, and don’t fool yourself.


conclusion

If you followed me in my deep dive into plastics up to this point of the article, I hope you take away the following:

  • It’s great if you want to make an effort and consume less (single-use) plastics
  • However, in the spirit of doing good better, it’s important to understand why you’re making the effort and how you have the biggest impact.
  • If you really want to make an impact, you can do so by eliminating seafood and animal products in general from your diet and making sure you buy clothes made from natural fibres.