I’m An Environmental Scientist — And I Don’t Care If You Recycle

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I’m sure I’m not the first person to tell you that the world's plastic problem is at a critical level today. From the Stone Age to the Iron Age to the Steel Age, we delineate society’s epochs by their primary material for fabrication. 

Ours will most likely be called the Plastic Age.  

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Microplastics and the plastic waste in our oceans, food chain, and even air are harmful to humans and wildlife. In one study, 100% of the mussels tested contained microplastics. And even if you go vegan and only eat organic food, you are likely to breathe in plastic from urban air and drink it with your water.

But the amount of single-use plastic churned out every day is not the consumer’s fault. If you have tried going plastic-free or tried reducing your plastic waste, you know how hard it can be. Sometimes products come in layers and layers of plastic, and we have to go the extra mile to avoid it.

Of the 380 million tons we use every year, more than 50% is single-use. It comes down to roughly 90 pounds per person. And of the 380 million tons, we dump 10 million tons into the oceans every year. If we continue current trends, plastic production is likely to quadruple by 2050.

Recycling is good but the truth is, banning, reducing, and redesigning has way more impact.

Most plastic is too expensive to recycle.

Over 90% of plastic ever has not been recycled. Moreover, countries that claim to have run out of trash -such as Sweden: incinerates most of their plastic waste. There have been posts worldwide claiming that Sweden has run out of trash, as less than 1% of their waste ends up in landfills. It is simply not true.

They do much better than in other countries, but what they recycle is 49% of plastic waste, and the rest is burnt for heat and energy. That being said, I live in Sweden and lived in Copenhagen, Denmark as well: the only two places where recycling is automatic and feels like second nature.

On the whole, the world burns six times as much plastic as we recycle.

Wealthy countries export their plastic waste.

Most wealthy countries like Japan, Canada, the USA, the UK, etc., do not deal with their waste issues- they export their waste to Asian nations. Recently with the lead of China in 2018, Malaysia and India took a stand against it. Some shipped back the trash and closed their doors, refusing to be the dumping ground of other countries.

This means countries that have no infrastructure to incinerate safely or to recycle have to start coming up with solutions to decrease plastic production significantly.

Recycling should be the last option.

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Single-use plastic bans work well on a city or state level. I have just written my representative to ask them to think about a city-wide single-use plastic ban.

On an individual level, we can take some other steps to reduce plastic waste, and recycling is the least effective. Reducing the amount of plastic we buy or repurposing single-use plastic items to prolong life is a great solution before recycling. See my other great tips below.

Not all bioplastics have a low environmental footprint.

Almost a decade ago, I was having a round table conversation with the founder of Terracycle. When asked about bioplastics, Tom Szaky, a Princeton graduate Hungarian-American, gave me an answer I wasn't expecting.

I wrote my thesis on plastic pollution reduction via circular economic solutions, and I was itching to talk about bioplastics with him. When I asked if he thought it was a viable option towards reducing single-use plastic pollution, his answer was: “No, bioplastics are evil.”

He referred to the bioplastics made from corn, soy, or any staple food that feeds large populations in America or elsewhere in the world. Using large amounts of staple food to produce bioplastics would drive up food prices in poor regions.

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Moreover, some bio-based plastics are not biodegradable. Polyethylene (PE) shopping bags made from sugarcane or corn are not. Some that are biodegradable require large industrial compounds and high temperatures to start the process. It is energy-intensive and definitely not for your home compost. 

Those that are only biodegradable under the right conditions include Polylactic acid (PLA), as you may find in a disposable cup, and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), which can be used for sutures are both bio-based and biodegradable. But only under the right conditions.

So what’s a great bio-plastic solution?

  • Those that are made from food waste, such as potato peels or banana peels.
  • Those that are biodegradable in household compost.

We can see that a lot of plastic pollution comes from industries and that over 50% of it comes from consumer single-use plastics. Let’s see how we can reduce our plastic consumption in a few simple steps! It may not be easy at first, but it is simple enough and likely to become your default mode over time.

Here is a list of actions we can individually take to reduce plastic waste

Not buying plastic is the best way to reduce plastic waste as an individual.

The good news is that it is easier than ever before!

  • Shop in bulk and zero-waste stores. Please bring your containers; make it a fun errand.
  • Put together your personal zero-waste kit and keep it with you. It can include a stainless steel water bottle, reusable cutlery kit, a tote bag, a coffee cup. Whatever you need daily and are most prone to buy single-use. I always have a reusable bag and a bottle on me!
  • Opt for naked produce in stores and shop at your local markets! Selling bananas in plastic bags makes zero sense.
  • Please write to your local municipality addressing their policies on plastic waste.
  • If you order food online or from shops and noticed that they use a lot of plastic? Write to them to let them know that you like their service, but it matters to you as a customer that they use less plastic. I have my brand where I do everything to reduce plastic waste and believe me, when my customers said they thought boxes were better than bubble wrap mailers, I switched and never looked back.
  • Recognize that we are on autopilot most of the time and tend to buy convenience products without thinking. Practice asking yourself if you needed an overly packed box of cherries from Spain when you live in the UK, and it is February. Don’t believe everything your brain tells you you need. Train yourself to double-check your purchases.

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Ono Mergen is an Environmental scientist and writer. She has been featured in Cosmopolitan, Medium, The Startup, and more. Follow her on Twitter. 

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.