Plastic pollution is a global crisis, with disposable bottles and packaging contaminating the seas, endangering wildlife, and accelerating global warming. It’s not an exaggeration to say the earth is covered with plastic waste - it’s been found at every corner of the world, from remote islands to the summit of Mount Everest. In Australia alone, 3 million tons of plastic are produced every year.
Much of the plastic we throw away ends up in our oceans, throwing the delicate structure of our ecosystems out of balance. Pieces of plastic are often eaten by birds or sea creatures such as turtles, or can strangle them with fatal consequences - one million seabirds are killed by plastics every year. By 2050, it’s estimated that there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish.
Human and environmental health are intertwined, so the impact of plastic pollution on the natural world also has severe consequences for people around the globe. When we eat fish that have ingested plastic, we’re also eating the harmful contaminants contained in the material. And as plastic breaks down, it gives off harmful chemicals which then disperse into our water supplies and the soil our crops grow in. Microplastics - plastics which have broken down into miniscule pieces - have been found in deep oceans, the atmosphere, and even human blood.
Plastic is also exacerbating the climate crisis - it’s currently responsible for 5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The material takes a toll on the climate from the start because plastic is made from fossil fuels. As our appetite for plastic shows no sign of abating, it’s expected that plastic production will double by 2050 - seriously threatening our hopes of reducing emissions and avoiding climate disaster.
When we picture the enormous amount of plastic floating around our oceans, and the deteriorating effect it has on our planet, we might feel overwhelmed or helpless. But there are things we can all do to stop this torrent of plastic waste and limit the scale of its destruction.
While governments are slowly making progress towards mitigating this crisis with policies, such as New South Wales’ recent ban on plastic bags, we can’t wait for others to catch up.
Every one of us can act now to stem the tide of plastic pollution through the actions we make in our daily lives.
Reducing your plastic footprint
Thinking about our carbon footprint means we get a clearer picture of how our everyday actions contribute to global warming - this helps us make better choices. Similarly, once we are aware of our plastic footprint, we can try to shrink it by reducing our use of this harmful material.
The average Australian goes through 130kg of plastic per year. Here are some ways you can reduce your consumption:
Avoid using plastics where you can
Single-use plastics may be convenient, but are some of the worst culprits in the plastic waste crisis. Food wrappers, shopping bags, and coffee cups have a lifespan of minutes but their harmful effects can plague our natural world for centuries.
A shocking 373 million plastic bottles are used by Australians every year. By purchasing a reusable bottle, you’ll be saving a piece of trash from flowing into the oceans every time you fill it up. Take a reusable coffee cup to your local cafe, carry your own set of cutlery, and take bags to the supermarket. You could also try to shop at sustainable, plastic-free grocery stores, or go directly to farmers’ markets.
Recycle - and do it properly
We won’t be able to recycle our way out of the plastic crisis.
That’s because plastic is simply not a material that can be recycled successfully. A typical food package can contain many different types of plastic, making it impossible to process, while the quality of plastic deteriorates each time it is recycled.
For these reasons, it’s far better to cut down on the plastic that we use, rather than seeing recycling as a cure-all. But when we do use single-use plastic, disposing of it properly at the end of its lifespan is critical to ensure it doesn’t end up in the world’s oceans. Currently, a meagre 12% of plastic in Australia is recycled.
Do your research so you aren’t in the dark about how to properly recycle. Simple things like not washing food containers or putting the wrong things in your recycling bin wastes time and resources. For example, plastic bags can only be recycled at specific locations - some supermarkets offer this service , but you can use this directory listing to help you find recylcers near you.
Look out for plastic waste in your neighbourhood
If you have time to spare, why not help defend Australia’s oceans from the scourge of plastic? By volunteering your time to collect waste, you can play a pivotal role in protecting our precious oceans and wildlife.
You could do this as part of a local group, or even just incorporate this habit in your day to day life. Just take a minute to pick up a littered plastic bottle and ensure it’s properly recycled.
If we want to protect our natural world and mitigate climate change, we need to take a hard look at our plastic consumption. While simple, the above steps aren’t insignificant - they’ll help us go from being part of the problem to part of the solution.
By keeping informed about how our actions impact the planet, spreading awareness, and making the more sustainable choice in our own lives, we can shift the paradigm and help build a world where both people and planet can thrive.
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