Plastic is all around us. It covers everything we buy, we eat and drink from it, we eat it in general, we wear it, we build with it, we drive with it… we seem never to stop using it. A lot of the plastic in our lifestyles can be cut out by just being vigilant, however it seems that plastic has edged its way into all corners of life, even some we don’t know about. Here are a few common things that may seem “plastic-free”, but are actually laden with plastic, which will often end up in landfill and the oceans.
1. Coffee cups
People always say to me, disposable coffee cups are recyclable! They are made of paper, duh...
Well yes that is true, to some extent. Though the cup is indeed made of cardboard, the inside of it is lined with wax or, you guessed it, plastic. I mean… what cardboard have you ever seen that can have a hot drink poured over it that doesn’t go all soggy and mushy? Of course these cups had to have some sort of lining on them.
The thing is, any paper or cardboard product that has this sort of lining on cannot be recycled, as the wax or plastic, specifically polyethylene, is very difficult to separate during the recycling process, although apparently some types can be soaked off. This is the same for any sort of paper-mix material, for example cards with foam or wrapping paper with glitter stuck to them cannot be recycled.
So no, coffee cups contain a lot of hidden plastic. What’s more, this is not even considering all the accessory waste that comes with disposable cups- plastic lids, stirrers, spoons, wrapped sugar… It seems so much better to bring your own mug, and avoid the rubbish altogether.
2. Chewing gum
Believe it or not, plastic has not only surrounded our food, but even made it into our food. Natural gum-like substances have been chomped by humans since as long ago as the ancient Greeks. Although some modern chewing gum is made from natural sources such as chicle, most gum bases these days are made with a range of synthetic products which are not biodegradable (ever wondered why you are not meant to swallow gum?). In fact, the properties that define a “good chewy” are also those properties that stop it from breaking down, which are normally due to non-degradable polymers. This means all those table undersides covered in half-masticated, tacky gum will remain like that long after we are gone. Disgusting and disturbing.
On top of all of this, gum is often stuck in every inconceivable place, with its plastic wrappers or plastic tubs slewn all over the pavements. It’s no wonder the sale of chewing gum was banned in Singapore in 1992...
New clothes are a huge plastic problem. So many pieces of clothing are not made of natural fibres but of plastics, such as polyester, which are used for their durable qualities. But due to the constant pressure to have a new wardrobe every season, to follow fashion trends and general consumerism, clothes are constantly left to sit in cupboards and attics, or are just thrown into landfill. Wrap, a UK business that aims to reduce waste in all forms for other businesses and communities, have shown that clothing represents between 10-20% of all UK waste. And this does not include all of the plastic packaging that new clothes are wrapped in before they reach the shops. The best way to reduce your plastic consumption with clothes is to shop secondhand, get handmedowns from family and friends, donate your old clothes to charities that will distribute them to people in need, use tattered clothes as rags for cleaning, and buy natural fibre, good quality clothes that you will wear regularly.
4. Shopping online
Online shopping is a huge market, with online sales reaching £325 billion for the UK, Germany, USA and China combined. However ordering off the internet creates a huge amount of cardboard and plastic waste in all of the packaging that comes with it. Not only is there the cardboard packaging, but the polystyrene pieces for protection, the plastic bags for sterility, the sticky address and barcode labels…. Of course for some people, ordering online is convenient if shops are not nearby, or sometimes driving to the stores is more costly than ordering things in. Online shopping has also given a huge market to small independent businesses, which I also support, and may have reduced the amount of plastic shopping bags used. But it is still creating mountains of waste.
To beat this, try shopping locally and support the small businesses. Also more and more online sellers are conscious of the waste they produce. I know that some small German companies like Monomeer and Mein-Müsli Laden will use paper packaging and reused packaging if requested.
Stuff like this always scares me, it seems that for every little change that you make, there are a hundred more looming, making a waste-free life seem impossible. But step by step, the little bulbs of progress you make will soon blossom: you will feel healthier, more in touch with the world around you, less obsessed with consuming products and more in love with protecting nature and improving yourself. Your little changes can and will make a difference.