Plastic (not so) fantastic

Plastic is a problem across the globe but there are people at a grassroots level who are trying to make a difference, at least to their patch of the planet, writes SAM BESGROVE.

Every single piece of plastic you have used still exists somewhere today.

Every bottle of water, packet of chips, plastic bag, take away coffee, chocolate wrapper, straw, sandwich bag and milk carton that you’ve ever used STILL EXISTS.

Horrified yet?

What about every pen, bank card, toothpaste, toothbrush, button, shampoo and conditioner, deodorant or DVD case you’ve ever used? It’s all plastic, and it all still exists. It never breaks down completely; the pieces just get smaller and smaller.

Mass production of plastic began in the 1940s and since then the material has completely revolutionised the daily operations of a functioning society. It’s inexpensive, versatile and strong, making it a “wonder product” and an essential part of everyday life. In 1960 the world produced 7 million tonnes of plastic and by 2020 it is projected to rise to 540 million tonnes.

Plastic is made from materials found in nature, such as gas, oil, coal and minerals, yet it is completely unnatural and hazardous to the environment. It’s rarely recycled correctly and unless it’s been burnt, ends up in the ground or in the ocean, polluting both the soil and the water. A 2016 report by the World Economic Forum predicts there will be more plastic in the ocean by weight than fish by 2050.

It’s ironic that plastic is designed to last forever yet 50 per cent of plastic is used only once and then thrown away. The most popular single-use plastic and the main culprit of littered waste in Australia is the plastic bag, an item that has an average lifespan of only 15 minutes.

Although these stats are pretty grim, major Aussie businesses are keen to make a difference by reducing plastic bag usage. Last month Coles, Harris Farm Markets and Woolies all announced plans to phase out plastic bag use in a year. This will make an enormous difference considering Woolies alone gives out more than $3.2 billion plastic bags every year according to CEO Brad Banducci. This comes after South Australia, ACT, The Northern Territory and Tassie all joined in on creating state-wide bans and Queensland is set to follow, banning bags next year.

Unfortunately for mother earth, plastic bags aren’t the only prime-time offenders. In both the UK and the US, over 500 million straws are thrown out EVERY SINGLE DAY. Straws have quickly become the fifth most common item found in sea cleanups, according to Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup data.

These pieces of plastic are injuring animals at an alarming rate, and about 100,000 marine creatures die a year from plastic entanglement. In 2015 a video went viral showing a group of scientists in Costa Rica removing a plastic straw that was embedded in an endangered sea turtle’s nose.

Social activist-hospitality worker Eva Mckinley was shocked when she witnessed first hand how many plastic straws venues use each day. “You see all the waste at the end of the night and one time I threw out an exceptional amount of plastic straws and it kind of clicked,” she says. From there she single-handedly started The Last Straw, a campaign aimed at reducing plastic straw use in Aussie venues.

“Plastic is a super toxic material that is completely pervasive in every part of our lives. It’s something I think was designed without a whole lot of long-term thought. It was designed to last for as long as possible and be as durable as possible,” she says.

Eva says one of the worst things about plastic is how cheap it is to produce: “A box of 5000 straws will cost someone 20 bucks. It’s just a ridiculous convenience that needs to stop.”

In June, The Last Straw made a last-minute decision and started the Straw Free July challenge, a call for venues to adopt a policy of only giving out a straw upon request for the entire month. “That was really exciting. It was kind of an off-the-cuff idea, but we wanted to do something that was really specific to venues and really specific to plastic straws,” she says.

“I was expecting to have maybe 10 to 15 venues and ended up getting over 100.”

Going completely straw free isn’t always completely feasible. “For large venues it’s hard to go completely straw free, you still want to cater for children and people with a disability, so sometimes it’s not an option.” A lot of the venues reported that since the challenge ended, they are going to adopt the policy permanently.

“We did a little bit of math on the averages and, from the 100 venues we had sign up, approximately 300,000 straws didn’t go into landfill because of the campaign,” Eva says.

The Last Straw’s aim is to try to change ideas and ask questions about consumption. Eva wants to make people reconsider whether using plastic straws is really necessary.

“It might not feel like you are doing very much. It might sometimes feel a bit hard to give that 30-second pitch to that difficult customer who still insists on having two straws in their cocktail, but it’s worth it and it really does make a difference. Every straw that you’re stopping from going into the ocean or into landfill is another sea bird that’s not dying from plastic in its stomach,” she says.

“Every little bit makes a difference.”

Hatch spoke to Miles Brown, manager of Goros, a bar in Surry Hills that took part in The Last Straw’s Straw Free July challenge, about the positive outcomes of the exercise.

– Story, pictures and graphics by Samantha Besgrove

About Samantha Besgrove 11 Articles
Aspiring journalist with a passion for social rights and women's issues. Twitter @sambesgrove