Walk along a coastline, any coastline, and what do you experience? The smell of salty sea air and the piercing cry of gulls circling overhead? Definitely. Colourful plastics washed up on the shore? Almost certainly.
The single-use plastic problem doesn’t just affect coastlines and beaches either. Forests, green spaces, and anywhere else people routinely gather, there’s going to be plastic waste which affects the ecosystem and wildlife. This in turn affects us; plastic enters the ocean, fish eat the plastic, and humans eat the fish and the plastic. Single-use plastics has become an epidemic. We’re only now realizing that the convenience of single-use plastics should never outweigh the environmental impact.
However, single-use plastics like straws, cutlery, drink cups, stir sticks and water bottles are only part of the problem. The website for the “Plastic Free Challenge” defines “single-use plastic” as any plastic item that is used only once before being thrown away or recycled. This means that everything from the bag, bottle or box your salad, fruit, vitamins or sushi comes in, to the produce bags at the supermarket is all single-use plastic.
We can all do without most of these single-use plastics too. Using glass bottles for soap, milk, orange juice, even vitamins might be more expensive but would eliminate a large portion of single-use plastics in circulation. Moreover, eliminating single-use plastics that can’t be recycled like Styrofoam and blister packs for pills wouldn’t be terribly hard. Allergy and cold medications that come in blister packs could easily come in glass or plastic bottles, like vitamins or Tylenol instead of non-recyclable, aluminum bonded plastic.
However, there are a few places for single-use plastics that must be acknowledged. Shrink-wrapping keeps food fresh and medical and other tools sterile which is a must. Even the plastic fittings on the ends of needles are single-use but ultimately necessary.
But it’s the unnecessary ones that cause the problems. Most people these days have more than one reusable basket, box or bag somewhere in their house. Eliminating grocery bags would mean we would have to go back to bringing our own, and would that be so bad? We already use paper bags and cardboard boxes if we shop at the LCBO, so why don’t we do the same at the grocery store?
I think by now we all acknowledge that, while convenient, especially for portable drinks, straws aren’t strictly necessary for daily life. We drink without straws all the time at home, but when we go out it’s almost a major inconvenience to not have a straw. Why? The idea and cheap cost of plastic straws permeated the world sometime in the 1960s, according to the National Geographic. And that’s not the only plastic utensil we can do without. Stir sticks made of plastic can be replaced with compostable wooden ones, or spoons. Plastic cutlery? Use your own! Or use compostable wooden chopsticks, if you feel so inclined. Even plastic drink cups could be eliminated if we all brought our own reusable ones.
There are a myriad of things that can be done about the global plastic epidemic if we’re only willing to try. Even now, countries and corporations banning plastic bags and straws are only scratching the surface. Will not using cheap, mass-produced plastic be cheaper? Not necessarily, but it will be better for the environment which in turn makes it better for us.