Here’s something to consider: if plastic microbeads had been created at the time of the Big Bang, they’d still be around now — 13.8 billion years later. That’s just one of the startling findings in a study by UK-based packaging supplier Rajapack on the impact single-use plastics are having on our environment.
The use of plastic microbeads in ‘rinse-off’ cosmetics has been banned in many countries, including the US, the UK, New Zealand, Canada and France; Australia’s environment ministers agreed in 2016 only to support a voluntary industry phase-out. But those that already exist aren’t going anywhere ever.
Microbeads are a microplastic, which describes any plastic fragment less than 5mm in length. Primary microplastics, which include microbeads, are those that have been purposely manufactured for a variety of uses from cosmetics to clothing to industrial. Secondary microplastics are created by the breakdown of larger products, such as plastic bags and bottles, by natural processes such as sunlight exposure. Microplastics have been found everywhere from the Mariana Trench to the human gut. Given they can not only absorb pollutants from their environment but are also often made from toxic and carcinogenic chemicals, that’s food for thought.
Rajapack’s study — at rajapack.co.uk/swimming_in_plastic.html — estimates that 4.8-12.7 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans each year, adding to the more than five trillion pieces of plastic polluting the marine environment. While this global problem might seem far beyond our control as individuals, there are many simple things each of us can do to help eliminate single-use plastics that don’t require a massive lifestyle change. Rajapack has isolated three: straws, cups and scrubs.
A single plastic straw can take 200 years to biodegrade; a paper straw takes three days. If you really need a straw for your drink, buy a reusable one or find a retailer that uses paper straws.
Polystyrene foam cups don’t biodegrade; if they’d been around during the Jurassic era, Rajapack points out, archaeologists would still be digging them up today alongside dinosaur fossils. A cup made from 100 per cent biodegradable material will be gone in three to six months. Better still, find a café that accepts reusable cups and take your own.
Finally, manufacturers of exfoliating scrubs might be voluntarily phasing out microbeads, but you can also make your own scrubs and face masks easily and cheaply from such common household ingredients as coconut oil and sugar; olive oil, honey, lemon and sugar; raw oats, honey and olive oil; and baking soda and water.
Regular readers of this column will be aware that many Peninsula businesses are trying to eliminate or at least reduce single-use plastics. From paper straws to reusable shopping bags to bring-your-own coffee cups, businesses are stepping up. It’s up to us to do the same. Invest in a reusable water bottle and fill it up at home before you hit the gym or set off on your daily walk. Keep a few reusable shopping bags in the car so you’re not caught short if you decide to duck into the shops on the way home. Keep a cutlery set at work so you can refuse the plastic knife and fork that usually accompanies your takeaway lunch. And those plastic containers your lunch comes in can be cleaned and reused more than once — to store stuff in your fridge, as a pet’s food or water bowl, for the kids to keep their Lego bricks, colouring pencils and crayons and other bits and pieces in or to make things with.
There are so many ways we can eliminate single-use plastics from our lives; all it takes is a little forethought and a touch of determination to leave our children and grandchildren a healthier planet Earth.