Or, how to go a little more plastic-free in Plastic-Free July

My timing on this blog is impeccable!

Two speakers at the recent Sustainability Leadership Congress in June of this year really had an affect on me. The first was Natalie Forstbauer who inspired my blog on glyphosate, and the other was Peter Van Stolk, CEO of SPUD.ca.

I felt bad for the teen who naively but justly asked Peter how he was making sure that all of the plastic packaging that SPUD.ca is committed to recycling, was actually properly getting recycled at the facility they send it to in New Jersey. Following that question, he went on a rant about how the problem isn’t recycling, but the lack of it.

He estimated that 90% of recyclable items were still going to landfills.

That evening, instead of throwing the wrapper of a small nut bar in the trash as I might have done, I washed it and put it in the bag that I use to collect large soft plastics. After all, every bit counts given the amount of microplastic in the ocean. Before we start getting dark, let’s recap the basics of recycling. My friend recently told me she wanted to recycle more, but thought she couldn’t put anything without a code on it in her bin. So I thought we all needed a refresher.

A primer on recycling in BC

Every municipality and type of home is going to be different but for the City of Vancouver, Recycle BC is responsible for collection, and partners with Smithrite Disposal to collect curbside for single family homes and duplexes. Here’s a quick reference image: 

Unlike other places, we don’t need to check for symbols on packages to see if they’re recyclable. If you’re not sure even after looking at this image, go to the guide online. Here’s a list of items that can be dropped off at a recycling depot (my fav is London Drugs – but also visit their website to know what they can recycle.)

  • Crinkly bags/wrappers (like the ones for chips and candy)
  • Foam packaging: meat trays, take-out containers, cushion packaging that comes with most electronics
  • Plastic bags, seals, product wrap, stand-up pouches, zipper locks, and woven plastic. 

Make sure you wash and dry the plastic before you take it over. The only plastic that isn’t recyclable is the crinkly plastic in cookie packages like Oreos. Gah, why?!

Did you know: You can recycle used mascara wands and donate them to this organization and wildlife centres?

 

That time I got duped by grocery produce plastic

I’ve been shopping at Famous Foods forever, and right around the time hubs moved in with me six years ago, we noticed these Degradable bags come in for produce. I thought they said “Biodegradable.” I thought: “Great! We can just throw these in the organics bin with our food waste.” Turns out there were more people like me who thought the same thing, as Mayor Robertson had to remind people NOT to put plastics in their green bins like we were doing.

Degradable, all right. That little HDPE 2 sign looks like it’s pretty eco, right? Well, HDPE means is that it’s made of high-density polyethylene, and while it can be recycled, it’s definitely NOT biodegradable like food is.

Another young teen at the conference (she could not have been more than 15) asked the water panel what could be done to prevent turtles from being strangled by plastic.

Recycling is the absolute basic thing we can do, but I thought there had to be more.

 

Just how bad is the (micro)plastic issue, really?

 

Health

Humans are estimated to consume at least 50,000 particles of microplastics each year (roughly 140 particles daily) from bottled water, seafood, sugar, salt, beer, bread, processed products, meat, dairy, and vegetables. We’re also breathing the same quantity. 

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that over 92% of people who were tested for chemicals had detectable levels of Bisphenol-A (BPA) and other plastic chemicals in their bodies, including newborn babies.

We’ll talk more about health effects later, but I’m so f*cking sick of hearing about people getting cancer, while we do nothing to prevent ingesting the chemicals that actually cause it. Aren’t you? We might think that plastic’s outside of ourselves, but it’s just the opposite.

 

Oceans

Let’s admit it: plastic in the oceans creates some of the most powerful environmental and geographic photos.

At first it was beer can rings, then water bottles, then plastic straws and bags, fishing nets (Healthy Seas; GGGI), and now they’re saying cigarette butts (which actually contain plastic) are the biggest ocean contaminant, with 4.5 trillion littered annually.

Can we just agree that ALL PLASTIC WASTE SUCKS?

  • More than half of plastics in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) come from fishing nets, ropes and lines. There are also two other large patches, one called the Western Garbage Patch, and one in the Atlantic.
  • Scientists estimate there’s over 8 billion metric tonnes of plastic in the ocean, about the weight of 90 aircraft carriers.
  • The Ocean Cleanup says there are over 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean, from the ocean floor to the surface (it’s not all floating).
  • Break Free From Plastic began cataloguing items gathered in cleanups by brand name. An audit of 236 beach cleanups in 42 countries yielding more than 187,000 pieces of plastic found that the brands most commonly retrieved belonged to three multinationals: Coca Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestle, accounting for 14% of the collected trash.
  • Over 800 marine species have been affected, and turtles and whales alike are washing up on shores, killed by choking on plastic.
  • It’s estimated that 99% of plastic is still unaccounted for.
  • Microplastic makes water look murky. And I already hate swimming in our brownish beach water.
  • The total amount of oceanic plastic waste is likely to more than double by 2030 and keep getting worse, if action isn’t taken now.

Sources: Our World in Data, National Ocean Service, ABC News, National Geographic, The Swim, Bloomberg

Wait – can we back up and see what this “Great” Pacific Garbage Patch looks like?

I don’t think anyone’s going to disagree with me that we could stand to put less plastic in the oceans, which is our main source of water and survival. So I’d like to move onto other ways plastic affects us that we may not be conscious of.

 

Bath, body, & skincare products

In the beauty industry, plastic has a nicer name: “Microbeads.” Sounds like a piece of jewellery you want to put around your neck, right?

While cosmetics aren’t all harmless, the top skin-related products containing microplastics include face washes, shampoos & conditioners, shower gels, sunscreen, and bubble bath. Microplastics are disguised under the following names:

  • Acrylates copolymer (AC)
  • Plastic liquid
  • Polyethylene (PE)
  • Polyamid (Nylon-12, Nylon-6, Nylon-66)
  • Polyurethan (Polyurethan-2, Polyurethan-14, Polyurethan-35)
  • Polyethylenterephtalat (PET)
  • Polypropylen (PP)
  • Polystyrene (PS)
  • Polyvinylchloride (#3PVC)

I can’t believe glitter masks were a thing this year. I’m not gonna lie, I had a good run with face/neck glitter in my 20’s, but now I can’t stand glitter and confetti. You could at least recycle confetti, but damn, is that shit hard to clean up.

Source: Center for Environmental Solutions

Packaging and other plastic-ridden items

The best packaging is none at all, but here are some common items containing plastic chemicals, and some of their potential health risks:

  • Aluminum cans 
  • Auto upholstery
  • Baby crib bumpers, diapers, pacifiers and teething rings
  • Bottles for oil, medication, and water
  • Chewing gum
  • Cleaners and detergents
  • Clothing made of acrylic, polyester, and nylon
  • CD cases
  • Disposable wipes
  • Floor tiles
  • Food wrap and bags
  • Footwear
  • Garden hoses 
  • Glitter!!!
  • Inflatable swimming pools
  • Inhalation masks
  • Labware
  • Medical supplies: Breathing tubes, blood bags and tubing, IV containers and components, surgical gloves
  • Paint
  • Paper coffee cups and lids
  • Printing ink
  • Shower curtains
  • Straws
  • Styrofoam and other plastic plates, cups, and egg cartons
  • Takeout containers
  • Teabags
  • Toys and toy packaging
  • Vinyl clothing, flooring

These items contain one or more of the following chemicals:

  • BPA: Acts as an endocrine disruptor and is linked to cancers, infertility, impaired immune function, early onset of puberty, obesity, diabetes, and hyperactivity.
  • Phthalates: Act as hormone and endocrine disruptors and may contribute to childhood obesity & cardiovascular disease, asthma, developmental and reproductive effects especially in males, cancer, hormonal changes, infertility, endometriosis, and immune system impairment.
  • Polyvinylchloride (#3PVC): Causes cancer, birth defects, genetic changes, chronic bronchitis, ulcers, skin diseases, deafness, vision failure, indigestion, and liver dysfunction.
  • Polystyrene, Plastic #6, or styrofoam: Releases styrene when heated, which is linked to depression, fatigue, and kidney dysfunction.

Sources: CHEMTrust, Eradicate Plastic, The Guardian, Wellness Mama

 

What we can do to avoid plastic and help the cleanup

It’s a long list, but after all, recycling isn’t enough – depending on the type, plastic may only be recycled 2-9 times before it becomes microplastic (glass and metal can be recycled indefinitely), so the best thing we can do is avoid using it in the first place.
 

Use non-plastic products and packaging, or re-use.

At home:

  • Use bamboo toothbrushes & makeup brushes and cotton swabs.
    • Brush Naked or get my pick, The Environmental Toothbrush, at The Soap Dispensary in Van.
    • Montreal’s The future is bamboo has toothbrushes, straws, and swabs.
  • Girls & ladies: Use plastic-free hygiene products. My go-to is Lunapads.
  • You’d think with the incoming plastic bag ban, we’d have lots of garbage bag alternatives by now. I know they’re available for businesses, but if you know any that are available to consumers, HMU!
  • Cook your own food as much as possible, but if you must skip the dishes and order in, avoid restaurants that are still using styrofoam packaging.
  • Grow your own food (and save $!).
  • Use metal or glass food containers. If you use plastic, don’t microwave them or put them in the dishwasher as heat will leach the chemicals. I used to microwave my lunches in high school!
  • Parents: Use cloth diapers instead of disposable. I know that’s really hard, but you can also consider better disposable alternatives.
  • Package using paper tape instead of plastic tape. I never knew this existed, but apparently you can get it from Staples or Amazon, among other places online.
  • If you have a 3D printer, please don’t make useless toys. The toy industry makes enough of those. On that note, use second hand metal or wooden toys, and donate unwanted toys often.
  • Want to make a home out of recycled plastic bottles? Apparently you could do that with JD Composites in Nova Scotia. I’m all for it, as long as it’s safe to breathe inside.

At the grocery store:

  • Take re-usable shopping bags and use reusable products bags instead of plastic ones. You can usually get grocery bags at public events for free.
    • When the ban is in effect, we’ll need replacements, so I hope paper bag companies start getting in our faces; earlier this year, Daily Hive reported that One Earth Packaging (which makes compostable bags) was working on getting into retailers in Canada.
  • While Umaluma and Fiasco Gelato both provide their ice cream in reusable containers, Earnest Ice Cream blows them out of the water with their $1 refundable glass jars. I keep coming back for their vegan seasonals!
  • In Vancouver, we’re lucky to have stores like The Soap Dispensary and NADA which are awesome for refilling home products and avoiding food packaging, but you can also try to avoid plastic packages and buy food that comes in glass or aluminum instead.
  • I hope we’ll see more beer and other canned bevs using bamboo or even edible rings instead of plastic, like the one SaltWater Brewery in Florida made, below.

Out and about:

  • Use a portable glass or metal water bottle to avoid plastic water bottles, which aren’t pure anyway. My favourite is S’well (Leo can attest as he’s permanently using mine!). You can also likely use these for hot drinks and soup too.
  • Use a reusable coffee cup which will usually get you some sort of discount at the major coffee chains. Even Starbucks has their own version.
  • Use metal or bamboo plates and cutlery and bamboo straws, or even wash and reuse plastic ones. I want to go all out and get a bamboo cutlery set that includes a straw and chopsticks like the one from VILLAY below…it’s only $3.99 CAD plus shipping, but I’d love to find a locally-made one. Ideas?
    • Glass straws are fine too, but it conducts heat and cold for those who are sensitive, and of course, it’s breakable. I think bamboo might be my new favourite thing.

Tell the government to ban (single-use) plastics.

 

Avoid skincare products containing microbeads or using plastic packaging.

  • You can search by product on a website called Beat the Microbead.
  • Beauty companies around the world are feeling the pressure to change their formulations as countries are beginning to ban microplastics, so this is good.

 

Buy natural fibres, and from companies that recycle plastic into clothing.

I’m by no means suggesting you go on a spree soon as you finish reading this blog. If you happen to be shopping new for some of these items anyway, you may as well get them recycled and made by Canadian entrepreneurs:

Sit on your ass and watch something

Search and watch one of the many documentaries on plastic waste to educate yourself. Below is the trailer for A Plastic Ocean, which I’ve yet to see. I can’t believe people are growing food on top of garbage!

BBC just released a series, War on Plastic with Hugh and Anita. It’s not available in Canada yet.

Support ocean cleanup non-profit organizations and recycling/plastic-averse tech.

Hell, if they paid a good wage for citizens to clean up streets and beaches, I’d be out there like Afroz Shah keeping Vancouver clean. Aside from taking part in a cleanup yourself (see Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup and Plastic Oceans Canada in Vancouver), consider supporting:

 

Reduce or eliminate your seafood intake.

Reducing or removing seafood from your diet minimizes all the fishing gear that gets discarded into the ocean, takes away just one source of food in which there is plastic, and reduces the need for farmed fish that now dominate the industry. Japan withdrew from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and lifted their ban on whale hunting at the end of last year just because it’s “a part of Japanese culture and tradition”, despite the fact that the demand for whale meat has declined drastically. Because of stupid sh*t like this, we could stand to reduce the demand for consuming all types of seafood.

 

Stop smoking.

Cigarettes give you lung cancer, and clearly we aren’t discarding them properly. HMU in about two years, hopefully I’ll be a hypnotherapist who can help you quit if you still need help, haha. No, seriously though.

 

Is there anything else you or your family/friends do to deal with the global plastic problem that I haven’t covered here? Please share with us in the comments.

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