One of my readers has asked about how we manage waste when we travel. I have to say it isn’t easy, especially when we travel long distances at times for our work. At the moment, I am on leave and on the other side of the country in Perth. I have discovered that travelling without encountering truckloads of plastic is almost impossible.
When we move around the region we work in, we take cornstarch cups to use for coffee, can pack our own snacks and food, and use our stainless drink bottles. We carry cloth serviettes, enamel milkshake cups and glass straws..
Travel ling by air, however, is a very different proposition. I recently travelled to Perth to visit my daughter and only granddaughter. I rarely see them in the flesh, and am visiting here for a week. Visiting them is a family priority, and I try and work out ways I can minimise the impact of flying.
The first issue I encountered was the amount of plastic in a meal on a plane, and all single use. Some of it looked like cornstarch plastic to me, but I still can’t reconcile all the intensive use of resources producing my cutlery would have meant. And it was intended as a one off use, not for washing and redeployment in another meal. Apparently Qantas recycle and wash their plastic cutlery on international flights, but not domestic. Ultimately, it is doomed to end up in landfill.
On past flights we have kept and reused the plastic cutlery in our picnic set and to take travelling around the mid north coast, but still the waste worries me, and we have accumulated a lot of plastic cutlery! But it bothered me much more this time. As my level of awareness of the real issues surrounding plastic rises, so does my guilt factor. After all, this was all invented to support a lifestyle that does not tolerate inconvenience well.
I took my own stainless steel water bottle, and cornstarch coffee cup. As a celiac, I brought my own snacks. But my meal came in an aluminium foil tray with plastic cutlery, cup and a plastic water bottle. Individual muffins, cakes, crackers and other snacky things were all in plastic packaging. The headsets to use the in flight entertainment system were also wrapped in plastic.
Apparently there are around 93,000 commercial flights each day, and at any given moment, half a million people are in the air. That’s an awful lot of waste. http://www.flixxy.com/scheduled-airline-flights-worldwide.htm shows you a display of the flights each day across the world.
We have been trying to cut down our flying time (it is a major CO2 emitter) but there is no other cheap and efficient waste of accessing Perth from where we live. We buy carbon offsets and just hope they are genuine.
Our world has become very reliant on single use plastic utensils, wrapping and containers. It is very reliant on single serves wrapped in plastic, and plastic packaging around our food and everyday items.
While cheap plastics have probably revolutionised various sectors such as medicine in a good way, by ensuring sterility and infection control, it is also true that commonly available plastic has encouraged the people of our planet to expect and indeed, demand, a culture of convenient and disposable plastic. Little or no thought is given to how many resources are needed to produce it, and to the damage it may cause when it is disposed of. We appear to be addicted to cheap, disposable, one-use plastic, and do not stop to think of the resources that went into making it. Many of us may not be aware that plastic takes literally hundreds of years to break down, and then it is into tiny particles that are almost indestructible. It is somewhat ironic that goods which are designed for one-off use and to be completely disposable are going to stay around in our environment for a very long time, wreaking havoc wherever they land in the sea or waterways or where animals mistake them for food. Plastic needs to be regarded as the limited and indestructible material it really is, and it should be recycled as much as possible or disposed of carefully.
One good example of this is bottled water. According to the website of Cool Australia (http://www.coolaustralia.org/bottled-water-secondary/), Australians spend over $500 million on bottled water annually. The website notes that:
It has to be pumped out of the ground, packaged, transported and chilled before it gets to us. This creates over 60,000 tons of greenhouses gases a year in Australia alone….the manufacture and transport of the plastic bottles for all this water requires over 460,000 barrels of oil. Less than 40% of these bottles are recycled; the balance ends up in landfill or in our waterways…the average Australian drinks 14 litres of bottled water per year [and] Australians buy 118,000 tonnes of plastic drink bottles a year. It takes 8 years to recoup the cost of a bottle of water by refilling the bottle with tap water.
When did we stop drinking water that was free in favour of expensive water in bottles? Why is it now OK to use something once and then throw it away – especially when logically it has to go ‘somewhere’? “Away” may be landfill, or it may be the bush, or roadside, or the sea. Either way, it has not disappeared, it has gone to a place where potentially it can cause even more harm to wildlife, marine life, and to the soil.
I must also just mention the now infamous great plastic garbage patch. According to Wikipedia, “the Great Pacific garbage patch is a gyre of marine debris particles in the central North Pacific Ocean located roughly between 135°W to 155°W and 35°N and 42°N. It extends over an large area, …and has exceptionally high relative concentrations of pelagic plastics, chemical sludge and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre.” Discarded plastic waste from various parts of the world end up here, where it breaks down and is easily ingested by marine life and birds, leading to choking, starvation, and death.
Many people treat us as if we have moonstruck madness in our bid to live a live with far less plastic. Educating people about why this is indeed a good idea can be a complicated process.
Replacing one use plastic does have its challenges. When we travel, we carry stainless steel drinking bottles, use cornstarch coffee cups, and have a set of sandwich pockets which eliminates the need for plastic bags and cling wrap so we can eat our own food instead of take away. We carry reusable glass straws with us to use for smoothies, ice coffees and milkshakes purchased as we move around for our work – and this has led to some quite interesting conversations when people are curious as to why we have glass straws.
We buy things in bulk from our health food shop, and make our own bread and biscuits to eliminate commercial plastic-wrapped biscuits, etc. We have replaced cling wrap in the kitchen with a stylish set of different sized “mob caps” for use in covering dishes in both fridge and microwave (from 4MyEarth.com). Our cats are feed fresh mince with appropriate nutritional additives, purchased in our own containers from the health food shop. We make our own toothpaste. I buy Lush’s solid shampoo and conditioner bars that come wrapped in recycled paper, and make my own washing detergent or use fair-trade soap nuts.
Setting this up does take some time and money initially, and one does need to be very intentional about it. But we have very quickly got used to this way of life, and to using our various reusable containers. We also do find at times when we are travelling for work that avoiding disposable plastic all the time is not possible, and we accept that. We accept that we will be offered various plastic items by family and friends and co-workers, and we do not lecture them, as research has shown this is not going to change their minds.
Susan Freinkel in her book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, offers some observations about plastic use we that we should be taking seriously. Our world has apparently produced nearly as much plastic in the last ten years as for most of the last century. She notes that in the space of one generation, the average American has moved from consuming around 13kg of plastic a year to ten times that. In Australia, most of us use around half that amount.
Freinkel also notes that because of the amount of plastic in our society and our food chain, most of us are “just a little plastic now”. “Just as plastics changed the essential texture of modern life, so they are altering the basic chemistry of our bodies,” she says in her book.
It is nigh impossible to live what we understand to be a normal life in the Western world and avoid all plastic. Even if we avoid all packaged food and goods that come in plastic, for most of us there remains essential items we need for everyday life and work, such as telephones, plastic banking cards and electronic devices such as computers and tablets. I also require daily medication, and that is all packaged in plastic.
But we can be much more intentional about how much plastic we can accept in our lives. We can use reusable items such as steel water bottles, we can refuse to buy or accept one-use plastic items, we can write to manufactures and companies to request they use different packaging. We can rediscover the delights of making fresh homemade biscuits and bread. We can consciously commit to recycling our plastic waste. Though at times it seems like we are drowning in an endless array of convenient, plastic wrapped consumer goods, every plastic bag we refuse, every bottled drink we don’t buy, and every take away coffee we purchase in a reusable cup does make a difference.
Such individual actions do have power. They are a catalyst for changing our habits and our thinking. They help make us more aware of our environment, and of the resources required to sustain what is basically an unsustainable way of living. And larger entities are also taking up the challenge. The southern Highland town of Bundanoon has gone plastic bottle free (http://www.news.com.au/national/nsw-town-of-bundanoon-votes-to-ban-bottled-water/story-e6frfkp9-1225747578818). Macquarie University in Sydney is working towards a plastic bottle-free campus (http://mq.edu.au/about_us/strategy_and_initiatives/sustainability/what_is_happening_now/plastic_bottles_on_campus/ ).
If you want more incentive, think of the money you will also save by not buying bottled water or drink or lots of takeaway or convenience food.
It is important to remember that we can positively impact the future well-being of our planet. We can demonstrate responsible buying habits and dispose of our waste thoughtfully. And just maybe, we will cause a quiet reduced plastic revolution among our friends, family and work colleagues.