Please note: I receive commissions for purchases made through links in this zero waste lifestyle post: https://honeygusto.com/zero-waste-kit. But these are all products I highly recommend. I would never post about a product/service I haven’t verified and/or personally used. This comes at no extra cost to you.
Chapter 1 – A History of Plastics How Did We Get Here?
Before you know it we’re truly drowning in plastic. Has time flashed before our eyes? Or did we turn a blind eye to zero waste sustainability? I would go with the former because synthetic plastics have only been around for a little over a century, yet we face grave mass plastic pollution problems. The invention of Bakelite by Leo Baekeland, a chemist, in 1907 during a condensation reaction between phenol and formaldehyde started the whole thing.
Soon after, it was being used in cell phones, car manufacturing, furniture, electrical insulation etc. I doubt even Mr Baekeland himself could comprehend the profound effects plastic would have on the entire planet.
Now Bakelite was the first truly synthetic plastic, but John Wesley Hyatt got the ball rolling in 1869. He made a bioplastic from cellulose, derived from cotton fibre, and mixed it with camphor to produce celluloid. Now it’s come full circle. To be sustainable, we’re looking a fermentation of feedstocks to produce bioplastics, just like Mr Hyatt.
The graph shows an exponential rise in plastic production, taking only a slight dip in the 1970s from the big oil scare, and again in 07-08 from the second-largest recession in human history. Very little has derailed our insatiable need to consume plastic in our everyday lives. Heck, even pre-1950, plastic production shot up due to the demands of World War II.
There was a desperate need for chemical breakthroughs during wartime to make parachutes, ropes, helmets etc. Even the warplanes windows were being made from plexiglass. There was a 300% increase in plastic production in the U.S. during WWII, and that’s not even shown on the graph.
It was after the economy started to recover after the Great Depression and WWII, that the public took to the shops to become huge consumers of this durable, lightweight and flexible compound. Believe it or not, plastic was trendy in the 1950s. Jewellery, kids toys, garden hoses, office stationery, you name it.
We transformed the way we lived, and everyday items that were once made from wood, ivory, silk and such like, were accessible to the common man. There is no doubt about it, plastic transformed all of our lives for the better. At the time of writing this, I’m sitting at a plastic desk, typing up notes on my plastic keyboard I initially wrote down on paper with a plastic pen.
And to see what I’m typing, I have my daily essential contact lenses that are made from plastic! The stuff is everywhere. These large polymers of carbon compounds derived from crude oil can be arranged by altering the monomer units (the individual building blocks) to make an array of plastic-types. They can store almost anything in them, even the harshest of chemicals, and be moulded into an infinite number of shapes.
Then rolled along the 60s and the first signs of plastic pollution in the oceans was discovered. It was the first time that the public understood environmental protection and began advocating for it. All of a sudden, plastic seemed cheap, flimsy and fake. But the capitalist society would thirst for more, and many plastic-based medical devices, surgical implants and plastic surgery itself was growing rapidly.
Have a look at the infographic to see what countries are the biggest culprits of ocean plastic pollution.
Chapter 2 – Health Effects
This is a tricky one because we don’t know the effects of plastics on human health. But what I want to be clear on is I’m talking about microplastics: 100 µm – 5 mm. I’m not talking about chowing down on a plastic bottle. Rather, how these small plastic fibres enter our waters, affecting our entire food web and end up on our dinner plates. But the truth is we know hardly anything about the health effects of plastic pollution. Many scientists have a fair argument that most plastic ingested by plankton up to fish accumulate in the gut.
But we don’t eat the gut; we eat the muscle of the fish. Another argument put forward by different scientists is the unfortunate harmonious relationship with microplastics and organic pollutants like DDT and PCB.
The once widely used insecticide and organic chlorine compounds, respectively. The latter was used in carbonless copy paper and electrical items until being banned in the U.S. in 1979. But just like DDT (banned in 1972), they linger in the environment because they are hydrophobic (resist mixing with water). Well, since the rise of plastic consumption and pollution, scientists have found the organic pollutants are affixing to the surface of microplastics.
The natural biodegradation process is slowed and the harmful compounds now bound to the minute plastics enter the food chain. So the infographic you see below on the health effects is based on the health effects of DDT and PCB. Some scientists argue against this, but I think we’ll have a definitive answer in the next 5-10 years. We certainly need to keep an eye on it. Of the 114 marine species studied that scientists have confirmed contain microplastics, half of them end up on our dinner plates.
The process of biomagnification is where the toxins increase in concentration as you move up the food chain. In the environment, the pollutants are more widely dispersed, and become more concentrated in the gut as animals consume plants and each other. The 3 infographics that follow are: health effects of microplastics with DDT affixed to the surface, the effects of microplastics on marine life and the process of biomagnification.
Chapter 3 – Kids Birthday Parties
You may be asking, what’s a kids birthday party got to do with this? Good question. Let’s say you’re hosting your son/daughter’s birthday party in your house and you’ve got 20 kids coming over. That’s a lot of knives and forks! I made a chapter on this because this type of event can churn out a lot of plastic. You may not have enough, which is understandable. Instead of buying a plastic cutlery set, look for brands that have compostable cutlery. They’re bioplastics.
The plastics are NOT made from synthetic polymers derived from crude oil. Instead, they’re made from crops and plants, which are fermented to produce the likes of lactic and acetic acid. These monomer units form the basic structures for the soon-to-be plastic resins. Take a look at the infographic below for an understanding of the bioplastic lifecycle.
There are another two plastic items that are synonymous with kids birthday parties and that’s the goodie bag & plastic straws. You may not be able to turn all the kid’s toys into bioplastics. That’s highly unlikely at the time of writing. Nevertheless, the cutlery, straws and plastic goodie bags are becoming more popular so have a look at the following:
- Biodegradable straws
- Glass straws
- Bamboo straws
- Bioplastic cutlery
- Paper goodie bags
- Compostable paper plates
- Biodegradable plastic cups
When the little terrors have gone home with their goodie bags and eaten their fill at the great party you hosted, you can dispose of the bioplastics in your gardening waste bin. You may be asking, can I not keep it for my composting heap? Good question. But the chances are probably not because although bioplastics will, unsurprisingly biodegrade, theyʼll need certain environmental parameters to do so.
Ones thatʼll only be replicable at an industrial composting facility with the correct moisture content, temperature etc. You can rest easy knowing youʼve done your bit though. P.S. Remember you can use this same setup for weddings, charity events etc. You can add extra items to the 7 Iʼve got.
Iʼm sure as bioplastics become more readily available, the plastic toys themselves will be bioplastic. The bioplastic cutlery set listing above is a 300 piece set. And maybe take the yoyo and kazoo out the bag, but leave the cake…
Chapter 4 – Don’t Flush It Away!
What do you think of when you see this?
Then what do you think of when you see this?
The latter is a collection of fragmented plastic and nurdles/pellets washed up on Famara beach in Lanzarote, Spain. Without trying to be funny, people do see the toilet as being this magical apparatus capable of disposing of ANYTHING. The litter you put down the toilet will vanish, never to be seen again. Well, it ends up on beaches like the one in Lanzarote, and anywhere in the world.
This chapter will also look at the not-so-obvious sources of plastic trash flushed down the toilet. If you’re guilty of this don’t worry. If you weren’t to know then you can’t be blamed. At least after this chapter, you’ll know exactly what can and cannot be flushed.
What can you flush?
It’s very simple.
ONLY the 3 Ps: Pee, Paper & Poo. That’s it.
Nothing else should go down your toilet. Unfortunately, this message isn’t getting through to everybody. But we can’t blame people. Instead, I look at manufacturers of tampons, menstrual and baby wipes because they don’t always disclose their ingredients list. They pretty much all have plastic in them and many assume are harmless to flush away. Now I could probably end this chapter here because the 3 Ps is all that should go down your toilet.
But I want to address some of the main plastic items we flush down the toilet without thinking. Chances are, many others are doing the same thing. So I’m going to call you out on it, in the nicest way possible! A good question that comes up regularly concerns other types of wipes, such as paper towels and wet wipes. Can you flush them down the toilet? Once again, they cannot be flushed down the toilet. Toilet paper is flushable because of cellulose.
If you look at the diagram below, you’ll see each of the two monomer units joined by an ‘O’ in the middle. This is a hydrogen bond and once it comes into contact with water, it readily dissociates. In other words, it’s very easy to break up and disintegrate in water.
On the other hand, wet wipes and paper towels have added resins (plastic) and they’re not always made of cellulose. Paper towels and wet wipes have a hard time dissolving in water so you’ll have to put them in your general waste bin.
Moral of the story: stick to the 3Ps
Don’t flush the following…
I didn’t want to create a boring list for you so I scoured the web to find 6 plastic-based items that people regularly flush down the toilet. The easiest thing to remember is the 3 Ps but I think showing you this list creates extra meaning and intent to not flush the following items. I was guilty of flushing two of the items down the toilet: contact lenses & dental floss.
Chapter 5 – Bamboo
Another way to greatly reduce plastic consumption is to swap what you can for bamboo. This is a great option because you’re substituting plastic for something else. In this case, a highly durable, biodegradable, sustainable and abundant grass. Let’s take a look at the waste hierarchy:
Another way to greatly reduce plastic consumption is to swap what you can for bamboo. This is a great option because you’re substituting plastic for something else. In this case, a highly durable, biodegradable, sustainable and abundant grass. Let’s take a look at the waste hierarchy: You’ll see where I’ve inserted bamboo into the steps: right at the top! To summarize, the waste hierarchy is a set of graded actions for waste, with the bottom red being disposal at landfill, which is the worst thing to do, and prevention being eliminating the waste.
Bamboo is at the top (which is great) as you’re replacing an undesirable plastic product with a naturally grown one. In other words, you’ve eliminated that waste-type. Minimization is self-explanatory: you’ve greatly reduced your plastic consumption but not eliminated plastic from that process.
I encourage you to make the switch to as many bamboo products as you can. I’ll list a few good examples soon but I’ll explain why bamboo is a miracle substitution.
The Wonder Grass
It’s light, tough and elastic, a unique combination rarely seen in other materials. And people have known this for centuries. The world’s oldest water pipes are from China, composed of grass shoots. Bamboo is stronger than steel. I certainly wouldn’t want to be hit over the head with it.
I thought I’d pay tribute to the Chinese by making the following two bamboo infographics. The second illustration shows how bamboo matches up to timber, which has been added as a link at the bottom of the page. I believe it stands its ground pretty well, so if it’s good for building materials, it’s probably good enough as a toothbrush or plate!
It’s a very versatile grass that’s capable of replacing many wood and plastic products. Why not if it’s cheap and fast-growing, right?
Bamboo infographic: https://bit.ly/bamboo-infographic
Make the switch
Here are some of my favourite zero waste sustainability products:
- Bamboo toilet paper – better for the environment from a manufacturing perspective compared to conventional toilet paper. If you don’t have a bidet, this is the next best option
- Cutlery – To preserve your cutlery for many (many) years, you’ll want to apply an all-natural oil like coconut oil. I’ll give you the relevant links in the Resources section at the end of this book. And why not opt for bamboo bowls and plates if you feel it’s time for a revamp
- Clothing & towels – people are stunned when they hear about the qualities of bamboo as clothing. It’s way softer than cotton, and on a level playing field with cashmere and silk for a quality feel. Plus, it’s naturally antimicrobial so there are no added chemicals to the fabric that would harm your skin or the environment, thanks to an inherent compound: ‘bamboo Kunh’
- Flooring – manufacturers normally use only one type of bamboo for flooring: Moso bamboo. Pandas don’t actually eat this species, so don’t worry about stealing the cute panda’s food!
- Straws – Americans alone discard 500 MILLION plastic straws to landfill every day. Carry around a reusable bamboo straw in your bag or purse; it’s not exactly heavy or inconvenient! They normally come with a little bristle cleaner
- Spectacles & sunglasses – admittedly, most of them will still be composed of high-grade plastic for the lenses instead of glass. But you’d be doing your bit swapping bamboo frames, perhaps when you’re due your next checkup. In the UK, we have an eye check-up once every 2 years, so I’m making the switch at my next appointment. Why not treat yourself? Not to mention, I think they look stunning!
- Toothbrushes – the handles are biodegradable and the packaging is recyclable
This is just a small sample of the bamboo products on offer. If you want to have your chessboard, fishing rod, ornaments, Christmas decorations and guitar made of bamboo, go for it!
It’s super fast-growing especially when you compare it to conventional hardwood trees like oak and beech, taking 1 year for the hulm (the hollow stem of the bamboo) to reach its full size. Thereafter, it’s an additional 2-3 years to reach its maximum strength gains, at which point the tensile strength to weight ratio matches that of steel.
There’s certainly no shortage of the stuff either. With the incredibly fast-growing rates, coupled with the fact you don’t need to uproot the plant. Meaning, you can chop the bamboo to the base of the stem/hulm and it’ll regrow. India has the largest bamboo forests in the world but the diversity award goes to China.
With the right harvesting techniques, you can feel great about the swaps from wood and plastic to the miracle grass of bamboo. Wood resources from rainforests are not viable options, and you can support a lot of rural communities since bamboo harvesting is quite labour intensive.
Chapter 6 – Cleanup Community
Can an individual, or even a small community make a difference to plastic pollution? Well, regardless of anybody’s opinion, it’s not going to stop the hardworking volunteers that give up their weekend to cleanse our beaches. I say it’s a heck of a lot better than doing nothing.
Call for Plastics!
Beaches are the focal points for plastic cleanup excursions because a lot of plastic is washed ashore from the ocean, surface runoff from rivers and streams. Plus, a lot of plastic waste on beaches is from production companies; either during the manufacturing process or transport. It could even be the raw materials (plastic nurdles) that escape the truck that’s transporting them to the plant for processing into the final product.
Ironically, the raw material winds up as plastic waste before it even has a chance to become a product! The plastic pellets, or nurdles, are the small (few millimetres in diameter) spheroidal raw materials of plastic. Upon arrival at the manufacturing site, they enter the process to be remelted into its resin to enter the moulds for whatever the final product is. Plastic bottles, kids toys, pens, for example.
Does it make a difference?
The reality is huge amounts of plastic reside in our oceans, and now on the ocean floor. I think we’re all aware that plastic will regularly wash up on our beaches for many years to come. Millions of tonnes of plastic enter our oceans every year, so small community groups can only impact a very small part of the global problem.
But is it the right thing to do?
Because beaches serve as the ultimate sources for the chemical breakdown of plastics, whether that’s fishing nets, pellets, microplastics, films etc. You see, beached plastic will degrade quicker due to the higher temperatures and photolysis rates (breakdown through sunlight/UV radiation). And we know by now the damaging environmental and human health effects existing with fragmented plastic.
They create microplastics, classified as <5 mm across. The microplastics will fragment into smaller microplastics whilst leaching metals; even absorbing persistent organic pollutants (POPs) like PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) and DDT (the infamous insecticide). The harmful compounds linger in the environment for much longer when they’re bound to the surfaces of microplastics. They were released into the environment decades ago but will exist for much longer once the hydrophobic compounds bind to the plastics, working it’s way up the food chain in increasingly harmful doses.
By picking up the beached plastics, you’re reducing the mass of degradation plastics, toxic metals and leaching rate. That’s a great environmental contribution to make. Otherwise, they’ll fragment, enter the sea, accumulate POPs that will remain in the environment, harming wildlife for a very long time. Admittedly, a lot of the already degraded plastics and small fragments are missing.
People forget the cigarette butts are plastic filters and don’t biodegrade. Many people won’t pick them up, or the little nurdles because they’re also harder to spot.
Glimmers of hope
Beach cleanups can change consumer behaviour. If you have a group of around 30 volunteers working hard all day to rid the beach of plastic, it’s a real eye-opener for them. They’re seeing the devastation firsthand and many would want to change their habits.
With the power of social media, the volunteers spread their newfound enthusiasm, encourage others to get involved, create community groups on Facebook, posting before and after pictures of the beaches and so much more. 30 volunteers can reach thousands on social media. Moreover, there is a way to help beached pellet cleanups. And it makes an individual feel like they’re contributing to environmental science.
For example, the International Pellet Watch is a group of scientists based in Tokyo, Japan, measuring POP concentrations in pellets and mapping them. People all over the world collect them and send them via mail to Japan! You’re cleaning up small portions of beaches whilst making a genuine contribution to science. You can change consumer behaviour, get local communities and schools involved and the positive messages will proliferate.
Educate them on the misuse of plastic, opting for sustainable products, recycle when you can etc. The positive messages will stem from cleanup events. And at the end of the day, it’s better than doing nothing…
Chapter 7 – Plastic Waste Uses
The problem is most people see the plastic as a waste disposal nuisance and not a resource. It’s all about how we can get rid of it and not how can we keep it. But it can serve so many purposes, so let’s see what we can do with it. Rather than opting for the recycling 100% of the time, turn the ‘waste’ into something useful. I want to point out that this isn’t a new revelation.
Patagonia has been using recycled plastic fibres since 1993. In the case of clothing, if you’re using PET (polyethylene terephthalate) for clothing fibres, you’re reducing virgin polyester consumption, less energy, oil and CO2. You’re putting it to great use whilst sequestering it.
Lobby Your Local Politician
You can have waste plastic incorporated into building materials for maintenance and construction of your local community. Having plastic aggregates incorporated into asphalt for road-building and filling in potholes. Writing to your local politician and creating Facebook groups on such sustainable developments will help. You may not be laying the roads directly, but you’d certainly have made your contribution to plastic waste usage.
Make Your Ecobrick
Check out the comic illustration below on how to make your ecobrick(s). It’s certainly not rocket science but there are a few guidelines to follow. It’s a fantastic way to make use of used plastic bottles and you can incorporate a variety of hard and soft plastics. Gather all the plastic you can find! You do want to make sure the plastic is clean and dry. Otherwise, you risk bacterial growth that’ll make your brick unsuitable for building.
Now in my home nation, the UK, it’s against building regulations to use such materials. You can still make ecobricks in the UK, as they’re used in community outreach projects and artwork. There are a growing number of ecobrick deposit stations in the UK, such as Bristol, where the workers will empty the stations and send them to construction projects in Africa and Asia.
So what happens when a bunch of the ecobricks are shipped? They’re put to great use in making garden sheds, park walls, chairs, benches and so much more. Using earth mortar (cement, sand and water as the bonding agent) means you can pile these ecobricks just like you would ordinary bricks.
Furthermore, due to how well compacted they are and the mortar mix, it means the ecobricks are shielded from UV degradation so they’ll stand the test of time and not pollute the environment.
A Fan of Design?
If you have a 3D printer you’re in luck. There are many 3D-printing companies out there releasing their range of recycled filaments from plastic waste streams. What a great example of a closed-loop system. Your printable filaments that were once a ‘waste’ can now be turned into your product. Otherwise, 3D printing uses a lot of virgin plastic. Just make sure to read the specifications carefully and consult with the designers inhouse or online to see if the model you’re targeting can take recycled filaments.
You can even go one step further and purchase (or make your own) recyclebot, which makes its filaments from waste plastic. I guarantee you over time the investment will pay itself back because you’ll no longer be buying fresh filament from the store. And printer filament is very expensive: $35-45/kg.
Perhaps The Future of Building Materials?
Plastic can be used as an aggregate in the cement mix. By grinding down PET bottles or crushing PVC pipe, the aggregates and plastic fibres can be put to good use. After all, it has all the properties for a great construction material: very cheap, water-resistant, lightweight and very slow degradation rates.
So we can’t use ecobricks in the likes of the UK directly but that doesn’t mean we can’t use plastic waste in construction. With enough enthusiastic lobbying and education outreach, we’ll find plastic can be a staple in everyday construction in the Western World too.
We’re seeing a lot of engineering research nowadays to make this a permanent transition. There is no reason why those plastic materials won’t be around for centuries, and we can finally say that in a good way!
Chapter 8 – Clothing
You know, at the time of writing, I’m living in Singapore. I feel the Singaporeans aren’t as environmentally conscious as the British and Europeans. We’re a lot more advanced in our recycling techniques and our mentality towards reuse and recycle is better. Everything is covered in plastic, including individual sweets and biscuits, which is crazy! Cashiers will automatically put, let’s say a single tube of toothpaste in a plastic bag. I have to tell them I don’t need it every time. This brings me to the next point on towels.
Microfibres in clothing and towels are made of plastic and are washed into our rivers and oceans during cleaning. That’s why I decline to accept towels at my local Singapore gym. They offer them to all members coming in as they scan their card. Easily 9/10 people take the towels and when I decline, they look at me like I’m mental! It goes to show the lack of awareness when it comes to plastic pollution and clothing, so let’s see what we can do about it. If you’re slightly puzzled as to why there’s a chapter on clothing in the first place, allow me to explain.
Clothing degrades over time in the washing machine, and the filters inside them aren’t capable of trapping enormous amounts of shedding. Connect a hose to your washing machine to send the fluid to wastewater treatment, along with it ample amounts of plastic fibres.
Who can make a difference?
With this problem, I believe the emphasis needs to be more on the textile and manufacturing companies. That’s not to say a consumer does nothing but point the finger. We need to think about tackling the problem upstream at the source because a consumer doesn’t have the capabilities to remove or replace the synthetic fibres. The manufacturers do.
But since the theme of this book has been based on individuals efforts, let’s start with this before addressing the manufacturers. We’ll look at the following: washing habits, washing machine filters and unique products. Presently, there are no regulations for washing machine manufacturers to implement microplastic filters, so most don’t have them. The extent of the filtering is to catch a key from your jean pocket to prevent it from clogging your pipes. This causes 4.85 TRILLION particles to be dumped in our oceans worldwide.
You may be thinking, synthetic fibres range from 100 µm – 5 mm in diameter, so it’s no big deal, right? Unfortunately, you may be underestimating the size of a trillion: it’s a thousand billion, and you’ve got near enough 5 times that! Furthermore, the weight of this is estimated at 35,500 tonnes.
Check out the infographic for some simple practices that can make a big difference. You may also want to add in at the end a gentle spin of the clothes. A rapid spin will loosen more fibres at a greater rate of friction. Moreover, try to buy 100% organic clothes.
Now does that come with its sustainability issues? Absolutely. But when you see on the label or website they’re organically sourced and certified cotton, silk and linen manufacturers, you’re onto a winner. Because right now around 60% of our clothing is synthetic from the likes of polyester and polyethylene.
Much of your clothing is a 50/50 split of these synthetic fibres and cotton. Even when the clothing is primarily cotton, some manufacturers coat the cotton in a synthetic resin to prolong the life.
Washing machine filters
Just because there aren’t currently plastic fibre filters built into the vast majority of washing machines doesn’t mean we can’t take matters into our own hands. A company called PlanetCare that removes greater than or equal to 80% of fibres. You just attach the device to the side of your washing machine, like this:
You will have to replace the filter after 20 washes and it comes with a little magnetic counter to remind you exactly how many washes you’ve made. You’re only replacing the filter itself and not the entire thing, like the hose our outer casing for example. You pack up the used filter and return it to PlanetCare where they’ll treat it. The best part is they’ll pay for postage: it’s a pre-paid address!
Unique zero waste sustainability products
Another super simple device is the Cora Ball, and it’s cheap. The PlanetCare filter will set you back a membership fee of only £8.50/month for replacement filters. The Cora Ball is a one-off purchase around £30 and it’ll last for years. Plus, you don’t have to clean it after every wash. You simply drop it inside the washing machine along with your clothes. The University of Toronto found the Cora Ball has a removal rate of 26% but don’t let the seemingly low number fool you.
If 10% of all U.S. households used this, it would be the equivalent of preventing 20 MILLION plastic bottles entering the ocean every year! The only downside that concerns me a little is the removal method.
With PlanetCare it’s sent back to be separately treated, but with the Cora Ball, you periodically dispose of the fibre buildup in the trash. Just make sure it goes into the general waste.
One day I’m sure we’ll be able to recycle the plastic fibre material to make clothing etc. to create a closed-loop system. That would be one of the most influential environmental breakthroughs ever, seriously. But until then, the trash is better than the sea.
Zero Waste Sustainability Product Guide
Please note: I receive commissions for purchases made through links in this post: https://honeygusto.com/zero-waste-kit. But these are all products I highly recommend. I would never post about a product/service I haven’t verified and/or personally used. This comes at no extra cost to you.
If you’d like to see all of the reading materials I used to compile this article, click here: https://bit.ly/plastic-pollution-references