If you’re wrestling with the question: “What can I do to contribute to alleviating the climate crisis?” We have good news. The answer is—a lot. In fact, there’s so much you can do, and we can hope this series of blogs will help you decide on the contribution you can make. That’s why we’ve packed it with fast facts and actionable advice.
Spoiler alert: The thesis of this series is that if the vast majority of us—meaning you, your family, friends and neighbours—do some very basic things better, we can make a huge difference.
Contributing to this post is a team of four passionate planet protectors. Susanna Hasenoehrl, better known as The Sustainability Speaker, who helps corporate leaders identify sustainability risks and realise opportunities to future-proof business amidst imminent ESG-challenges. Michelle Mouille, Founder of Sustainable Maikhao Foundation, has a long history of supporting green initiatives on the idyllic island of Phuket. Tim Wade, a motivational and business growth speaker who helps clients lead change, motivate staff, and develop leadership capability. And Andrea Edwards, the author of Uncommon Courage and an evangelist for social leadership, content strategy, and employee advocacy through her brand The Digital Conversationalist.
Together, the fab four came up with 22 Lifestyle Changes we can all make to contribute to a better world. So, if you only do ONE thing, share this list!
The first installment was on food. You can find it here.
In our second installment, we focus on what we can do to limit our contribution to the planet’s plastic problem.
Here are some fast facts if you need a compelling reason to keep reading:
● Only 9% of plastic that’s ever been created has been recycled
● And all plastic ever created is still with us today
● We’re all ingesting a credit card worth of plastic each week or 5grams/person
● That little recycling sign on your plastic bottle may not mean what you think it does
● Governments may collect recycling, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually being done
● 80% of environmental labels in the fashion industry are not evidence-based
We’ll get started today with Tip #12 from Andrea who wants to help us better understand plastic recycling. There’s a lot of confusion about what can be recycled and if it’s actually happening. For instance, “only 9% of plastic that’s ever been created has been recycled,” Andrea explains. “If we can understand the plastic that we’re buying and its potential for recycling, we can make a really huge difference in what ends up in our waterways and landfills.”
This problem is especially visible in developing nations that are on the receiving end of wealthy nations’ trash.
“So many wealthy country citizens do not understand the ugly side of waste disposal. It’s been shipped to the poorest, and with the economic impact of Covid, any progress made before the pandemic is sure to slip backwards,” said Andrea.
To start with, we can look at the universal plastic resin symbol on the plastic we buy (the little chasing arrow symbol with the number in the middle). Most of us see that image and assume it means the item can be recycled—it doesn’t.
The number in the center of the arrows (from one to seven) indicates how easily it can be recycled. Number one is PET (Polyethylene terephthalate), the sort of plastic from which single-use water bottles are made. And even though it’s easily recyclable, only 20% is actually recycled because it doesn’t make it to where it can be processed. When you get up to plastics with number six and seven, they are the hardest to recycle. If we can avoid buying the worst categories of plastic, that’s a great way to make a difference.
The numbers and what they mean – reference this article
- Plastic Recycling Symbol #1: PET or PETE = single-use bottled beverages. Easily recyclable, but only 20% is recycled
- Plastic Recycling Symbol #2: HDPE = Milk jugs; juice bottles; bleach, detergent, and other household cleaner bottles. Most can be recycled. Bottle caps can’t, but there are other avenues for this. Do your research for your local community.
- Plastic Recycling Symbol #3: PVC or V = Shampoo and cooking oil bottles, blister packaging, and more. It’s cheap, so found in plenty of products and packaging. Rarely recycled, but it can be
- Plastic Recycling Symbol #4: LDPE = used for squeezable bottles; bread, frozen food, dry cleaning, and shopping bags; furniture. Rarely recycled, do your research
- Plastic Recycling Symbols #5: PP = used for heat (food containers) yogurt containers, syrup and medicine bottles, caps, straws. Some programs accept it and it does have future possibilities
- Plastic Recycling Symbol #6: PS = used in disposable plates and cups, meat trays, egg cartons, carry-out containers, aspirin bottles, compact disc cases. Made of polystyrene and is rigid or in foam products. Styrene monomer (a type of molecule) can leach into foods and is a possible human carcinogen, while styrene oxide is classified as a probable carcinogen. As it’s 98% air, rarely recycled
- Plastic Recycling Symbol #7: Miscellaneous = found in three and five gallon water bottles, bulletproof materials, sunglasses, DVDs, iPod and computer cases, signs and displays, certain food containers, nylon. This includes a wide variety of plastic resins and is supposedly a hormone disruptor. Rarely accepted for recycling and best to avoid
Following that, we need to take ownership of our recycling—to get it to wherever it needs to go. While we’re all trying to make recycling as easy as possible, sadly, it’s just not working. Even in Australia, where there are bins for every type of waste, it doesn’t mean that things are getting where they need to go.
If you follow the journey of your trash, you may be quite shocked. What this means is that we have to solve the problem ourselves by buying as little plastic as possible. And, when it really needs to be there, it should only be plastic that’s actually going to be recycled, for which we take responsibility.
Dovetailing on the topic of recycling, Tip #13 from Tim is to seek out organizations who are able to recycle plastics in effective and creative ways. “In Indonesia,” mentions Tim, “there is an organization called Classroom of Hope. In the aftermath of the tsunami, the founders started taking recycled plastic bottles and other plastic bits from beach cleanups, and began processing them into plastic bricks. The bricks were then used to rebuild damaged classrooms—and they’ve been building classrooms that way ever since.” To learn more about them, visit B1G1.com.
“The whole idea is just to see what we can do with the rubbish we collect,” adds Michelle. “In Phuket we collect HDPE plastic, like you find with bottle caps, and we wash them, dry them and send them to Precious Plastics at a local waterpark called Blue Tree. They have this Precious Plastics machine, which can shred the bottle caps for moulds and make incredible things like cardholders, earrings, and toys, even skateboards.”
There’s also Plastic Bank, which pays people for their plastic bottles. The project is supported by IBM and flourishing in the Philippines. In fact, there are a number of organizations with plastic re-use as a focus. Even ring-tabs can be recycled into art or collected and given to people who can be paid for delivering them to recycling plants. Not only are these ways of recycling, they can also be ways of giving people dignity and purpose—and we all benefit from that.
Tip#14 from Andrea is to say no to single use everything, especially single use plastics. To start with, we need to stop getting takeaway in single-use containers while we’re at the office or at home during lockdowns. There are a few companies already working to reduce waste in this space like Barepack or Muuse which operates in Singapore, Hong Kong and Toronto.
“Goodie bags from kids’ parties are another perfect example of something that needs to stop,” explains Andrea. “They used to drive me nuts, always busting with cheap plastic toys to make them look fuller, and then the toys didn’t even last a day. Balloons need to go too. If it exists for a moment of supposed joy, and then it’s in the rubbish bin, it shouldn’t be allowed to even exist anymore. We all have to start saying no to anything that is created to exist for a single, momentary purpose.
We need to say “no” more in our lives, especially if it’s plastic and it’s going to sit in the environment for 1,000 years.” We can all do this right away.
We can also be more mindful about our paper choices. Another kitchen hack from Tim is to replace the paper towels in your house with KRAMA baby washcloths from IKEA (about $6 for 10). “We’ve been using the same ones for about three years now, it has cut down on so much paper towel use. We also bought a bidet to cut down on our toilet paper consumption.”
It’s all about reducing waste wherever you can and Tip #15 from Andrea is about making fast fashion, past fashion. Clothes are notoriously difficult to recycle and yet the fashion industry has been growing more out of control for the last few decades. Its supply chain is full of abuse—of the workers and the environment. In fact, a July 2020 article by Ngan Le from the Princeton Student Climate Initiative found:
“The fashion industry is currently responsible for more annual carbon emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. If the industry maintains its course, an increase of 50% in greenhouse gas emissions is expected within a decade.”
The human impact is also unforgivable. Many garment workers in Asia who make clothes for major brands were left unpaid at the beginning of the pandemic. And when the women in those industries get left behind, they can find themselves involved in sexual slavery or domestic abuse because they are often the breadwinner and their loss of income means the loss of all household income. It’s a brutal industry that has never taken responsibility for the supply chain and constantly pollutes poorer countries.
So the best way to make a difference in fashion is to commit to buying fewer items, of higher quality, and wear them longer. Ideally, we should be looking at sustainable fabrics like bamboo and organic cotton. However, even cotton takes a lot of warm water to grow, so it has to be worn at least 150 times before you can cancel out the emissions of its production (now really think about wearing that frock 150 times). Synthetic fabrics are full of microplastics and every time we wash them, these leach into the waterways.
Babies are being born with plastic in their bodies. In fact, we’re all ingesting a credit card worth of plastic each week and our washing and fashion habits are a big part of that. Fast fashion is also choking our landfills. In Africa there are mountains and mountains of our wasted clothes. We have to change the narrative on fashion and access. We need to keep the industry honest and accountable with how we spend our dollars.
Susanna adds, “the fashion industry is also quite problematic for misleading statements. Some recent studies have shown that 80% of their claims are not really evidence-based.” The time to boycott fast fashion is now.
Michelle: Tip #16 Don’t let the lean lessons of COVID disappear. For many of us, COVID has given us time to really think about what we actually need. Do we need another outfit? Another chair? Another decorative cushion? Or can we simply repair something we already own? When we repair, repurpose or reuse; we can significantly reduce what we buy. If you need more encouragement, think of all the resources and time required to create a single toothbrush—it’s incredible.
Again (sense a theme here), it’s about managing our waste and reducing our consumption. As many of us have less disposable income due to the impact of COVID, this is a great time to focus on only buying what we really need. And if it’s broken, repair it!
Tip #17 from Tim reminds us that our practices at home should transfer to our habits at work, so we can trim down office waste too. Getting rid of all the office disposables, including disposables for guests, is a great place to start. Instead, bring your own coffee cup or buy some cups that can be washed and reused. If it’s your office, get your staff involved in the washing up from time to time and let them know you appreciate them participating in the solution.
If we really want to move forward, we all have to chip in. We mustn’t think it’s up to someone else. Michelle explains it this way, “We’re all on this boat that has holes. Some people are making the holes. Some people are plugging the holes. Some people just don’t do anything because they’re too busy on their phones. So which one do you want to be? There’s only one boat, and we have everything on board to fix this boat, but we have to work together to make it happen. And not later down the line, it is something super urgent. It’s about sharing that knowledge and making sure that people realize it is easy, we can and need to do this together, rather than thinking the government will do it for us. We need to take ownership.”
It can be dangerously easy to punt that ownership onto governments, especially for those of us in developed countries where we pay taxes for rubbish collection. But the exponential rise of rubbish over the last few decades—and the exponential rise of plastic products—means governments can’t get rid of it all. The result is either an increase in taxes, which will please no one, or we have to come up with solutions within our communities and commit to doing better.
Susanna’s Tip #18 builds onto the idea of deeper understanding by encouraging us to know your labels and stay vigilant. There’s a whole range of labels out there, especially when it comes to plastics or plastic alternatives. So the term “biodegradable” for instance, what does that actually mean? It sounds like a better solution, but then we have to question the timeframe.
“What’s the time frame on biodegradable packaging for instance?,” Susanna elaborates. “Is it a year? Is it 10 years, 100 years? There’s all shades of biodegradability out there.” If you happen to be living in a place where things are going to be incinerated rather than composted or recycled, those labels actually don’t matter all that much. “I would encourage everyone to really question these labels,” Susanna adds. “There’s a lot of greenwashing, a lot of labels and terms that don’t actually mean so much in reality.”
As consumers we have a major role to play. Anyone who comes across a sustainable statement that doesn’t ring true needs to actually call the company out and ask for evidence to back the claim. In the oil and gas industry, Shell has claimed that by buying options for carbon offsetting you are driving a car without emissions. The advertising regulators in the Netherlands have now ruled that it’s just untrue and that Shell must stop using this claim.
Adding to that is Tip #20 from Andrea, “If you’re capable of understanding the greenwashing that’s going on, make sure that you’re sharing that on social media and making other people aware. It’s an obligation for those of us who can get past the bullshit to share the truth with their community, especially those who may not have as much access to that knowledge and insight as we do.
The overarching message here, is refuse plastic everywhere you can. In how you shop for food, get take out, what you wear, how you live and work, shopping, and more. We need to stop the plastic waste tap that is pouring into our rivers and oceans. That’s on all of us! We won’t be perfect, but if enough of us do everything we can, we start to see a tide of change. Because, you know….
In fact, “sharing” is what installment three is all about next week, when we tackle how to spread the word and travel more mindfully. Please don’t forget to keep us posted about last week’s tips and how they are working for you. See you next week!
Andrea, Susanna, Michelle and Tim
This blog is an adaptation of the podcast Uncommon Courage, which is hosted by author, speaker and The Digital Conversationalist, Andrea T. Edwards. Uncommon Courage features an array of guests each week and focuses on how we can come together to create the future we want for humanity.
If you prefer to listen, this podcast can be found here on Apple, and here on Spotify, plus where all podcasts are published.
Uncommon Courage – my new book – is available
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