Is Plastic Really That Convenient?
This month we’re exploring plastic’s role in the climate crisis
Simple climate action at home // I S S U E 5 // P L A S T I C S
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Plastic: The Fifth Biggest Emitter in The World
By Jemima Kiss
In June 2018, I challenged myself to do our family’s weekly food shop without buying anything wrapped in plastic. It was tough at first — but not as tough as I’d expected. I replaced our dry stores with glass jars and filled them at bulk sections. I learnt simple and quick recipes for bread (8 minutes), wraps (14 minutes), and nut milks (1 minute). I made small cloth bags for buying produce, and took reusables for eating and drinking out. We slowly transformed how we bought, stored and cooked food, and it became our new normal.
The plastic in our landfill bin eventually shrank enough to order a smaller trash can, which has saved us $100 a year. My new recipes were saving us money too. I started to realize that the food retailers pitch to us as ‘convenient’ is a lie; heavy on plastic packaging and junky ingredients, and costing significantly more than making it ourselves. So while it felt good to cut down on plastic waste, it felt even better to unexpectedly set out on a food adventure, making delicious fresh bread, pizza, and pasta with the kids for the first time.
Cutting out plastics changed the way our family shopped, stored and cooked our food
There’s a cost to convenience. All of us now understand how damaging plastic pollution is for wildlife, as well as the microplastics being detected in our water and air, but there’s a climate impact too. Plastics manufacturing is a $400 billion business annually consuming 14% of the world’s oil. That’s predicted to double in the next 20 years. Plastic generates huge greenhouse gas emissions at every stage of production: extraction and transportation of oil; manufacture; and when waste plastics are incinerated. The manufacture of ethylene alone — used to create polyethylene, the most common plastic — generates emissions equivalent to the average annual emissions of 45 million cars. If plastic were a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter in the world.
None of that is surprising if we take a look around our homes. But we can change it. Cutting plastic is good for the environment but it has other benefits too, saving money, encouraging healthier eating habits and, in my case, helping my kids learn some valuable life skills. I found a way to do just that, and so did Nancy Hu, the local climate champion we’ll introduce you to below.
The Hothouse Plastics Challenge
When you start to observe what you buy and throw away, you’ll understand why 40% of all plastic is manufactured for packaging. So part one of this month’s challenge this is to see how much plastic trash we’re throwing away.
Every time you have plastic to throw away, save it in a separate bag
Record how much you collect in one week. Take a photo, and measure either by weight or volume — perhaps one tightly packed shopping bag.
Next week, we’ll suggest some tips to cut down, and see if we can produce less
Lastly, please forward this email to one friend and ask them to sign up to Hothouse. Get them to join our challenge too.
Local Climate Champion: Nancy Hu
Dr Nancy Hu is that person in your social feed who just keeps pushing you, gently but persistently, to take personal action on climate change. A full-time dentist and mother of two, she still manages to make the time to channel her climate anxiety into practical action. And what started as a zero-waste habit has grown into pushing for action higher up the chain. It’s thanks in part to her efforts that Nancy’s home county, Contra Costa in California, recently declared a climate emergency.
As told to Jemima Kiss
When Trump got elected, I knew we were in trouble. I’d become more concerned about the climate crisis after having my first child in 2014, but come 2016 I knew I needed to make some drastic changes. I started to learn about zero waste from Bea Johnson, Kathryn Kellogg, and Lauren Singer, and it seemed very doable — I just slowly started replacing single-use plastic things in our home. I got inspired to set up a zero-waste party pack for my local community (similar to the city of Palo Alto), and lend it out for free to schools and groups who want to avoid using disposables.
Taking little steps is a gateway drug to more action. I felt empowered on my journey to zero waste. Then I got to the point where I’d transformed my lifestyle, and wondered where else to go. I realized I had to become a more active citizen, voicing my opinions to elected leaders and helping shape policy.
Nancy Hu. Photo: Shelly Hamalian
There was a moment when I realized there was no way I could do this on my own. I went to the 2018 Climate Reality training and felt the hope that comes with collective action. I joined my town’s environmental task force, started the Buy Nothing Lafayette group, and began to contact elected officials about legislation that could change the system. This year I campaigned for the proposed California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Act, but that failed. Our next project is to gather signatures for California’s 2022 ballot measure for a tax on single-use packaging — that tax would be paid by producers, and not consumers.
If you want to cut household waste, avoid buying new stuff. It’s better to refuse, reuse, and repair. Look for second hand goods, and join a ‘buy nothing’ group for motivation. Many things can be reused, including plastic ziplock bags, and foil. Used once, a paper bag has a much higher carbon footprint than a single plastic bag, but if you reuse that paper bag many times, you offset that.
Recycling is a farce. Like many people, I assumed anything could be recycled. And though glass and aluminum can be recycled forever, with plastic it depends how clean and well sorted it is, and what type of plastic it is. Remoulding it uses a lot of water and creates toxic fumes. And even then plastic can only be recycled a few times, so eventually it all ends up in landfill or our waterways. Refuse plastic whenever you can.
Stephanie Regni, founder of Fillgood.co, with Nancy at Lafayette’s Earth Day Festival in 2019. Photo: Nancy Hu
Human behavior is so hard to change. Convenience often wins. But just talk to people about plastic and climate, and you'll find a lot of people care. I know I’ve helped friends change their habits; lots of them now carry containers and reusable plates and cutlery when they go out.
No one likes to be nagged, or be told what to do. So teach by example. I decided to use social media to post about our family’s journey — how we ate out without using single-use plastics, how we shopped in the bulk aisle, and how we refused the souvenirs at Disneyland. I’ve found that modeling behavior and sharing it publicly helps inspire others to reduce waste. I’ll admit that some of my zero-waste habits have gone by the wayside since Covid-19 hit because of rules banning reusables, but I still try to buy produce loose and reuse produce bags.
Decide what you really want to accomplish. I’ve been reading Mary DeMocker’s Parents’ Guide to Climate Revolution, and she makes a good point: it might take ten minutes to properly clean out your peanut butter jar so you can put it in recycling. But you could also spend that ten minutes calling an elected official and make your voice heard. Isn’t that a better use of your time?
Am I optimistic? I have good days and bad days. I’m more optimistic when I talk to other people and find out what they’re doing to reduce their carbon footprint. It's empowering to make changes in your life and find out you helped someone else to make changes too. I’m hoping after the elections I will be more optimistic!
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Hothouse is a weekly climate action newsletter written and edited by Jemima Kiss, Mike Coren, and Jim Giles. We rely on readers to support us, and everything we publish is free to read.