Everyday objects account for the top ten items in the plastic waste found on European beaches. Cotton buds, water bottles, small bags, coffee-cup lids, containers for take-away food, and disposable cutlery are all part of the top-ten list. For the seas, beaches, and marine life in all its variety, this waste poses a major problem. Plastic is still being mass-produced and massively used in disposable products. That’s the bad news. The good news is that every one of us can change our consumption habits. The term “plastic fasting” emerged a few years ago. Although it may sound like a major effort involving completely doing away with plastic in our everyday lives, it can actually be introduced in small, well-placed steps.
Those looking for concrete examples of how to fight the plastic flood in their everyday lives can turn for advice to, for example, the WWF, the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union Nabu, the German Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation BUND, Germany’s main environmental protection agency UBA, Greenpeace or the German consumer advice centre. In addition, a simple Google search will throw up various media articles on the topic. Since the number of available lists is large, and the measures they propose are various, we have put together a selection of easy-to-introduce measures.
Starting with the most important: wherever possible, try not to use throw-away products!
1. Buy a reusable cup for your take-away coffee…
…and give it to your barista when you fetch your morning coffee, instead of grabbing yet another paper cup. It is not unusual now for coffee shops to offer discounts to customers who bring along their own cups.
2. Invest in a few reusable shopping bags and always carry them with you.
Since the EU’s vote to ban single-use plastic bags, this is a way to save money. What’s more, jute bags are trendy and available in a variety of forms and colours, with prints that declare your love for bands, films, books and anything else that stirs your passions.
3. Buy a reusable drinking bottle or two in different sizes…
…instead of always using those small, disposable water bottles.
4. Get yourself some cutlery for travelling or camping…
…especially if you eat a lot of take-away food. Stop using plastic cutlery.
5. Drink tap water when you’re at home.
The water quality in Germany is excellent – and regularly tested for quality. Besides, you’ll save yourself money and the burden of having to carry home bottles of water.
6. Whenever possible, buy alternatives to plastic,…
…such as toothbrushes made of biodegradable material or cotton buds without plastic tubes.
7. When you go to the supermarket,..
…shop at the fresh-food counter and buy unpackaged fruit and vegetables. Supermarkets have also been stepping up their efforts to reduce packaging; some of them even offer reusable net bags for fruit and vegetables.
8. If you do buy plastic bags, then make sure you use them again…
…for example, for your next shopping trip, for collecting plastic waste at home or as garbage bags.
9. Buy products from recycled material and drinks that come in glass bottles.
10. Stop using clingfilm. Use alternatives instead,…
…such as wrapping film made of beeswax.
The following applies to all materials used to replace plastic: they only make sense if you actually reuse them! Growing cotton requires a lot of water and is therefore resource-intensive. And to produce paper, trees have to be cut down, and the cellulose used in the papermaking process is generated using toxic substances. So buying a new cloth bag every time you’re in the supermarket, or using lots of paper bags, doesn’t get us anywhere.
Ultimately, avoiding plastic and waste is really about sustainability and the conservation of resources. All measures are useless if we continue with our mass consumption. That is why the following rules apply: separate your waste and buy locally. A cucumber produced in the region, even if it’s wrapped in plastic, may be more sustainable than an organic product from far away with its large carbon footprint.
Avoiding plastic in cosmetic products is slightly more difficult, because many of them contain microplastics. While the latter’s use is rather obvious in exfoliant skincare products or microbeads in toothpaste, consumers can usually only detect them in other products through certain abbreviations listed in the ingredients. The German Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation (BUND) has developed a Purchase Guide that includes a list of a variety of products sorted by manufacturer.
If your budget allows, you could shop in a zero-waste shop. More and more of them are appearing on the high street. At these plastic-free stores, customers can buy products such as rice, nuts, seeds, lentils, dried fruits, and a lot more, and simply bring them home in their own containers or in reusable containers or recycled paper bags available at the shop.
Opinions differ as to the issue of the organic cucumber wrapped in plastic. Organic cucumbers spoil faster than their conventionally grown equivalents. The plastic film keeps them fresh and makes it more likely that they are bought. Supermarkets have argued that they need to label organic cucumbers in some way or other and that the best solution is via the packaging. However, environmentalists have expressed doubts about this reasoning. In the meantime, experiments have been made with laser markings directly applied to fruit and vegetables – this method would make packaging and even stickers completely redundant.
Unfortunately, one of the alternative solutions, also referred to as “bioplastic”, is frequently nothing more than a sham. It is produced using, among other ingredients, corn or potatoes, which may lead to conflicts with regard to the cultivation of food. In many cases, non-renewable raw materials are added. In general, many of these products are only compostable under very specific conditions. Many of them are not biodegradable at all.
As with so many questions, the answer is: yes, but… By using less plastic, we can all do our bit for the environment and sustainability. However, only politics and industry are capable of taking the major steps that are necessary in this regard. As it is, with particular products, such as cars and electrical products, consumers have no freedom of choice. Those wanting to buy plastic-free in these areas need to refrain from buying such products in the first place. However, the joint message of consumers and climate protectors has also been heard in all sorts of places. The EU’s Strategy on Plastics pursues ambitious goals; and even discount supermarkets have in the meantime taken up the cause of avoiding packaging.
But especially in the field of recycling, we still have a long way to go. Throughout the EU, less than 30% of the entire plastic waste is collected for recycling. To increase this rate, incentives must be created for more investment in recycling plants and the development of better recycling technologies. The same applies to new product design, because the form of packaging used, and the particular point in the product where a particular material is used, affects its recyclability.
But don’t hang about: it’s never too early to start your “plastic fasting”.