In 2018 single-use was named word of the year. If that is anything to go by, the world is finally coming to grips with the pervasiveness of single-use-plastic pollution.
South Africa is currently the 11th worst plastic polluter in the world with 94% of all beach litter found in South Africa being plastic – and the problem is getting worse. For example, the amount of litter washing up daily in Table Bay, Cape Town, tripled between 1994 to 2011, far outstripping the growth in Cape Town’s population over the same period.
There is hope. Countries around the world are stepping up and making changes to regulations to curb the rising tide of single-use plastic. A petition for the South African government to do the same can be signed here.
When it comes to trying to live a low-waste lifestyle it is an absolute privilege, not everybody has the same access and some of the things on this list can be a bit costlier to do. So it is important to focus on context of what works for you and to try and do it step by step.
Here are some of the single-use swaps you can make to become more plastic free:
WHEN OUT AND ABOUT
Carry a tote bag
South Africa uses over 8 billion shopping bags every year – that’s more single-use bags than the amount of people in the whole world in South Africa alone. Carrying a reusable shopping bag with you can greatly reduce your plastic footprint. BUT it’s important not to get too caught up on that tote life so that you end up buying more of them than you need. Tote bags have their own environmental footprint and so should be used thousands of times.
The South African retail group Pick n Pay is now trialing the cheapest reusable bag on the market made of recycled plastic bottles. The R5 reusable shopping bag is making reusable bags more accessible to the average person.
Use a reusable water bottle
An estimated 1 million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute. Micro plastics have also been found in bottled water and subsequently in the guts of humans. If you have access to clean drinking water, using a reusable bottle filled with tap or spring water can help break this cycle.
Use a reusable coffee cup (or take your coffee slow)
About 100 billion disposable coffee cups go to landfill every year. Despite misconceptions, coffee cups are not recyclable. Even the majority of ‘compostable’ coffee cups do not biodegrade unless in a commercial composter. This is not the norm in South Africa.
if you are a lover of getting a coffee on the go, invest in a reusable coffee cup or up-cycle an old jar into a coffee cup by using a jar and old rubber bands to create a handle around the jar so you can hold it while it contains hot liquids. Better yet, consider slowing things down and only stopping for a coffee when you have a few minutes to sit down and enjoy it.
Skip the straw or use a reusable one
1 billion straws are used and thrown out every day. Despite the uptake in compostable PLA straws, these straws need a commercial composter in order to biodegrade and still cause ocean pollution. Because these straws also look like plastic they tend to become confusing for commercial composters and can lead to compost and soil contamination. Paper straws are the best option out of the single-use bunch but it is always better to skip the straw entirely or invest in a reusable one if you are inclined to use straws.
There are many types of reusable straws on the market including glass, metal, bamboo and silicone. The most affordable ones I have seen are made of bamboo whilst soft silicone straws provide a gummy lip which is more accessible for people with disabilities or illness.
Material produce bags
Instead of using single-use plastic barrier bags to weigh and buy fruits and vegetables, reusable produce bags are the perfect switch. These can be bought (there are a few locally made options) or self made using old clothes or material offcuts.
Carry a container and cutlery for take out
When you decide to grab a take-away meal, a super easy way to avoid all sorts of unnecessary single-use items is to use your own containers to collect the food. Whether it is a stainless steel tiffin, an old tupperware or a reused ice-cream container, all of these options do the same job in making sure your convenience meal has less waste.
It may mean you can’t always phone ahead and may need to sit for a few extra minutes while waiting for your food to be prepared, but that is really a small price to pay for the reward.
WHEN IN THE BATHROOM
Give a sheet
Güd Sheet is a locally made plastic free toilet paper made from sugar cane waste. Güdco, the company behind the product, not only focuses on providing more sustainable tp, but also on raising funds to build toilets at low income schools around South Africa. If you can afford it, this is a great way to purchase a more sustainable TP option sans the plastic. If you can’t, try go for bulk options to save bucks and minimise the plastic.
Look for low-waste or plastic free soaps, shampoos, conditioners, toothpaste etc
Zero waste stores like Nudefoods and Shop Zero in Cape Town sell plastic free soaps and offer refilling stations for body-wash, shampoo and conditioner. In this case, using an old container to refill, for as long as possible, is your optimal solution.
If these kinds of stores are inaccessible to you, buying as bulk as possible helps reduce packaging. Making your own hygiene products from basic ingredients like vinegar and bicarb can also help reduce plastic, save money and prevent nasty chemicals from being absorbed by your skin.
Use a safety razor
If you’re inclined to use a razor, rather ditch the disposable or plastic one and invest in an old-school safety razor that can last you for life. They are not very expensive in comparison to other razors and simply require blade changes from time to time – which also come in cardboard boxes, not plastic.
Brush with bamboo
Over 99% of toothbrushes used around the world are plastic – and the type of plastic that can’t be recycled. Considering how regularly we need to change our tooth brushes in order to maintain good dental hygiene, plastic toothbrushes are forming a considerable amount of plastic pollution that is also reaching the ocean. Using a natural bamboo toothbrush is a great way of reducing this personal plastic impact. I also reuse my bamboo toothbrush once it’s reached the end of its tooth brushing life – think eyebrow brush or a cleaning brush for small corners. Once done with it, the handle can be composted and the bristles put in an ecobrick.
Reusable menstrual products
According to 1 million women (a global movement of women fighting climate change through everyday decisions) about 9 600 sanitary products are used and disposed by the average menstruating person in their lifetime. If you multiply that by all the menstruating people on the planet, well that is significant amount of waste. Not to mention the single-use plastic tampon and pad packaging which often ends up in storm water drains and eventually in the ocean. There is also nasty chemicals and pesticides used on conventional menstrual products that are not good for you you. I personally use the menstrual cup. However, there are a number of reusable options out there including reusable bads and period underwear.
Natural loofas and cloths
I shudder to think how long I washed by body using a loofah or cloth actually made of plastic material. These don’t only shed microfibre plastics into the waterways, but plastic has also been associated with oestrogen which is synthetic oestrogen that can disrupt your hormonal system, add to hormone imbalances and make you sick. Considering that your skin is a large membrane that absorbs chemicals etc, I’d rather opt for a wash cloth made of bamboo, hemp or cotton.
WHEN IN THE KITCHEN
Bees wax wraps and bowl covers
Cling-wrap. The bane of my existence when it comes to single-use plastic in the kitchen. Why? Because this non-recyclable plastic convenience item can SO EASILY be replaced with a reusable option. Even foil is better than cling-wrap considering it can be reused and recycled far more easily – but it is still a disposable item that can be avoided. Enter bees wax wraps and cotton bowl covers, available at zero waste stores, online on stores like Faithful-to-nature and certainly easy enough to make yourself.
Natural cleaning brushes
Just like plastic wash cloths in the bathroom, plastic sponges and brushes in the kitchen shed microplastics into our waterways. Microplastics have been found to be in the gut of humans, so reducing the amount of microplastics I personally shed has become a priority for me. Natural cleaning brushes can also be composted once they get too icky, as opposed to being put in a bin destined for landfill.
Environmentally friendly, bulk cleaning products
At our office we buy large drums of cleaning products that everyone in the office can dispense from to take home. The more bulk you buy, the less plastic used and the less often you will need to potentially drive to go and get more (less emissions – yay). Zero Waste shops also allow you to bring your own container to fill up your cleaning products. Using environmentally-friendly cleaning products that are better for your health, the waterways and our soils is also a big win! Home cleaning products are also easy to make and the power of simple vinegar as a cleaning product is magical to say the least.
Bulk buying and refilling
Whether it is buying in bulk from a store like Makro or going to a zero waste store to refill into your own jars, buying in bulk or refilling can greatly reduce your single-use plastic footprint. Buying in bulk can also be a cost-saving exercise which is a bonus for some and necessary for others.
Watch my video on going more plastic free with these easy swaps: