In our personal drive to reduce plastic waste, we should beware easy, but false, solutions:
- Cutting out single-use plastic – water bottles, straws, disposable plates and so forth – is a good place to start reducing waste. But make sure you aren’t inadvertently increasing your carbon footprint. A cotton tote bag must be used 131 times before its environmental cost falls below that of a disposable plastic bag, mostly because of the impact of growing cotton. Similarly, you must use a steel water bottle 500 times for its carbon footprint to shrink to less than that of a disposable PET bottle. One undergraduate study found a permanent plastic bottle to result in less carbon emissions than a stainless steel one.
- Reducing the packaging you use by buying large containers and, for example, avoiding single-serve yogurt pots, also helps.
- Switch to bar soap. It is a complicated life-cycle analysis, but it tends to have a much lighter footprint than liquid soap from a dispenser.
- Buying concentrated forms of products such as detergents is also a case of more bang for less packaging. Life-cycle comparisons show they reduce other environmental impacts, to
- Boycotting mixed packaging, which often can’t be recycled, may also help: for instance, crisp bags and stand-alone pouches that are all the rage for baby food.
- Avoid black plastic food trays, whose colouring confuses the infrared detectors used to distinguish plastics in most recycling plants. Go for brands that have made meaningful packaging changes, such as the few drinks companies using 100 per cent recycled PET.
- Taking any recyclable waste home with you helps if, as in the UK, kerbside recycling is much easier and cheaper for local authorities. If you tip it into a public bin, it’s unlikely that anyone will take the time to separate it out for recycling. (New Scientist May 19, 2018)