On Wednesday morning, as I opened my tablet to read the news of the day, I get struck by this title on The Guardian : “Plastic Fibres Found in Tap Water Around The World…”. My heart sank and I honestly thought "we're doomed'. Microscopic bits of plastic have been found in the water we drink and apparently even in the air we breath (also in salt, German beer, sugar and honey). There's no escape. We thought we were suffocating the ocean with plastic but now we're discovering that our love for plastic could easily equal to an act of collective sabotage.
Plastic, even in almost invisible particles, is everywhere.
Plastic can be easily recognised as one of the greatest innovation of the 20th century. It transformed our lives and the world as we see today wouldn't be the same without it. Too bad plastic isn't such a perfect material. It degrades unbelievably slowly, it releases chemicals and it breaks into small pieces and micro particles that are harmful to living creatures. It can disrupt hormones levels in our bodies, attack our immune system and give us cancer. Could it be any worse?
It's hard to say whether the problem we're facing right now is coming from all types of plastic but we can confidently say it certainly comes from single use plastic, which is produced in staggering amount and has a very short life. This kind of plastic is all around us, we use it and discard it every day in the form of packaging.
Sadly, this is only one side of the problem. The other, much less visible one is the pollution given by the microfibres shed by our clothing. All kind of sportswear and a large part of everyday fashion are made with functional fabrics, mostly using high performance polyester and nylon yarns that are so advanced to give us fabrics that are lightweight, quick-dry, warm or cooling, moisture wicking, breathable yet waterproof, water repellant or super absorbent, hard wearing and yet comfortable and beautiful. They are called functional because their properties go beyond those of traditional textile, doing what cotton or wool can not do or doing it better. They are inexpensive as well. Essentially these super textiles are made of plastic and the fibres they when washed contribute to the problem. It's pretty straightforward.
The consumer viewpoint
If I consider the issue from the viewpoint of a consumer, what can I really do? My choices to avoid single use, disposable plastic are limited. Try and shop for food that's not wrapped in plastic or buy toiletries that are not packaged in plastic - it’s not easy at all, especially if I live in a big city and supermarkets are my obvious (and sometimes only) choice for food shopping.
Think about clothes too, can present time cotton and wool clothing really serve a better function than the ones made of polyester or nylon? It’s not an easy one either, especially because I'm a sporty person and I enjoy the outdoors.
The business viewpoint
If I consider the issue from the viewpoint of a business - for example in the drink & food industry and in the beauty industry, weighing up my options to replace plastic packaging - I’m confronted by a whole different scenario.
Plastic is easily available, versatile and extremely cost effective, why should I give it up and - more importantly - what should I replace it with? Try and answer that question if you dare.
The single-use plastic packaging industry is not only massive, they also seem pretty convinced that their products are indeed eco-friendly. Try and Google “benefits of plastic” and you’ll see that some organisations actually list quite a lot of reasonably good points for plastic packaging: lightweight, doesn’t break or shutter, low carbon footprint, versatile, mouldable, hygienic, keeps food fresh, recyclable.
It all makes sense and it sounds pretty reasonable too, in a world where convenience, choice, availability, freedom of movement and innovation are all keys to a happy, modern life.
Modern life without single use plastic is almost unthinkable.
Plastic producers don't worry about anything else, they want to sell plastic to businesses and they reassure consumers that recycling is in place, putting our minds at rest. Who feels guilty once our PET bottle has been safely put into our green wheelie bin and we know that our council's waste management company will come to pick it up and turn it into a new bottle or something. We've done our bit and that’s enough.
Actually what happens afterwards is to me a bit of a mystery, it's close to impossible for me to trust the whole recycling process. As a Londoner I sometimes go to the "Wandsworth dump" (to dump my garden waste mainly), visited by thousands of South Londoners during the weekend to dump their unwanted stuff. It's a stomach churning spectacle to see what people throw away but what catches my eye all the time is the thousands of plastic bottles compacted into perfect, gigantic cubes. I wonder what they do to them. I also wonder what happens to the bottles that are thrown away with their caps on, because caps can not be recycled. And that little ring of plastic that always stays around the neck too. Is there a human being (or a machine) that takes them off or do those bottles escape recycling?According to the figures compiled by the Co-op from the Recoup UK Household Plastics Collection survey in 2016 only a third of UK consumer’s packaging plastic is recycled - the rest is landfill.
Last year at DIVE 2016 I was chatting to David Jones, Executive Advisor for the movie “A Plastic Ocean”. He told me the movie team went to speak to some plastic association (I can not recall exactly which one) and even tried to approach Dupont, one of the leading world manufacturer of plastic materials. They challenged the people they met, they asked them whether they could consider “producing less” plastic, to which the answer was silence, equal to a loud, resounding “no”. Dupont were unavailable. He told me it was pretty clear that the plastic industry has no intention to scale down.
Still I think that businesses that use plastic packaging have the power to change the plastic game, because they are the ones that started it in the first place. As consumers we can buy less plastic bottles but will Coca Cola stop using PET bottles if some of us stop buying them? Probably not, because there will always be someone buying them - and this is the problem.
But what would happen if Coca Cola themselves all of a sudden stopped selling their drinks in plastic? Nothing more than ecological utopia but I can’t help fantasising about it.
By the way, even recycling PET bottles to turn them into nice fleeces, like Patagonia and Polartec do, might just as well exacerbate the problem. We rescue plastic bottles, turn them into textile yarn and into garments, to only find out that every time we wash them they release PET microfibres back into the environment. Some say that it could even be worse than leaving the bottle as it is but I think it’s always better than creating new textile.
What was life like before single use plastic and synthetic fibres?
The thing is, people were still eating, drinking and washing themselves before single use plastic appeared.
What was clearly different was their lifestyle, meaning that people had to visit different shops to buy different things, cook their own meals from scratch and most importantly they had less choice. Every produce had a seasonality and came from local production. Glass, carton, paper, waxed paper and aluminium were the materials used for packaging. They were either destined for landfill, with little harmful chemical release, or the fireplace at home.
Plastic packaging started to be introduced in the 50’s, after the Saran wrap appeared in 1953. The booming of the oil industry and the discovery of different types of plastics that followed really sealed our love story with plastic and paved the way to all sort of innovations, including those in the food & drinks industry - in the form of packaging and disposable tableware.
When plastic appeared it must have been such a thrill…imagine scrapping the washing up by using plastic dish and cutlery or being able to have so much more product choice, even from other countries, or finding ready-meals easily available after a hard day’s work. To Baby-boomers, the ones who witnessed the shift, life in plastic must have seemed fantastic indeed.
As for clothing, it was cotton or linen in the summer and wool in the winter. Most people would own one single winter coat, often expensive and treated as a precious item. There was leather for jackets, silk for important occasions and precious wool like cachemire. Real animal fur was also an option and often regarded as a symbol of wealth. Enjoying the outdoors required a bit of endurance and some sports were just for a very fit and wealthy elite.
Plastic materials and synthetic yarns textiles revolutionised the clothing industry and the impact on sportswear and action wear was massive. Pretty quickly climbing, skiing, hiking, surfing, scuba diving, free diving, yoga, cycling and lots more became mainstream.
Imagine the thrill of being able to do all those things in comfort and safety. Also imagine the thrill of being able to create new industries, new businesses, giving work to thousand of people and again, reshaping modern life as we know it. It sounds good, doesn't it?
What do we do now?
The first step towards finding a solution to the whole plastic problem is owning up to it - and it's not only the large companies, the famous brands and the multimillion making corporations - it's the little ones too, including Divesangha. We all have to take responsibility.
The 'good' giant that Patagonia is has been leading at the forefront. Their latest update on the issue is right here. If they can't beat the issue I don't know who can.
The second step is to put pressure on our governments so that they can approve new legislations and put policies in place that safeguard our environment and the wellbeing of all. Easier said than done but we do have a choice and we have to exercise it. That also means voting the right people in, preferably someone who’s not a climate change denier…but that's another story.
The third step is to engage the scientific and the engineer community to come up with suitable alternatives. This should also be up to the large companies who take responsibility. If we can not change the way we live, we must rely on technology, innovation and inventiveness to get us out of this mess.
Of course we all understand that any human activity has an impact on our planet, so even an alternative would not be a perfect solution - but we're looking for a sustainable solution, not perfection. What that is going to be is still unknown.
The fourth step is to come up with temporary alternatives, so that we stop adding to the problem. This is what small companies could be considering, including us.
For example, our clothes are never packaged in plastic bags and we only use carton and paper for packaging. That said we're owning up to the fact that the majority of the fabrics we use are indeed functional fabrics.
During my research I came across this article on the Guardian from over a year ago about some solutions that apparently have been taken into consideration, from coating fabrics so they no longer shed microfibres, to washing machines and sewage filters, to waterless washing machines. So far the only available solution is in the form of a small laundry bag (obviously made of plastic!) called GuppyFriend that Patagonia sells (wrapped in a plastic bag!) for 30 dollars and that captures fibres as you wash the clothes in it.
This image comes from a very good blog from California based Beth Terry.
The fifth step is to change our lifestyles, to say no to the excessive use of plastic, to find our own alternatives and to inspire others to do that too.
What's my choice if I want to reduce my single use plastic consumption?
The reality is that to do so I have to totally revolutionise my lifestyle but - as in all things - I can start by taking small steps. Zero waste living is not impossible but, let’s be honest, it's not realistic for everyone.
1 - I can wash my synthetic clothes at colder temperatures, use low spinning speed and dry naturally
2 - I can wash a whole load rather than a few pieces, to avoid an increase in fibres shedding, and only when it's truly needed. If a new machine needs to be purchased, a European style front loading one has proved more efficient at minimising shedding
3 - I can decide to buy only good quality clothing and work with a 'less is more' philosophy, avoiding the cheapest options
Single use plastic
1 - I can go back to old style bar soap (many are sold without packaging)
2 - I can buy my veggies, fruit and bread from local markets, refusing plastic bags
3 - I can buy pasta and rice in carton boxes - they are available
4 - I can give up bottled water and sugary drinks in plastic bottles or cartons
5 - I can only choose food items that are packaged in paper or recyclable packaging
6 - I can really, really avoid takeaways (good for my health too)
7 - I can easily carry a reusable shopping bag
8 - I can carry a water bottle and a reusable coffee mug for my takeaway caffeine fix
9 - I can never, ever use another straw (who needs them anyway?)
10 - I can limit my household washing products to a very few and make them last
11 - I can switch to bamboo toothbrushes
12 - As a woman, I can ditch tampons and go for eco-friendly Mooncup
13 - As a man - and a woman too - I can limit the use of single use razor blades
14 - I can do without travel size toiletries
15 - I can be really vocal about the problem
My very last thought while writing this long post (sorry) goes to a physics principle that my mother, who used to be a science teacher, often repeated to us as kids. It's the Lavoisier's Principle of Mass Conservation.
In lay terms it states that in any given chemical reaction: “Nothing is created, nothing is destroyed, everything transforms”.
So, based on that principle, what is going to happen to all the plastic we've produced so far and we're still producing once the degrading process has started?
If it will never be destroyed, what is it going to transform into and how can we live with it?