The recycling crisis is forcing us all to consider what to do with our waste, but recycling should be the last resort for the global problem of plastic pollution. In her new book Turning the Tide on Plastic, eco-lifestyle expert and regular Guardian contributor Lucy Siegle sets out a better strategy. Namely, record, reduce, replace, refuse, reuse, refill, rethink, recycle. Here she offers tips on how to reuse your plastic:
The polar opposite of the detested single-use plastic item is a reusable one. In this disposable world, reusing an item multiple times is still considered an act of defiance. But a culture of reuse is a culture of purpose and gets a big thumbs up. Reusing diverts plastic and takes pressure off the recycling services. Having witnessed recycling centre staff bracing for another influx of empties of myriad polymers in all shapes and sizes – some of which are difficult to sell on the world market – there’s something to be said for cutting the system some slack. Similarly, while energy recovery or incineration plants are painted as avaricious monsters that constantly need feeding, there are limits to the amount of plastic they can burn. The system is clogged. Help it out.
As we know only too well, a lot of that plastic is virtually indestructible. Wherever possible, use this to your advantage. When you buy plastic, assess whether there’s any reuse value. I don’t fancy your chances of reusing a sandwich wrapper, but a nice sturdy tub is a different matter. If it has a good seal and is of more rigid plastic, you can use it for leftovers for the fridge or freezer, at meat and fish counters or for packed lunches instead of Tupperware. In reusing plastic products, we are taking responsibility for our plastic footprint. It’s one of the areas of our plastic life where we can use our judgment, and just get on with it without outside interference. So, all together now: “rinse and repeat” as many times as you can.
1) Clear plastic products are the obvious place to start to reuse from home. Once thoroughly washed and rinsed, you can easily see when the container is empty and clean. A quick check on the bottom of the bottle will confirm that it’s made from Pet, the right type of plastic (this will be displayed in the triangle that says Pet 1). Given that most water bottles are made from Pet, and 38.5m plastic bottles are used every day – just over half of which make it to recycling, while more than 16m are put into landfill, or become fugitives – we have an abundance. Everyone should invest in a durable, reusable water bottle, but if you’ve left it at home, you can offset the indignity of buying bottled water by reusing the bottle ten times – minimum. You can even take your refillable through airport security. This includes empty standard water bottles that you want to reuse. Empty and carry for a safe passage. Write your name on the bottle, so it doesn’t get thoughtlessly chucked in the trash, and prepare to fill from the tap or a refill station.
2) Don’t be squeamish about reusing plastic, especially water bottles. We need to put to bed the frequent rumours, especially on social media, that to reuse water bottles is to flirt with a toxic force field. These alerts warn that dangerous chemicals will leak from the plastic into the drink especially, for example, if a bottle is left over a significant period in direct sunlight. The chemists I’ve consulted say this is bunkum. The pernicious chemicals in question will generally emit a fishy odour, so at least your nose will be heavily alerted if you do come into contact with them. Furthermore, the toxic chemicals in question are not found in Pet (the type of plastic used in 99.9% of bottled water). More typically they are being found in PVC, which we would never want to use in a water bottle. Of course, leaving a bottle in sunlight could produce a bit of a bacterial flourish after a few days, but common sense and normal hygiene prevail. If you are concerned, sterilise water bottles in cold sterilising solutions before reusing.
3) The plastic ready-meal tubs, trays and pots are made of lower-quality plastics so aren’t worth recycling as they don’t have much resale value on the global market. Try to reuse them instead in ways that displace the need to buy other plastic products. Be creative. For example, use old plastic tubs as paint pots. And clean, ready-meal trays with drainage holes carefully poked in the bottom are ideal planters for seedlings.
4) Trigger sprays grace the top of many cleaning products. Respect, salvage and cherish them. They took a lot of plastic to make and are rather elegant bits of engineering. Most contain a spring, hence the trigger action, and are way too useful to last the lifespan of just one bottle before being discarded. As long as the cleaning product doesn’t contain any potentially dangerous or toxic ingredients, thoroughly wash out the spray bottle and refill it with your simple surface or window cleaner made from white wine vinegar.
5) Take reusable cutlery with you on the go. Reuse straws, single-use cutlery, stirrers and carry a spork (if you must). Air and rail travel generally are fraught with single-use plastic. Keep portable cutlery set in a pouch in your bag to protect them from handbag lint. These are simple to sew yourself. Every time I reuse my plastic cutlery I feel like I’m winning.
6) Some plastic products are made to last and have a lot of charm. Many have been retired far too early and dumped. Plastic toys, kite-marked, from known brands and no more than a decade old should surely be given a stay of execution. If they begin to look a little grubby, most of the more robust plastic toys can be popped in the dishwasher on a medium temperature cycle and will come out like new. Again, use cold sterilising solutions if you want to be sure.
A word of caution, though, before you reuse vintage toys: when it comes to toys that are going to be heavily handled and perhaps put in mouths (I wouldn’t reuse any teething toys) exercise caution. Vintage plastic dolls, in particular, should be handled with care. If Barbie or Ken is getting on a bit and you notice he or she has a shiny face, they could be suffering from Greasy Doll Face Syndrome. This phenomenon indicates that the polymer and oil have (beneath the surface) started to part ways as the polymer slowly degrades. These dolls, sadly, are ready for the toy box in the sky.
Credit: Lucy Siegle for The Guardian, 27 July 2018.
This is an edited extract from Turning The Tide on Plastic by Lucy Siegle ($29.99, Hachette Australia)