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Plastic bottles litter the beach in Milnerton, Cape Town. File photo: SUPPLIED
Plastic bottles litter the beach in Milnerton, Cape Town. File photo: SUPPLIED
Image: Peter Ryan

It is not often that a person can start a personal challenge and it ends up a global event, but that is exactly what Rebecca Prince Ruiz did when she started Plastic Free July.

In 2011 she visited a recycling facility in Perth, Australia, and realised what an energy-intensive and complex process the recycling of single-use plastic was. She set a personal challenge to cut out single-use plastic for the month of July. Some friends, as well as her local government colleagues, joined her on the challenge. It became a website and before long a non-profit organisation and a global initiative.

About 326-million people from 177 countries now pledge their commitment to limit their single-use plastic in July and beyond, along with corporations, schools, non-profit organisations and governments. In July 2020 there were 250-million pledged participants, who avoided about 825-million kilograms of plastic waste.

On March 2 the UN Environmental Assembly joined the campaign to protect the environment via a global resolution to end single-use plastic pollution. The entire life cycle of plastics is to be focused upon by the move towards alternatives and enabling investment in a circular design. Of concern is the contribution of plastic production, the use — especially single-use — and the disposal thereof, as even recycling plastic has an ecological footprint.

What started off as an environmental motive to replace the use of ivory, tusk, horn and tortoise shells in 1869, when the first polymer was developed, led to the mass adoption of plastic as a fantastic investment and time-saving, hygienic product in the 1950s and a convenient single-use item in the 1970s. Plastic is produced from fossil fuels, such as oil, coal and natural gas.

In the 1960s, scientists who conducted research on plankton noticed plastic pollution in the oceans. In 1988 the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration first described an ocean garbage patch. There are currently five major garbage patches circulating in the global oceans, with The Great Pacific Garbage Patch being the largest at the size of the US state of Texas and estimated to contain almost 80,000 tonnes of plastic.

Fossil fuel-based plastic does not biodegrade but breaks down into smaller parts, and it is these microplastics that are of increasing concern. Microplastics have been found in all bodies of water, even within remote areas of the globe. A recent study found polymer particles in human blood, with some of the blood samples containing two or three types of plastic.

Other studies found that microplastics can latch to the outer membranes of red blood cells and can cross the blood-brain and placental barriers. This intimate exposure could affect hormonal, neurological and metabolic activity in humans.

The theme for Plastic Free July 2022 is “Turn the Tide, one choice at a time”, which aims to celebrate the effect of millions of people who say no to single-use plastic. Most people and businesses have already moved away from single-use plastic straws, bags, coffee takeaway cups and water bottles, and replaced that with alternatives. The ideal is to replace it with what you already own, inherit or can buy at the thrift store.

The “Zero Waste Movement” aligns with Plastic Free July in the aim to say no to single-use items such as toothpaste tubes, soap containers and plastic wrapped in plastic, which has become so prolific.

With the Covid-19 pandemic fading into history, we have a renewed opportunity to buy fruit and vegetables from open shelves and place that in our own bags, and take our own containers to bins where we can measure out grains, nuts, rice, dried fruit, legumes and other food. Not only are the main African supermarkets reducing single-use plastic and providing alternatives, there are also zero waste shops with both a physical and virtual presence, providing bespoke products and solutions.

Various companies throughout the world — including many small emerging businesses in SA — are producing more permanent alternatives such as toothpaste tablets, shampoo bars, glass straws and metal water bottles, with many returning to natural indigenous knowledge products such as bamboo and calabash.

Moving towards a sustainable and responsible future for all requires small and deliberate steps and new habits from all of us. During this month of July, have plastics on the mind every time you shop, use and buy products, and think about how you can move towards a new lifestyle — and challenge your friends, family and colleagues to do the same. 

• Barclay is senior lecturer in futures studies & systems thinking at Stellenbosch University Business School.

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