During March we celebrate a number of water-related environmental days, including International Day of Action for Rivers (14 March), National Water Week (20–24 March), and World Water Day (22 March). Water has recently been a very topical subject in South Africa, with the country feeling the effects of drought through water restrictions, increased food prices and frightening visuals of empty dams.
One impact on this essential resource that is not often given as much consideration by consumers as it should be is the use of single-use plastic. These products include soft plastics such as drinking straws, plastic packaging, plastic utensils, plastic bags, product bags and disposable cups. Single-use plastic is typically created for only one use, has a short useful lifespan, is unlikely to be reused, and is either difficult or impossible to recycle. This means that while we may only use these products once, they linger almost indefinitely as waste in landfills, or end up as pollution, not only on land but in our rivers and oceans too.
Species that live in rivers or oceans are particularly susceptible to the threats associated with plastic bags, which, together with plastic fragments, are frequently misidentified as food resources (for example, they are mistaken by turtles for jellyfish), and consumed accidentally. This hinders digestion of natural food resources, leading to gut-blockage, asphyxiation, starvation, strandings and death of marine mammals and turtles. Plastic drinking straws similarly tend to end up in rivers and oceans, where they can injure or kill wildlife. So serious is their potential impact, that global movements such as the OneLessStraw campaign have been developed to encourage consumers to give up their plastic drinking straws. Microbeads are also of serious concern. These solid, tiny plastic particles (typically < 1 mm in size) are used extensively in personal care and household cleaning products, such as toothpastes, exfoliating face and body scrubs, and washing powders. Microbeads have replaced traditional biodegradable exfoliating products, such as salt granules and ground nut shells. These plastic beads are washed down the drain and eventually make their way into rivers, lakes and, ultimately, the ocean. These tiny particles have the potential to absorb persistent organic pollutants, and become incorporated into the food chain, as microplastics are consumed by various marine and riverine animals. The ingestion of microplastics can demonstrably affect an organism’s reproductive success, feeding, growth and movement, as these particles can be taken up into body tissues and fluids.
So what can you do to make a difference? The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) advocates making the following small lifestyle changes which, when implemented routinely on a large-scale societal basis, could significantly reduce South Africa’s single-use plastic consumption and the associated environmental threats of plastic waste and pollution:
- Reduce consumption by avoiding purchasing unnecessary single-use plastic products, and when necessary, replace them with environmentally-friendlier alternatives. For example, always make sure to take reusable shopping bags with you when shopping and never pay for single-use plastic carrier bags.
- Choose recyclable packaging.
- Buy in bulk to reduce packaging.
- When alternative products are unavailable, inconvenient or expensive, plastic products (designed for single-use) can be reused a number of times if washed out after use. These include plastic bags, bottles, cutlery, etc.
- Select products packaged using non-plastic materials.
- Up-/down-cycle plastic products into something else, for example flower pots.
- Bring your own container to restaurants and markets.
- Make your own products, such as juices, smoothies and even cleaning products.
- Think carefully about how you package your lunches – use re-useable containers as much as possible to limit the usage of cling wrap, plastic bags, etc.
- Find out which plastics can and cannot be recycled and what types of plastics your local recycling drop-off facility will accept.
- Buy refills.
- Avoid body and face scrubs, shower gels, toothpastes, sunscreens and washing powders that contain microbeads (look for polyethylene, polypropylene, polymethyl methacrylate, polyethylene terephthalate, or polystyrene in the list of ingredients). As an alternative to shower gels packaged in plastic bottles or tubes, rather choose soap bars packaged in wax paper or cardboard boxes.
For more information, take a look at our position statement on single-use plastic.
Claire Relton, Intern