Freeing Ourselves of Disposable Plastics

The plastic litter crisis is massive and worldwide, and we finally seem to be getting serious about handling it. States and even entire countries are banning single-use plastic bags and plastic straws. Other bans are sure to follow.

On the personal and household level, many people I know have been trying their best to avoid single-use plastics for a long time now. And more people are getting on board, as they come face to face with horrifying images of whales, turtles, birds, and other wildlife killed or severely injured by plastics blowing in the wind and drifting in the water.

Sometimes it seems impossible to avoid single-use plastics. But we can all start somewhere, and this article 7 Ways To Live Without Disposable Plastic (from offers some good tips.

I disagree with one of their suggestions, to use biodegradable trash bags instead of plastic. I would replace that with “Do without trash bags altogether.” They aren’t necessary in most cases. Just put trash directly into the trash bin. (As long as you be sure to keep food and liquids out of the trash, your trash will be dry and not stinky, and can just go directly in the can.)

My favorite tip in the article is one I’ve been doing for most of my life: Do as much of your shopping as possible at places such as farmers’ markets, which offer produce and other goods without packaging.

Banning single-use plastics will help stem the tide of this deadly litter. But what about all the plastic trash that is already out there, loose in the environment? (This includes not just single-use plastics, but also plastics that are reusable but end up discarded rather than saved.) Blowing in the wind or drifting in the water, discarded plastics cause damage to the water, the land, and all living creatures as they slowly degrade.

The new thing these days is to denounce plastics as “evil.” But really, plastics have allowed many important advances in (for example) the medical field. A smarter attitude would be to treat the plastics that are already out there as a resource to be “harvested” and used. In the field of permaculture design, we call that mind-set “turning problems into assets” or “obtaining a yield.”

Recently I read about a company in Spain that’s making fabric out of discarded plastics, which are retrieved from the ocean. Bonus: the people retrieving it are fishermen/women, whose livelihood has been suffering due to overfishing of fish!

Most of us are familiar with the three R’s “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” as well as a fourth R that has more recently entered the mainstream: “Refuse.”

Harvesting plastics would be an example of a fifth “R” which I just now thought of: “Reclaim.”

Nature doesn’t make trash. We don’t need to either. What we call trash, what is currently polluting the environment and harming all of life, will be cleaned up faster (and at a profit rather than a cost) if we can think of it as a resource. This principle works well in all areas of life. Try it out and let me know what you come up with!

Reclaiming plastic trash as a resource is an example of a “cradle to cradle” approach, taking into account the full life cycle of everything we manufacture. For a deeper look at this mind-set, I highly recommend the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough. As McDonough points out on the book’s web page, “Everything is a resource for something else. In nature, the “waste” of one system becomes food for another. Everything can be designed to be disassembled and safely returned to the soil as biological nutrients, or re-utilized as high quality materials for new products as technical nutrients without contamination.”

When I first came across this concept about 15 years ago, it was a huge breath of fresh air and a major puzzle piece fallen into place. How far might we be able to go, how much better a place might we make the world, by adopting this mentality in every area of our lives?