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10 ways to normalise a world with less plastic

It is time to move away from the ‘take, make and waste’ economy to a more circular one in which we make the most of valuable resources instead of misusing or just throwing them away. We all have a role to play, and that begins with living without certain types of problematic and unnecessary plastic that cause havoc for the environment. Are you ready to make small changes to be part of the bigger solution?

A shopper carries a fabric bag as an alternative to a plastic one
© Jay Caboz
A shopper carries a fabric bag as an alternative to a plastic one, a sight which has become increasingly common in South Africa

Have you ever wondered why you need that thin plastic barrier bag around your tomatoes or apples when buying loose fruit and veg at the shops? Or how your kids might react when they no longer get a lollipop on a plastic stick?  

As our planet continues to give us signals that we need to change our ways in 2024, ask yourself how soon you could live without various single-use plastic items which, as we speak, are under the global spotlight to be removed or phased out by way of a global plastics treaty that is under negotiation. And in case you’re thinking the removal of these plastic items might put a major dent in South Africa’s economy, hot-off-the-press research says otherwise.  

A boost to the economy

Research commissioned by WWF South Africa, which looked at the socio-economic impacts of banning and phasing out ten problematic and unnecessary the list below, found that the proposed scenarios would produce positive economic outcomes - with both notable improvement in real gross domestic product (GDP) and an increase in job opportunities. 

A shopper carries fresh vegetables in a basket
© Jay Caboz
A shopper carries fresh vegetables in a basket without using an unnecessary barrier bag.
But how easy is it to change our ways?

 A few months before COVID-19 hit South Africa, I remember walking through Cape Town International Airport and witnessing scores of passengers with masks on their faces. Heads held high, they pulled their wheeled suitcases just like everybody else as they made their way across the precinct. 

I discovered they had arrived from various Asian countries where, even prior to COVID-19, masks had become an accepted norm. At that time, I couldn’t help wondering if South Africans would ever comply with such a requirement should the need arise. 

Lo’ and behold, by March 2020, the pandemic had struck on South African soil and masks quickly made their way onto the local scene - fabric masks, medical masks, even newly made shweshwe masks.  

I recall discussing it with a friend who told me about an interesting phenomenon that has been explored in social science: human beings are not prone to implementing change individually, but if change is imposed upon us, we adapt extremely quickly.  

So what does this have to do with problematic and unnecessary plastics? There are many single-use plastic items we use in our everyday lives, which are now being earmarked for a global outright ban or gradual phase-out. A global plastics treaty is under negotiation, due to be finalised by end of 2024, and it’s best to be prepared. 

If you imagine living without these plastic items when they’re still around, it might seem strange, maybe even impossible to get rid of them. However, there are many alternatives that are better for our planet – and the prosperity of our economy. Below is a cheat-sheet on how to get ahead of the curve. 

A glass jar with a paper straw
© Jay Caboz
A glass jar and a paper straw are far better for the environment than single-use plastic tableware, although a straw is not necessary at all for most drinks.
Ten tweaks: living without or finding alternatives to single-use plastics

The research looked at banning these four plastic products between 2024 and 2025 because there are readily available alternatives, or we just don’t need them. If you say no to the following, you’re helping with the solution:  

1. Plastic stirrers: Many people head off to a coffee shop for their morning fix of caffeine, and blithely give their cuppa a stir with a plastic swizzle stick which they then throw straight into the bin. Come evening time, the same happens with cocktails. But this is unnecessary. Reusable metal or wooden stirrers are a more sustainable option. 

2. Plastic straws: Straws are often used when not necessary at all. The research suggests they should only be used in a medical context where they truly are needed. While there are metal and paper alternatives available to consumers, one should consider not using one at all since most liquids – with the exception, perhaps, of some smoothies – do not require a straw. 

3. Personal care products with plastic microbeads: Is it necessary to have tiny plastic beads in your face scrub or toothpaste? If you prefer products that contain microbeads, ensure that these solid particles are not made from plastic but cellulose-based particles. Read your labels and put pressure on your favourite brands if they are still using plastic microbeads. 

4. Oxo-degradable products:  Some think plastic products that can break down into organic constituents after use do not harm the environment and can work for some applications such as containing dog poo. However, oxo-degradable plastics are made from conventional plastic with a harmful additive resulting in the product breaking down into tiny microplastics. This is detrimental to the environment and our health as we are already ingesting plastic from all the microplastics in our water, soils and air. Alternatives marketed as biodegradable or compostable are only viable in the context of an industrial composting facility and not small home-based composting heaps. 

© Jay Caboz
Plastic microbeads in personal healthcare products like face scrubs and toothpastes cause long-term damage to the environment.

The research looked at phasing out these six plastic products between 2025 and 2030 to make time for research and development on feasible alternatives that are readily available. Avoid these as far as possible too: 

5. Barrier bags:  Retailers often place products like detergents or personal care products inside a barrier bag before popping them into an actual shopping bag at the till. Or barrier bags are offered at the fruit and vegetable and bakery sections of the shop. If possible, bring your own bags for these items if you remember or in the case of uncut fruit and veg no bag is necessary at all.  Some retailers weight the fruit and veg at the till whereafter you just pop them into your reusable shopping bag – no additional barrier bag needed! 

6. Plastic lollipop sticks: There is no reason why a few minutes of pleasure for someone eating a lollipop should cause unhealthy leakage into the environment. Lollipops with wood or paper sticks are a better alternative. 

7. Polystyrene fast-food / takeaway containers: Fast foods are the ultimate symbol of an economy in which speed and convenience are prioritised over long-term personal and environmental health. Increasingly, instead of preparing whole foods at home, consumers are ordering deliveries or rushing off to fast-food outlets. However, it is possible and helpful to collect take-out food in your own containers, or rather use compostable clamshell containers (paper clamshell containers without the plastic lining, for example) if you can compost them at home. 

8. Sachets for takeout food items (e.g. sauces): These tiny and pesky plastic products typically contain a single serving of a sauce and then leak into the environment to cause harm. Some retailers are already providing pump bottle dispensers so that consumers can put sauce directly onto food or take some away in their own container from home. 

9. Single-use plastic tableware: Single-use plastic crockery and cutlery have become a ‘staple’ at many South African parties and picnics, but long after the fun has ended, these products leak into the environment. It is far better to use reusable products of this nature or opt for ones made of wood. 

10. Cotton buds with plastic stems: While many swear by these products for keeping ears clean and removing make-up, there is no reason why the stems should be made of plastic. The research says buds with paper stems can provide the exact same use and efficiency.  

Each time we use one of these problematic and unnecessary items, it might feel like a ‘drop in ocean’ in the world of plastic pollution, but each one of us is responsible for playing a role in finding the best possible solutions to save our precious and beautiful planet from further harm. Today is as good a day as any other to start phasing out these problematic plastic products. 

Landscape image of Hout Bay from Chapman's Peak Drive.
© Jay Caboz
Plastic that leaks into the environment affects all ecosystems. Help keep nature clean as it our only means of survival.
Tanya Farber Photo
Tanya Farber, Communications coordinator

Tanya Farber loves nature, photography and the written word

A deeper dive

Find out more about the research on plastic bans and phase-outs in South Africa