5 Naturally Amazing Materials to Help Cut Plastic from Your Life
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Let’s be real: plastic knows some cool tricks. It’s cheap, light, and shockingly versatile.
Since the 1950s, plastic has filled up our entire lives. We sleep, stand, and sit on it (mattresses, flooring, chairs); cook, eat, and store our food with it (appliances, utensils, Tupperware), clean up after ourselves with it (sponges, bottles, brooms); carry and ship all our stuff with it (suitcases, containers, packaging); cover ourselves with it (acrylic and polyester clothing); look at the world through it (eyeglasses); and build our homes with it (pipes, cables, insulation). Plastic is so fantastically abundant, we’ve taken to making bottles and cups out of it, filling them with small amounts of liquid, taking a few sips, and then throwing them in the trash. Around the world, we throw out 500 billion plastic cups every year. We buy a million water bottles every minute. We’re shedding plastic all the time, even when we wash our clothes: a normal load of laundry can release 700,000 plastic microfibres into waterways.
One thing plastic can’t do is disappear. On the contrary, it takes a thousand years for some plastics to decompose. Along the way, plastic disintegrates into lots of tiny bits called microplastics. Many of these end up in the ocean, where they are consumed by small animals, who are in turn consumed by larger animals, passing the plastic up the food chain. Last year, a beached sperm whale was found with over 200 pounds of trash in its stomach. Some areas of the ocean have 60 times as much plastic as plankton. The North Pacific Garbage Patch contains roughly 80,000 tons of plastic, and, increasingly, tiny pieces of microplastic permeate the entire ocean. It’s a difficult problem to reckon with, because most of those plastics are only visible up close, under the surface.
The good news is that we still have a lot of alternatives to plastic. Here are five incredible, fascinating substances that not only aren’t synthesized from fossil fuels but are, in many ways, even better than plastic. Seriously, be amazed.
How are you going to choose plastic over wood? Wood comes from trees, the symbol of life, not some corporate chemistry lab. Trees have been growing on our planet for more than 300 million years, just quietly talking to each other through their vast root networks. Trees eat carbon out of the air, they smell nice, they contain useful fibres and resins, they’re biodegradable, they have beautiful inner patterns or “grain” . . . the list is endless. Seriously, you’d be crazy not to buy sustainable wood alternatives whenever you can, and there really aren’t many excuses, considering that nowadays, there are even computers made from wood, not to mention toothbrushes, hip flasks, smartphone docks, and on and on. You know what else comes from wood? Paper (as in paper bags instead of plastic) and cardboard (grab a box at the checkout aisle if you’ve got a lot of stuff to carry).
Bamboo, a wood-like plant, is also particularly impressive. It grows easily without fertilizers or pesticides in many different environments, rarely needs replanting, requires little water, and is incredibly strong and durable. Try a bamboo cutting board, drinking straw, and even disposable cutlery.
Now that 60 per cent of our clothes are made from plastic, we’re essentially draping ourselves in fossil fuels all the time. Here’s a fairly badass alternative: wrap up with wool. Merino wool comes from one of the world’s oldest and toughest breeds of mountain sheep. Their fleece has evolved to keep them cool in boiling summers and warm in freezing winters. You couldn’t invent this stuff: merino wool is naturally flame-resistant, has a wavelike structure that makes it more resilient, protects from UV rays, and yet is soft and cozy. Better yet, you can wear it day after day without washing and not worry about the smell, because merino wool naturally suppresses odour. It’s more expensive, but it lasts longer. Want more wool in your closet but don’t have much money? Buy it second-hand, or organize a clothing swap and sneakily trade out your fast fashion for durable sheep styles.
Instead of plastic, cook and eat with sand! Silicone and glass kitchenware are both made from silica, the oxidized form of silicon, which is the second-most-abundant element in the earth’s crust, found mainly in sand. Silicone isn’t a perfectly eco-friendly substance because you need hydrocarbons to make it, but products made from silicone—spatulas, oven mitts, containers—have a very long lifespan, don’t leech toxins into our bodies (unlike plastic), and don’t break down into microplastics. Glass, meanwhile, is basically transparent dirt, which makes it 16 times more miraculous than plastic. Sure, it shatters when you drop it, but it’s also completely recyclable, so you never have to throw it in the trash. Embrace the magic of mason jars: they are stylish and hold stuff.
Rubber epitomizes the sort of amazing weirdness that plants are always getting up to. Harvested from a creamy white substance that streams from the Hevea brasiliensis tree, among others, rubber has been satisfying our need for bouncy, stretchy things for thousands of years. Mesoamerican Indigenous groups started using rubber in their ball games as far back as 1200 BCE. Today, rubber is ubiquitous—over 40,000 products are made from it—but humans still harvest it in the old-fashioned way of “tapping” rubber trees and collecting the milky sap in buckets, like maple water. Since not all rubber is sustainably harvested, scientists are working on making rubber more efficiently from dandelion milk. In the meantime, sustainably harvested rubber still beats plastic for things like yoga mats, which are typically made from PVC. Now you can fight microplastics by doing your warrior pose on tree rubber.
Most of us no longer buy disposable plastic bottles of water quite so unthinkingly as we once did. All the better. Bottled water is a bad idea, not only because it encourages large companies to buy up natural springs that should be shared, but also because those single-use plastic bottles are filling our oceans with microplastics. Try putting your water in a stainless steel bottle instead: they’re cheap, hard, shiny, easily cleaned, and if you don’t recycle them (which you totally can) they’re durable enough to last you 1,200 years. So you can pass your bottle on to your descendants 30 generations from now, who’ll still respect you for actually caring about the future health of their planet. Also, stainless steel apparently eliminates garlic smell, which is cool. If you are buying drinks in disposable bottles, go for aluminum cans, as they are more easily and reliably recycled.
Founded in 1995, Icebreaker makes ethically produced, high-performance outdoor apparel providing sustainable alternatives to synthetic-based clothing. Eighty-four per cent of their current product range is made from natural fibres such as merino wool and Tencel™ (a fibre derived from sustainably sourced eucalyptus plants), so that consumers have the option to make a transformative choice in what they wear. Merino wool clothing has a lighter environmental footprint than other fabrics because it is naturally biodegradable and odour- resistant, therefore requiring less washing, which in turn limits microfibres from entering the waterways.
Today, 64 per cent of new clothing is made with petrochemical-based synthetics like polyester, nylon, and lycra, which release hundreds of thousands of plastic microfibres with each wash, often ending up in our oceans and waterways, eventually being digested by marine animals in the wild. To raise awareness of this issue and create the opportunity for critical scientific research, Icebreaker partnered with The Vortex Swim and Ben Lecomte for the swim through the centre of the Pacific trash vortex in 2019.
Visit their “Move to Natural” campaign to find out more about plastic microfibres and why natural fabrics make all the difference.