How consumers can help climate change by changing their plastic habits

As bushfires continue in Australia, consumers can make a difference for the future.

As much of the east coast of Australia continues to put out bushfires, my hometown of Canberra has been suffering with the worst air quality in the world.

Bushfire smoke in Canberra, Australia
Bushfire smoke in Canberra, Australia

Since September when the first bushfires began for the season, the country has suffered. And since November, I’ve begun each morning by first checking the air quality and then the Fires Near Me app.

So far, we have been the lucky ones in Canberra to only have to deal with smoke. Others have lost much more than clean air. Eventually, when these bushfire threats have passed, we’ll think more about the future including what we can do to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Yet, it’s hard to think about prevention solutions without considering the impacts of climate change. While we may feel powerless as individuals until the next election, as consumers we actually have a lot more power collectively than we realise to create change.

Over the last few months, I have been interviewing entrepreneurs on my podcast, Plastics Revolution. These change makers are using business solutions to tackle the plastic waste issue both by providing options to reduce plastic consumption, as well as to recycle it into products afterwards. Time after time, they’ve reminded me about the power of the consumer dollar in creating change.

While much has been said recently about the environmental impacts of plastic waste, there’s actually a lot of information out there about the carbon footprint of creating it in the first place too. And here lies both an opportunity and a responsibility for those that want to avoid future weather disasters such as the one we are experiencing in Australia right now.

Let’s have a refresher about climate change before I explain this consumer power further.

Climate Change 101

While climate change may be a controversial topic for some, most will agree that “normal” weather is changing.

NASA has well-documented the facts and evidence of climate change here. The most simple explanation regarding these changing weather patterns is that carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere trap heat which increases the earth’s average temperature. Amongst other methods, this increase has been documented from ice core extractions in Antarctica, Greenland and various glaciers.

In an article written by Robert Walker, he warned that Australia could be the canary in the climate change coal mine. Multiple years of drought has made Australia even more susceptible to bushfires during this record-breaking summer heat which is expected for future years to come.

Here and in other countries like the US, it’s tough both politically and economically when your country’s greatest natural assets are also the biggest contributors to creating CO2 – namely the burning of hydrocarbon fuels like coal, natural gas and oil.

Every economy’s vitality is based on growth i.e. the increased selling of its goods and services. Unfortunately, that measurement is traditionally done only with dollars by both businesses and governments alike. This model simply fails to look at the whole of life costs including the impacts to the environment after a purchase is made.

In fact, there can be false measurements of an economy’s strength after a natural disaster. Government relief will often stimulate a location as people rebuild their homes and businesses thereby creating new jobs. On paper, it can actually make an economy look stronger than before the disaster. And yet, a chat with locals will showcase the flaws in the numbers.

Furthermore, measuring prosperity this way does little to incentivise emissions-causing businesses to change their traditional processes when it could hurt their bottom line. That’s where the consumer has the potential to play a much larger part.

So how does this relate to the use of plastic?

Plastics are made of petrochemicals i.e. oil or natural gas, and the process to extract it from the ground, transport it, and turn it into its common resin form takes a lot of energy by burning more petrochemicals.

Traditional Manufacturing Process for Plastic
Traditional Manufacturing Process for Plastic

Looking at this traditional process objectively, the only reason why a business would go to so much trouble is if there are profits to be gained.

A recent study by The Center for International Environmental Law analysed planned expansions of oil and gas infrastructure around the world. It predicts from 2020 to 2024, oil and gas companies are set to invest a further US$1.4 trillion in new oil and gas extraction projects.” However, even without these expansions, they don’t believe that current operations will enable the Paris Agreement goal to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Once again from a business perspective, these investments would not be made if it were not for the potential for profit that’s driven largely from forecasted consumer demand.

While most people think of mining, electricity plants and transportation as the emitters of C02, one article concludes that the full cycle plastics industry creates “almost double the emissions of the aviation sector.” And this only includes plastic products made from extruded pellets, not textiles that are also made from plastics which I’ll discuss later.

How is this possible? The chart below shows the primary uses for plastic. In most of these categories, they are directly link to the average consumer’s buying habits.

Uses of Plastic
Uses of Plastic – Note the arrows where Consumers can influence demand

How much energy does it take to make a plastic water bottle?

If we break down these categories to something more tangible, it shows the kind of difference that an individual could make with small decisions.   For example, in the creation of packaging specifically, an study about the making of single-use, PET water bottles found that:

“Producing bottled water requires between 5.6 and 10.2 million joules of energy per litre, depending on transportation factors. That’s up to 2,000 times the energy required to produce tap water.”

Gleick, P.H. and Cooley, H.S. “Energy implications of bottled water.” Environmental Research Letters 4 (2009) 014009 (6pp).

If enough consumers moved away from bottled water, this would have a measurable impact to the emissions generated in creating the plastic in the first place.

What about our clothes buying habits?

It’s not just with food packaging where consumers can make a massive difference though. It’s also in the clothes that we wear too.

According to the UN Environment Programme:

“The fashion industry produces 10 per cent of global carbon emissions.

Given that any man-made materials such as polyester are also derived from petrochemicals, it easy to see why this statistic is so high. This is especially true with the fast fashion trend that’s created the equivalent of “single-use clothing.”

5 Ways consumers can help climate change by changing their plastic habits.

With the evidence mounting about climate change, as well as the known issue with plastic waste, it’s time for consumers to really put their buying power to use.  Here are some ways that you help climate change by changing your plastic habits:

1) Buy more products made from recycled plastics

The traditional method for extracting petrochemicals and turning it into products may seem onerous based on my diagram earlier, but the process is actually easier than manufacturing with recycled plastics. This is because there are so many types of plastics produced, and they often are contaminated with food and other things when disposed. This is why recycled plastic products may be more expensive than those made from virgin products (particularly those made in lower wage countries).

Nevertheless, some of the bigger recycled plastic manufacturers in Australia have figured out ways to create products with this material.  Below is the general process that Replas and Plastic Forests use as discussed in previous podcast interviews with their owners.

Recycled plastics mfg process
One type of recycled plastics manufacturing process

Notice how their process eliminates the energy required for petrochemical extraction and can reduce overall transportation emissions in comparison to the traditional process.  They create the plastic pellets by shredding and melting the plastic which also requires less energy than making it from scratch.  Some of these companies also reduce their transportation footprints further when they bypass the wholesaler and go direct to the consumer or retailer.

So, how much cleaner is the recycled plastics manufacturing process than the traditional one?

If looking at the full cycle (cradle to grave – where my diagrams only show cradle to consumer), one study found that “recycled PET bottles offer both GHG emissions and fossil fuel consumption reductions ranging 13% to 56%, compared to fossil fuel-derived PET bottles assuming PET bottles are landfilled.”

Another study by the Nordic Council of Ministers reviewed other publications from around the world and concluded that there was a 37% reduction in emissions generated from the production of recycled plastics (all types) compared to their virgin counterparts. It also showed that there was a 55% reduction in emissions when recycling versus incinerating plastics.

Today, there are increasingly more and more products made from recycled plastics.  When given the choice, even if they are bit more expensive, you should buy the recycled option. You’ll help the environment by both reducing the amount of waste that would otherwise go to landfill, as well as reducing the carbon emissions footprint of making the product.

2) Borrow or buy used

Other than potential transportation costs, there really aren’t any carbon emissions generated by an used or borrow item.  The cost was already bore upfront in making it and getting it to the consumer the first time. There will, however, be emissions generated if the item is disposed of instead. So, giving something new life is always a better option for the environment than buying new or throwing it away. 

Today, there are more and more options for previously owned products even if you if you’re not keen on thrift stores.  In Australia, you can rent your wardrobe from GlamCorner, your kids’ toys at Tiny Tots to Hire, and your power tools from Bunnings. If you’re in the US, you’ll have even more options.

Or if you prefer purchasing the product, you can buy second hand even at mainstream retailers like Ikea and The North Face.

The reality is that for many purchases these days, you should always consider a borrowing or second-hand option first if you want to do your part for climate change.

3) Use your non-perishable products longer

Whether it’s clothes, toys or your car, the majority of emissions for any petroleum-based product is generated from the extraction phase to getting it to the consumer.  Therefore, when it comes to concerns for climate change and buying something new, you are much better off buying quality products that will last and stay in style longer.

Furthermore, when it comes to quality, pay attention to the materials it made of as well. For clothing in particular, purchasing natural materials such as cotton and wool will help enormously with reducing demand for petroleum products. And if you must buy something with synthetic fabrics, see if you can find it in recycled materials like polyester made from recycled PET bottles or ocean waste.  There are plenty of great brands doing this now including Adidas and Filippa K.

While this goes against the low-cost/short-lasting mentality that many consumers have, just remember once again that you are voting with your dollars. Businesses will respond accordingly – whether it be the large petrochemical companies, the product manufacturers or the retailers because it’s in their financial interest.

4) Reduce your plastic consumption

We hear about this frequently as governments around the world are instilling bans on single-use plastic.  While the reduction of waste is obvious when you use a reusable coffee cup, bottle, bags, etc – the lifestyle changes also make a difference to C02 emissions as discussed earlier with the water bottle study.

Businesses will only make what consumers are willing to buy, and the flood of reusable containers to the market right now shows that this is catching on by many.

5) Buy Local

Finally, one of the best decisions that consumers can make is to buy locally manufactured products. This may be Australian-made or American-made as an example rather than a cheaper version from overseas.

Transportation can make up a huge percentage of the total carbon emissions generated for plastic products depending on where it is made. So, deciding to buy local is not only good for domestic businesses, it’s also a decision to reduce carbon emissions generated in producing a similar product overseas.

Final words

As long as consumers use their dollars to maintain the status quo, carbon emissions will continue to rise as industry responds to our demand. Yet, our environment can’t handle the increasing changes to temperatures. Without significant changes soon, we’ll continue to see more weather-related disasters like we are experiencing in Australia now.

While businesses and industries (and the governments they support) may not respond to public calls for climate change, it’s been shown time and time again that they will change with consumer demand.  Isn’t it time to collectively vote with our dollars to do something about this before we are impacted even further?

Dear consumer, the power is in your hands!

Tammy Ven Dange is host of the Plastics Revolution podcast and the CEO of The Refoundry Australia, a social-enterprise dedicated to helping Mother Nature by making great products from recycled plastics. You can find her on social media or on her blog at @tvendange.

Published by

Tammy Ven Dange

Purpose Driven Entrepreneur Be kind to animals and mother nature!

2 thoughts on “How consumers can help climate change by changing their plastic habits”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.