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Replacing Your Plastics

By Lucy Siegle 3 min read

Replacing and switching out plastic products is worth it, even if you have to work a bit harder. Why? Because it will do wonders for bringing down your plastic waste.

Replace at the right time. Everything that has been made has what is called a "break-even point", when the amount of resources that went into making it are offset by the number of times it is used. That’s one reason why single-use items made from oil-based plastic that expends fossil fuels, make zero sense. It’s also why it makes eco-sense to finish the products you already have (the exception being any older cleaning or beauty products you may have hanging around that contain microbeads). Try to reuse, refill or recycle empty bottles or containers.

Switch to glass containers

For an easy, immediate win, which doesn’t need too much thought or planning, replace plastic with glass wherever possible. By 2020 a spectacular 80 per cent of glass will be recycled, and as a material stream it’s well on its way. Not only is it easily and infinitely recyclable, it is also proven to be non-toxic as far as food is concerned and very good at preserving. Glass is not so great for bathroom products, though, not least because of the issue of smashed glass around bare feet. We’ll deal with glam and grooming containers separately.

Replace as many single-use containers as you can by using your own whenever possible. Don’t be shy about pushing it under the noses of the people behind the counter at bakeries, meat and fish counters. Ordering takeaways? If you know the outlet well (no judgement here) and collect your takeaway food, tell them you are bringing your own containers along and to let you know when your meal is ready.

Switch to laundry soap nuts

To replace the moulded, mixed plastic bottles and tubs with additional dosing balls that most commercial laundry detergent brands rely on, try Sapindus soap nuts. These are dried fruit shells containing a natural soap harvested from the Sapindus bush, a shrub related to the lychee, and are very easy to use in place of regular washing liquids or tabs: simply take a small handful of soap nuts, place in a small cotton drawstring bag and shove in the drum of your washing machine. The soap nuts can be bought in some health food stores or from online retailers.

You could also switch to using washing powder from cardboard boxes.

Say NO to . . . microbeads

Get rid of them. Now. These are the exception to the wait-and-finish rule. Confine these to their tubes and tubs and bin them (again, these are obviously not recyclable) rather than using them up. We’re taking drastic action because we don’t want to contribute any more microbeads to an ocean that now contains an estimated five trillion bits of microplastic.

Too small to be captured by municipal sewage treatment works, billions have washed into watercourses and found their way into the world’s oceans.

You’re looking for rinse-off formulas: particularly skin exfoliators, but check for shower gels, toothpastes and moisturisers that may all contain microbeads too. Telltale ingredients to look out for include: olyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene, terephthalate, polymethyl methacrylate, polylactic acid and nylon. These are the most common forms of synthetic microbeads. Be alert for pictures of bubbles on the packaging, and boasts of ultra-deep cleansing: code for "contains microbeads".

Unfortunately this is not where the story ends. Products categorised as "leave-on", including sun creams, lipsticks and shimmering moisturisers (watch out for those containing glitter) are not targeted by the legislation and may still contain microplastics. If you’re a consumer of cosmetics, always check the ingredients. Better still, switch your allegiance to an ethical or eco brand that would never, and has never, used microplastics in their products.

Switch to cardboard toys

Labo, Nintendo’s range of cardboard toys, is a game-changer in every sense. It features a range of pop-out sheets of colour-coded templates, called Toy-Cons, made from regular cardboard as opposed to plastic. With rubber bands, string and a lot of patience, these are constructed into all sorts of amazing toys, including a remote-controlled car, a giant bug, a small piano and a fishing rod. Then they’re brought to life by slotting in a games console, the Nintendo Switch. It is being touted as the toy that will revolutionise the video game market, and it seems to have single-handedly dealt a major death blow to plastic. Wow.

Switch to soap bars

The giant personal care brands that I’m afraid must be held responsible for filling our oceans with microbeads have also encouraged us to migrate from good old-fashioned bars of soap towards more expensive, bottled liquid soap and gels which are, surprise, surprise, abundantly packaged in oil-based plastic bottles. Many of these do not make it into recycling because they are made from strange and difficult plastics, and some contain extra pumps and complicated dispensers.

Move in the opposite direction and go back to bars of soap. For extra brownie points, buy an eco-friendly soap wrapped in paper rather than a plasticised wrapper. If you hate the ectoplasm that soap leaves on the side of the sink, buy a ceramic or natural resin soap dish.


This is an edited extract from Turning the Tide on Plastic from Lucy Siegle. Published by Hachette Australia RRP $29.99.

Journalist, broadcaster and eco expert Lucy Siegle has had a weekly prime time TV slot dedicated to battling waste plastic and a decade of experience as the "Observer" and "Guardian's" Ethical Living columnist.


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