In this guide, we consider the answer to the question of whether humans can live without plastic, or not.
We also provide a realistic outline of what living a life with less plastic might look like.
Summary – Can We Live Without Plastic, & How To Live With Less Plastic
Can Humans Live Without Plastic?
The technical answer to that question is yes.
However, to live without plastic, someone would likely have to remove themselves from most modern societies, and live a remote lifestyle, or live a more primal lifestyle without much modern technology.
The realistic and more accurate answer to that question is that humans can’t live completely without plastic in modern societies
Plastic has many critical uses in the things around us, and provides benefits that we might not be able to get in an effective, practical, or affordable way, or at all, from other materials.
How To Live With Less Plastic
Perhaps some good news is that individuals, and society as a whole, can find ways to realistically live with less plastic.
There may also be some ways we can better manage the existing plastic in society, along with any new plastic we produce.
We outline how we might address each of the above points in the guide below.
The Rationale For Living Without Plastic
Before we look more deeply into whether humans can live without plastic, or how we might live with less plastic, it might be important to understand the basis of why people might want to know whether humans can live without plastic.
This guide that outlines the 21 potentially harmful effects of plastic is perhaps a good place to get a basic understanding of how plastic may negatively impact the different parts of society
This guide that outlines some of the potential problem plastics and more harmful plastics may offer additional information as well
Humans, wild life, the economy, and the general environment may all potentially be impacted in different ways
Plastic coming from fossil fuel feedstock, BPA leaching concerns, plastic waste management, plastic pollution, the break down of plastic into micro plastic, and plastic ingestion and entanglement, are just some of the commonly cited issues with plastic as a material
Can Humans Live Without Plastic?
Right now, for anyone that participates in a modern society, it’s virtually impossible not to use plastics directly, or indirectly
The reality of modern living is that plastics exist almost everywhere – vehicles and modes of transport use plastic, houses and buildings use plastic, internet and communications/data infrastructure uses plastic, fibres used in textiles use plastic … the list goes on
Plastic has it’s pros and cons like any material, but ultimately, we use plastic in many different industries and sectors for critical uses (consumers and producers both rely on plastic to an extent), and the plastic we use can provide us with significant benefits we couldn’t easily, reliably or affordably get from other materials in some instances.
As just a few examples, there are benefits to plastic in preventing food waste, and preserving hygiene, safety and health standards across various areas of society.
Business, transport, and basic consumer goods and resources can be also made more affordable, more accessible, and even environmentally friendly in some ways, with the use of plastic.
The traits of plastic, the number of different types of plastic, and other features of plastic help with this.
With this being the case, it’s also virtually impossible that plastic will be phased out of modern societies anytime soon
A Thought Exercise For Plastic Use In Everyday Life
As a thought exercise, consider the answers to these questions for your everyday life:
What are the pipes in your house, or the pipes under the pavements and roads where you live made of?
What are the materials in the house you live in, or building you work in made of?
What are all the materials in your car made of? What about for the bike/bus/train/tram/plane you use to travel?
What are the materials used for the electricity, internet, data, and communications infrastructure that you use?
What are the fibres in the textiles you wear and use made of?
How do you buy and prepare your food? What’s the packaging of the food you buy and store made of? What about the packaging used for the transport or freight companies that deliver your food? What about the producers who make your food – what materials do they use?
If We Can’t Live Without Plastic, What Can We Do About Plastic Issues?
We’ve put together a separate guide on some of the potential solutions to plastic problems on a society wide level.
However, as a summary of some things we might be able to do to manage plastic and plastic issues, we might:
– Better manage existing plastic in society
– Better manage new plastic that will be produced
– Individuals might consider how they can realistically live a life with less plastic
Managing Existing Plastic, & New Plastic Produced
Managing Existing Plastics
Examples of existing plastic includes any plastic that has already been produced or is in use, or plastic that is in circulation or existence anywhere throughout society or that is polluted in ecosystems.
It can include littered plastic, plastic waste in landfills, plastic pollution in the ocean, microplastics and nano plastics, and so on.
It may be difficult and costly to manage existing plastics in some instances, but potential solutions for managing existing plastics might include:
– Sending plastic to the ‘best’ waste management option, whether that be landfill, recycling or re-use, incineration, or otherwise
This prevents some plastic becoming litter or polluted plastic
– Land clean up, river and lake clean up, beach clean up, and ocean clean up initiatives will help remove plastic pollution from the environment that is already there i.e. littered or mismanaged plastic
Some of this may be volunteer clean ups, whilst some may be for profit or funded initiatives
But, consider the cost of certain plastic clean up initiatives if the goal is to re-sell the plastic or re-use it – the cost of cleaning up the plastic and the resources used can be a net negative when also considering the eventual outcome.
This activity may not be profitable if the re-sale value of plastic is less than the clean up costs
– Considering how to manage micro-plastics and nano-plastics in water supplies, in rivers, in food supplies, and in soils and oceans.
Some of it may be impossible to completely remove with current technology
Managing New Plastic Produced
New plastic is any plastic produced in the future.
Potential solutions for managing new plastics might include:
– Reduce the use of problematic or harmful plastics where possible, such as single use or high waste rate plastics (like plastic packaging).
This is the same as cutting the consumption rate of plastic
Conversely, plastics that have great benefit, perform a critical function, or that has a multi-year or multi decade lifecycle (like construction plastics) may not be as much of a priority to reduce the production or use of
– Re-use, recycle, downcycle, upcycle, or send plastic to a secondary use
Plastic that can’t be re-used or recycled may be sent to a waste for energy facility for example
As another example, plastic bags may be re-purposed or re-used as bin liners
– Have a more data driven approach with the way we manage plastic waste
For example, we might consider the countries and industries responsible of the most plastic use, waste, and pollution, and focus efforts here as a priority
– Have localised plastic waste management solutions
Each city or town has different waste management systems with different capabilities for handling waste
Along with that comes different issues and potential solutions to handling plastic waste
Each city or town needs a plastic waste management plan that suits their waste management systems
– Upgrade waste management collection and disposal facilities to reduce plastic pollution –
Especially in regions and countries where unsecure and open landfill sites or dumping sites, mismanaged plastic, and river and ocean plastic pollution rates are high
Low to middle income countries, and parts of Asia have been identified as some of these areas
– Consider how new plastics may be of benefit
Such as bioplastics and other plastics
How Individuals Might Realistically Live A Life With Less Plastic
Changing your plastic footprint may involve implementing one, or a combination of the following actions:
– Buy new plastic less frequently (in products, or packaging), or minimise the plastic in the products you buy where possible (especially unnecessary plastic packaging)
– Re-use existing plastic more frequently (such as shopping bags)
– Repurpose existing plastic more frequently (such as using plastic bags for bin liners)
– Dispose of existing plastic less frequently (can achieve through more re-use and repurposing)
– Consider the plastic you use that becomes waste at a higher rate than other plastics, and use less of it
– If you currently litter, stop littering (by using bins, or re-using and repurposing at all times where possible)
– Pick up or clean up littered plastic where possible, and/or participate in clean ups. This could be around where you live, on beaches, around lakes and rivers, and so on
– Use less and buy less products with plastic packaging, or short use/single use plastics
– Use less non recyclable plastics (generally, plastics #1 and #2 are more recyclable than others, but it also matters how you dispose of your recyclable plastics – so, know your local recycling guidelines)
– Be mindful of whether you are using plastics that take a long time to break down (but in reality, all plastics take a long time to degrade and break down – so, it’s better to use less plastic in general)
– Use alternative materials to plastic where easily substitutable (e.g. use a glass or stainless steel drink bottle, or food container)
– Use less textiles with synthetic fibres (e.g. buy natural fibre clothing and garments where you can, or buy second hand)
– Buy more products made of natural material (that don’t have man made additives, or aren’t packaged in plastic) in general where realistic (e.g. buying natural personal care products where possible may reduce micro beads and other plastics)
There are many more tips you can implement, but the above might be some good individual points to consider.
It’s also worth noting that these are only tips – obviously you’ll want to do what is suitable and achievable for your own individual lifestyle. That may differ for different people.
There may be tradeoffs to the above points and decisions too.
Other Ways To Live A More Sustainable Lifestyle Outside Of The Use Of Plastic
Being conscious of your plastic footprint is a good start to being more sustainable
However, there are other ways to live a more sustainable lifestyle outside of the plastic you do or don’t use.
As we outlined in our life cycle assessment guide on plastic bags vs other bags … some sustainability experts have pointed out that choices in these areas of your life can have significant impact on living a sustainable and/or eco friendly lifestyle:
– What you choose to eat
– The transport you use
– The size of the house you live in and how well insulated or efficient the energy or heating/cooling is
– What source of energy your electricity comes from
– Your overall consumption behavior (what you consume, how you consume, how often you consume, how frequently you re-use, and so on)
So, be aware of choices across your entire lifestyle.
If you can’t cut down your plastic usage footprint any further, being more efficient with your usage of energy/electricity might be another option for you to look at to live more sustainably than what you currently are.
When the scope is move to areas outside of just plastic use, there are far more ways to contribute to live more sustainably than what some people think.