Kicking Our Plastic Habit
Is it possible to live without single-use plastics? Host Nelufar Hedayat learns that recycling our forks, bags and coffee cup lids just isn’t enough. She also talks to a Vietnamese activist who’s pioneering the zero-waste movement in a country beset with other people’s plastic waste.
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
[SOUND OF BAGS RUSTLING, A DOOR OPENING AND CLOSING AND A WOMAN SIGHING]
NELUFAR HEDAYAT, HOST:
So, on my way home I got some dinner, basically. Just some things to cook — some puff pastry, courgette, tomatoes and things like that. And I mean, you know what that sound is before I even tell you, right? It’s just all the packaging that everything comes in. So my salad and watercress — packaged in non-recyclable film. Tomatoes, olives, everything else is just seething in packaging. And this is just me — one person, one day. It’s a lot to think about as I cook dinner.
[PERCUSSIVE SYNTHESIZER MUSIC]
NELUFAR: This is “Course Correction,” a podcast from Doha Debates.
Each episode we’ll look at one big global problem, and meet the people who are actively working to fix it.
I’m Nelufar Hedayat, and I’ve challenged myself to go plastic-free.
I never gave a second’s thought to all the plastic I use and throw away. But then I heard this one tiny fact that basically shattered any illusion I was laboring under: Plastics never decompose. They just get smaller and smaller until they’re small enough to inhale.
That was when I started to take notice.
FEMALE AMERICAN NEWSCASTER:
The massive floating island of trash is 600,000 square miles, which is twice the size of Texas. It’s made up —
SECOND FEMALE AMERICAN NEWSCASTER:
— over time that plastic disperses, disintegrates into smaller pieces and often gets eaten by fish —
MALE BRITISH NEWSCASTER:
Researchers have found more than 14,000 microplastics per liter of melted snow, raising questions about the long-term implications for wildlife and people living in the far north. Our environment analysts —
NELUFAR: So how hard can it be to get plastics out of your life?
Well, I decided to find out. For five whole days, I’ll use as little plastic as possible. And whenever I do use plastic, instead of throwing it away, I’ll collect it so I can see exactly where I’m going wrong.
NELUFAR: OK, so it’s day one of the challenge. I have already been thwarted. I have failed. Just my regular morning getting-ready routine, I’ve got three cotton buds, the protective sheet from the pantyliner that I wear and I’ve got two little extra bits of glue from this new mascara that I’ve unraveled. They’re all sort of —
NELUFAR: Right from the beginning, I realize the biggest problem when it comes to trying to reduce my consumption: Well, using plastic is just convenient.
NELUFAR: So, I’ve stopped off at a local chain juice bar and realize I’ve forgotten my carrier canister that I fill up with water bottles, and now I have to use cups. And as much as I try to ask for a non-plastic cup — they don’t even have any! All the cups that this shop use on a daily basis are all made of plastic.
[PERCUSSIVE XYLOPHONE MUSIC]
NELUFAR: In a big city like London, where convenience is everything, not having to lug around reusable canisters is just easier. Single-use plastics are designed to make it easier to transport food — keep it fresher for longer. And it saves me time, energy and planning. As a society, we’ve made a pact: The convenience of plastic is worth the permanence of the thing. Take the cup I was using: If it ends up in landfill, as most plastic does, then that cup I used for less than 20 minutes would remain in the environment basically forever.
I had to up my game.
NELUFAR: OK. Day three of the challenge, and I feel a little bit better. And I’m going to make coffee this morning in the house and put it in my little canister cup, because that’s where my biggest problem is — the coffee cups in the morning that are completely non-recyclable. And I’m hoping for a really good day.
[PERCUSSIVE XYLOPHONE MUSIC]
NELUFAR: I’m really annoyed. A lady just — oh god — ugh, it’s spilt everywhere! A lady just pointed to my back and said, “It’s wet,” and there’s coffee [SIGHS] all over my bag and my book and my laptop, which I now have to take out. Oh god, my stupid carry cup has leaked this coffee everywhere. Ugh.
I guess I’m a little frustrated right now, because I feel like carrying this trash around with me in these cups — it’s just a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of the plastic waste that I generate in any given day. And if I’m getting so stressed out and unable to cope with what I can see here in front of me, imagine if I was confronted with the reality of how much plastic I generate as just one person. What about the shops that are opening thousands of plastic bags and containers and all this stuff on my behalf that I never get to see?
I’ve got to go, I’ve got to clean up this coffee. [SIGHS]
[JAZZY PIANO MUSIC]
NELUFAR: It seems impossible to live without single-use plastics. And I was beginning to lose hope. When so many people are using so much plastic every day, is it even worthwhile for me — just one person — to quit using plastic entirely? I called up Rebecca Prince-Ruiz to find out what drove her to stop. She’s the founder of Plastic Free July, a global movement that challenges people to give up single-use plastics for one whole month. She started the program nine years ago with just a few friends. Now? Millions of people participate.
Rebecca and I have something in common.
Before I became so passionate about plastic, I thought I lived pretty sustainably. I’ve always thought of myself as being quite environmentally minded, and, you know, doing my bit and doing what I can.
NELUFAR: But then, in 2011, Rebecca started working for her local council, in waste education. As part of her job, she went on a tour of a local recycling facility to find out what really happens after we put our plastic in the bin.
The recycling facility was a massive warehouse in an industrial estate, indistinguishable from the other buildings around it — except for one thing. There was a stream of trucks dropping off waste.
REBECCA: It was a mountain. Just this constantly growing pile. And then there would be a — I’m not very technical with machines — but some kind of digger thing that would just scoop up big piles of it and feed it into a conveyor belt. You’d have paper flying out one bit, magnets grabbing the metal and aluminium cans. There was a line where there were people actually working on this material. Like one person, their job might be plastics number one — that’s the PET soft drink bottles. And that’s what they did all day, is this never-ending stream of material went past, they just flick off that material. Some people actually get seasick because —
REBECCA: — the material’s going past them so quickly.
NELUFAR: After the materials are all sorted, the plastic goes to another facility to be recycled. Each year, around 70 million tons of plastic get recycled globally. Seventy. Million. Tons.
REBECCA: It really blew me away, just seeing the incredible volume of what we produced. And then secondly, seeing the complex and energy-intensive process to deal with all of our waste. And it’s, it really woke me up.
NELUFAR: During the week that I collected all the plastic that I used, I saw the tip of the plastic mountain that Rebecca was confronted with. There was so much plastic getting recycled. But even more of the plastic we use just gets thrown out.
REBECCA: Of all the plastics we’ve ever made in this world since we first started making plastic, we’ve managed to recycle 9 percent. And of that 9 percent —
NELUFAR: I’m sorry?
REBECCA: Nine percent.
NELUFAR: I always thought it was enough just to recycle all my plastic. Once I’ve thrown it in the recycling bin, not my problem. But it turns out, globally, we have a massive plastic-recycling problem, too.
Where are you right now? You, listening. OK, wherever you are, I want you to just look around you and count everything plastic that you see. Your clothes? Backpack? What about the people around you? See any plastic on them? Any bottles or bags? Pens, laptop or phone? Are there any traffic cones, cars? Doors, window frames, street lamps? Modern life is built on plastic, and we only manage to recycle about 9 percent of it. The rest stays in the environment. It gets incinerated or buried in landfills, just caught in trees or ends up in the oceans.
REBECCA: The problem with plastic is that it’s so cheap, that it’s easier and cheaper for manufacturers to use virgin plastics.
NELUFAR: What’s virgin plastic?
REBECCA: So virgin plastic is the raw material of plastic. Tiny little plastic resin pellets, and then they’re shipped to wherever and melted and make all of those common plastic items that we use.
NELUFAR: This is going to be a stupid question, but what is plastic actually made of? I should have Googled that before I started speaking to you…
REBECCA: Plastics are made from fossil fuels, from oil and gas. And a lot of the time it’s byproducts of, of the petroleum industry. So it’s a waste product of the petroleum industry, which is partly what makes it so cheap.
NELUFAR: While we continue to make more and more new plastic, the old plastic just keeps piling up. It’s a one-way road with a dead end.
REBECCA: There’s plastic being found at the — in the Mariana trench. There’s plastics being found in our polar ice caps. It’s being found in the, in the stomachs of whales. We’re seeing it in —
NELUFAR: — places humans have never been! Places plastic has never even — like it just should never be there!
REBECCA: Absolutely. And I think I’m almost at the stage where — I would be more surprised about where it’s not rather than where it is.
NELUFAR: And so as these plastics move around in the world, they begin to break down…
REBECCA: Can I just start by saying it doesn’t break down? So you know, you throw that apple core into the garden or under a bush, and it breaks down, and it becomes part of the soil and the worms and the microbes eat it. That is not what happens to plastic. What happens with plastic is it breaks up. And it breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces. And as those pieces become smaller, then they can become more easily ingested. They bioaccumulate in the food chain and they can enter our bodies.
NELUFAR: Just think about that for a second. Right now, wherever you are in the world, whatever you eat and drink, you have some plastic in your body. We all have plastic in our bodies.
REBECCA: I think we’re only beginning to comprehend the way that plastic affects our health. Unfortunately, I think it’s going to take that to make us really sit up and take action. And the devastating impacts on our wildlife aren’t going to propel us to action as much as our own health, I’m sorry to say.
[SLOW SYNTHESIZER MUSIC]
NELUFAR: I’ve learnt so much just from having this conversation with you, and I’m really thankful for your time, Rebecca. Thank you so much.
REBECCA: Oh, my pleasure. I’m always happy to talk rubbish.
NELUFAR: So it seems like one solution would be to get really serious about recycling plastics. What does recycling plastics actually involve? Well, until recently, much of the plastic from the U.S., Australia, U.K. and many other countries, it ended up in China, where it was recycled into pellets and sold to factories to make new products. But in 2019…
AMERICAN MALE NEWSCASTER:
— a slow-moving recyling crisis. Towns are struggling to deal with piles of plastic and paper, scrap metal and other materials, with no clear destination.
AMERICAN FEMALE NEWSCASTER:
This comes after China stopped accepting the bulk of American recyling last year. Now Americans —
NELUFAR: So where is all that plastic waste going now? Well, the slack is being pulled by countries like Vietnam. Which is where we’re heading now.
[WOMAN SPEAKING IN VIETNAMESE]
NELUFAR: Hoang Thao lives in Hanoi. She’s a Japanese-language teacher, and leads the zero-plastic movement of Vietnam.
My name is Thao, and I am a university lecturer. I’m also an environmental activist. You know, it’s like a double life. [LAUGHTER]
NELUFAR: So by day you are a teacher, by night, you are an activist. An eco warrior!
NELUFAR: I was so excited to connect with Thao because I knew that although tricky, here in the global north, there is more and more talk about our plastic-waste problem. But in Hanoi, half the battle is convincing people that there is, in fact, a problem at all. Just like Rebecca and me, Thao knew something had to change when she went to a place in northern Vietnam called recycle village, where people wash, melt down and resell plastic for a living.
THAO: I was like so overwhelmed. I was like in shock. I saw the kids playing in the waste, in the dump. You know, there are, inside, a lot of plastic cups and — and it’s filled up with dirt. And it was terrible.
NELUFAR: But I’m getting the sense that there is no regulation. Were they wearing safety equip — ? I mean, I imagine they just —
THAO: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Yeah, they didn’t have any, or as far as I know — or even now, after all these years. And sometimes they just have like a handkerchief around the mouth. And the smell and the smoke — it’s just everywhere.
And, you know, you can tell from the color of the smoke. If, you know, you can see if this all black and it’s full of toxic. You know, it’s full of methane and, you know, all kinds of toxic that can make people ill and sick. In that area, in that village, so many people just got sick and got cancer.
That was actually the first time that I was like in shock about — “Oh my gosh, I am a part of this problem” — and I just felt so guilty. I just felt like, I make the life of the people here so miserable, and I wanted to do something. But I didn’t know what to do. I just felt that I was really small and I’m just only one person.
NELUFAR: This is what makes you so remarkable, Thao. That even though you felt small, even though it was just you, and even though you were almost crushed by the guilt of what you were seeing, you did not stop.
[JAZZY PERCUSSIVE MUSIC]
NELUFAR: Thao started a social media campaign about the dangers of plastic, and advice on how to cut single-use plastic out of your daily life. The movement started off quite slow, but then, in 2016, a Vietnamese steel company leaked massive amounts of toxic substances into the sea. It sparked an environmentalist movement. People took to the streets in protest.
THAO: Because of that incident, I felt like — OK, maybe I can jump on that into, you know, bring out something from that, to make people to care more about the environment.
NELUFAR: She started a program to teach kids in schools to stop using plastic bags. Now she was giving people the information they needed about plastic. And then:
THAO: I tried to change their behavior, but in order to change the behavior, it is — I wanted to make it convenient for them.
NELUFAR: Thao had to make it easy for people to change. And as I’ve learned, living without plastic is not easy. Unless, that is, there’s a store you can go to for everyday items without plastic packaging.
THAO: So, what I did is that I tried to create a place that can be a one-stop shop for people to come in and to, you know, buy everything that they need for their everyday life.
NELUFAR: Thao set up a zero-plastic store called Go Eco Hanoi.
THAO: I think it is the first one in Vietnam as well. But yeah, I just tried to keep the prices and everything like really low, so people would be interested, and they would want to try the products for themselves to see that — OK, it’s not so very inconvenient or like difficult to have a change in their lifestyle.
NELUFAR: The store is a nonprofit. Whatever profits Thao makes from it, she puts right back into her activist projects.
THAO: Workshops and talks and — yeah, so many other things are like — exhibitions. So I, I can have a fund for that activities.
NELUFAR: Thao’s latest plan to solve Vietnam’s plastic problem? She’s building a national plastic collection program. Because although Vietnam has a plastic recycling industry, it mostly comes from abroad. The government hasn’t actually been collecting plastic recyclables that Vietnamese people are throwing out.
She partnered with Vietnam’s largest national convenience store chain. Now, wherever you are in Vietnam, you can bring your recyclables and they’ll collect them and send them to be recycled. That’s all because of Thao.
THAO: Yeah, yeah, yeah!
NELUFAR: You said at the beginning of this conversation, Thao — you said, “I’m just small. I’m just one person.” And at the end of this conversation with you, I see one mighty, mighty person. That if you want to make a difference, this is how you do it.
THAO: Oh, thank you so much. And yeah, I always believe in the quote, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” If we really wanted to do something, there’s always a way that we can achieve that, a way that we could make it.
NELUFAR: Thank you so much for talking to me. It’s just really been inspirational, to say the least. And I started out this particular episode on this journey looking at the waste that I produce, and feeling like I have no control and no choice. And just the journey I’ve been on, the people I’ve spoken to, including you — because I feel like there is hope. I have control. And I can make a change.
THAO: Yes, yes we can! Of course we can! That’s the reason that we are born in this world, right?
NELUFAR: Thank you so much for talking to me.
THAO: Yeah! Thank you so much. It’s my pleasure. It’s my honor. Thank you so much.
[MIDTEMPO PIANO AND GUITAR MUSIC]
NELUFAR: Back in London, before Friday night dinner with my family, it’s the final day of my not-so-scientific experiment, and I’ve accumulated a big pile of plastic.
[SOUND OF MANY PLASTIC CONTAINERS FALLING ON THE GROUND]
NELUFAR: Oh my god. Right. Well, it is the end of the challenge. I am sat in front of the total amount of waste that I’ve produced in these four days. I wish that I could look at this pile of plastic and be even remotely impressed with myself, but I’m not. I am sitting in front of a terrible deal that I’ve made with this planet: convenience. Because as convenient and important it is for me to be able to buy my —
— crispy seaweed thins in packs of four, that’s now going to be in the environment for tens of thousands of years. And that is not OK.
NELUFAR: Feeling a bit despondent, I headed out to dinner. I had my recorder with me and decided to see if my family was paying attention to the plastics problem, too.
[AMBIENT RESTAURANT NOISES]
[NELUFAR AND MAN SPEAK IN FARSI]
NELUFAR: Hi, Dad.
[DAD SPEAKS IN FARSI]
NELUFAR: You have to speak English, Dad.
NELUFAR: I know it’s — it feels very unnatural, but you have to speak English.
DAD: OK, I will.
NELUFAR: Dad, every day this week, I have been trying to use minimum plastics. So this is why I’m carrying like a coffee cup and reusable water bottle. Are people taking this too seriously? Is it even a problem?
DAD: There’s a big problem, especially for the wildlife, marine life. It’s very difficult — important for them. And I personally, I don’t use plastic a lot because I never ever eat takeaway or takeaway drinks.
NELUFAR: But, I mean, you run a shop — you run a laundrette, and when you give those laundrette bags, people are only using them once.
DAD: I never give bag. Everybody bring their own bags, which is mostly from Ikea, and they reuse it. They pay for that, that’s why they take it. But they never ever throw it away.
NELUFAR: So you have made the decision not to use single plastic bags in the laundrette.
DAD: Lots of people ask me, in case if I have one black bag. I said, “No, I don’t have.”
NELUFAR: I had no idea my dad was such an eco warrior! And my mum continued to surprise me.
Today I went to Morrison’s for shopping. I noticed that almost every item — vegetables, vegetables — are packed in a plastic. I refuse to buy my vegetables in plastic bags. There wasn’t any paper bags there.
NELUFAR: Exactly. There’s no other option.
MUM: Yeah! In my country, in Afghanistan, we never had a plastic package or cover for our vegetables. So when I go for shopping — I go today at Queen’s Green Street Market or Holloway Market — to get my vegetables and choose the ones that I wanted all without plastic, without package.
NELUFAR: So wait. So you make an actual effort to not buy from supermarkets where they have excessive uses of plastics?
MUM: Yeah. Yes I did.
NELUFAR: Who even talks about this stuff with their family? We never treat this as a domestic problem. We treat it as a public one, something a municipal or a national government has to fix. Maybe we should be talking about this stuff within our families and communities.
So, what can you do to use less plastic?
First, you can do what my mum and dad do: Buy your produce in markets that don’t wrap every single vegetable in plastic. Eat less takeaway food. Bring along a reusable water bottle or thermos, and a reusable cloth shopping bag. And if you own a store, give your customers a plastic-free option. Finally, remember that a few small changes in your life can make a big difference for the planet. Here’s Rebecca Prince-Ruiz again, the founder of Plastic Free July:
REBECCA: I think if everybody has that mindset, and we get a lot of people making some small change rather than just a few people making lots of change, I think that’s when we can start to really influence the system.
NELUFAR: That’s our show for today. And now I want to hear from you. What ways can you think of to use less plastic in your daily life? Tweet us at @DohaDebates. I’m at @nelufar.h.
“Course Correction” is written and hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. The show is produced by Doha Debates and Transmitter Media. Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation. Special thanks to our team at Doha Debates — Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. This episode was mixed by Dara Hirsch. If you like what you hear, rate and review the show. It helps other people find us. Join us for the next episode of “Course Correction” wherever you get your podcasts.