Daily life tips for water scientists / Facts and figures about water / Plastic-Water Nexus / Responsible Water Scientists

Plastic footprint. Which is the impact of our household?

A journalist from The Guardian defined Summer 2017 as the summer of plastics, given the number of press articles and media release dealing with this issue. In 2018 the topic got even more attention, and hopefully it will drive to new lifestyle changes at global level.

However, while we get increasingly familiar with global facts and figures showing the impact of plastics on the natural environment, what do we actually know about our individual production trends?
With this question in mind, two years ago I started keeping an eye on recycling my bin and actually weighting the plastic items I was throwing away.
So, this is the annual plastic garbage production in our household of two over the past two years:


Cartoon by Christine Rai

Even though we try to shop bulk as much as possible, most of the plastic actually comes from food packaging, containers of cleaning and personal care products, that we are tiring to gradually replace with more sustainable and plastic free/DIY options, containers of items we can not find bulk (like cotton bud or sunscreen lotion) or general waste produced when we host a friend and s/he feels like having something we do not have at home (like milk, soda or meat).
Overall, with an average per capita annual production of approximately 2.5Kg, these trends are not so bad, compared for example to the per capita annual production of my country, Italy, or the average European figures.


Source: weforum.org

However, when I started checking my bin two years ago, my overall motivation was actually to achieve a sort of Zero Waste lifestyle, and, although promising, these numbers can be significantly improved. Especially knowing the impact of plastic on the environment.
Checking my bin also gave me some more hints. For example, when I added the amount of plastic produced during my trips abroad I realised that I may have a “slight preference” to travel, either for work or holiday, in places where water (especially drinking water) is a big issue, and this may be a sort of professional bias.


Highlight of plastic waste produced during my work and holiday trips (in red). Red bars with no flags correspond to the plastic produced while travelling in Italy (mostly at the airport and during congresses/working meetings) or when I go to parties and I forgot to bring my reusable plate, cutlery or cup.

As a result, in these occasions I generally have to buy bottled water, which is something I never do at home. And this explains the red bars in the graph, which are also due to the plastic straws that always come with drinks in many parts of the world, until you learn to automatically order with the jingle: “May I have a juice -or whatever- with no straw please?”.
Besides, by looking at these data in more detail you can see that there is a big difference among the trips I took over the past years, and in particular, if you look at the trip to Malaysia (August 2017), the relatively lower amount of plastic waste I produced in a 2-weeks trip, is mainly due to the fact that I basically found everywhere public fountains and/or water stations with safe drinking water. As a result, I never had to buy bottled water.

So, it seems that when I buy bottled water, my overall production increases quite a lot, which makes sense, considering that I generally drink 1 to 2 L of water per day…and so do many of us. Therefore, the main result of not drinking tap water, either because it is not available or safe, or simply because we do not trust its quality, is that a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute.
This also means that, overall, when you will have finished reading this post, 10 million of plastic bottles will be used and disposed.
The alarming thing is of course the fact that despite the rise in recycling culture over the past few decades, just 7% of those collected last year were actually turned into new bottles, as apparently consumers only want crystal clear bottles.


Most used bottles end up in landfill or in the ocean and by 2050 plastic waste is estimated to outweigh all the fish in the sea.

Therefore, I believe plastic is an issue we all have to face. Whether we like it or not, the problem exists and each of us can contribute solving it.

If you do not know where to start, do as I did: start checking your bin. Knowing what you throw away will make you aware of the potential you have for giving your life a change.  After even a one-month cheek you will be able to realize what is the major source of plastic waste in your house, and you will know exactly where to start to reduce your plastic footprint.
If you live with more people you can even make a Monthly Plastic Waste Bet, to guess the amount you will produce during the month. And if you have kids, it can also become a game to play with all the family. If you will continue, over the months you will be spurred to reduce the waste production of the previous month and find more ways to live without plastic.

Internet is full of blogs and social media account where you can find tips and suggestions in basically all languages, so there are actually no excuses to give it a try*!

*If you try, please let us know the results and we will be happy to compile a shared graph with them. Data can be treated anonymously. Write us a comment below if you want to know more about this project and you are happy to share your data.


2 thoughts on “Plastic footprint. Which is the impact of our household?

  1. Pingback: Water Underground | Shedding light on the invisible: addressing potential groundwater contamination by plastic microfibers

  2. Pingback: Shedding light on the invisible: addressing potential groundwater contamination by plastic microfibers – Jeofizikkulubu | Geophysics

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