Earlier this year, I went to see A Plastic Ocean as part of the Raindance Film Festival in London. Directed by Craig Leeson and starring world-record breaking freediver Tanya Streeter, it’s a film about how plastics get into the ocean, the devastating effects they have, and what can be done about it. I thought my trip to see it would end up being a one-person event, as whilst many of my friends politely humour me about my enthusiastic commitment to avoiding plastic, I appreciate that for many people it’s a bit of niche subject and perhaps not what you go to the cinema to see.
To my surprise, four friends agreed to come along. This made me really, ridiculously happy. Much more so than the film, which was beautifully-shot and striking, but also very sobering indeed. As their website points out:
Packaging is the largest end use market segment accounting for just over 40% of total plastic usage.
Annually approximately 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide. More than one million bags are used every minute.
A plastic bag has an average “working life” of 15 minutes.
Over the last ten years we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century.”
At the end of the film, my best friend turned to me and said “I get it. I want to do something. But it’s so huge and I don’t know even where to start. Help!” And this, I think, is the crux of the matter – many (if not most) people would be very happy not to produce mountains of plastic waste, but actually living without it is really, really difficult. Because let’s face it, disposable plastic is everywhere. It has snuck into every corner of our lives and sneakily made itself virtually indispensable to modern life. You go to the supermarket, and there it is – aisle upon aisle of plastic. Plastic trays wrapped in more plastic film, plastic bottles, plastic bags. Plastic wrapped coconuts for god’s sake (if only they came in their own hard-wearing outer shell)! And you feel overwhelmed, and angry, and you leave disheartened and with a bag full of packaging that will shortly be in the bin.
If you’re lucky, some of the plastic will be recycled – around 30% of it if you’re in the UK. Approximately one million tonnes of recyclable plastic waste will go from UK consumers’ homes to landfill each year, and only 500,000 tonnes will go to recycling.
ONE. MILLION. TONNES.
One million tonnes of a material that doesn’t biodegrade. That chokes wildlife. That gets into the oceans where it’s eaten by fish. And those fish are then eaten by us.
Even if the plastic is lucky enough to reach a recycling centre, did you know that a plastic bottle is very unlikely to become another plastic bottle? Plastic is almost always ‘downcycled‘, meaning each time it’s recycled, it becomes a lower quality product and eventually, landfill.
So, how do you do your bit to stop this? Here’s how I began moving to a much less plastic-y place – hopefully it will help you too:
Realistically, you’re not going to start living without disposable plastic overnight. Start small. Accept you’re going to slip up. That’s OK!
The first thing that happens is that you’ll most likely get frustrated because it seems near-impossible. That too is OK. It gets easier, I promise.
The process should be about celebrating the wins, not beating yourself up over the losses. Every bit of plastic avoided is potentially a piece of plastic that isn’t going to end up in the ocean where it could be eaten by an unsuspecting animal. That in itself is a good thing.
Analyse your waste and make small changes
Keep a note of what plastic is going into your general waste bin and into your recycling bin. Create a hierarchy – what is going into general waste that might have an alternative or recycled equivalent? What is getting recycled that might be available in another format?
Below are a few changes you can make when food shopping, without having to even swap supermarkets:
Crunchy pre-prepped salad bags? Replace with a recyclable bag of whole lettuce. You’ll be getting much more lettuce for your money too.
Bread bags? Try fresh loose bread from the bakery section instead.
Pre-sliced veg? Save cash and buy loose, whole equivalents. Think of it as swapping some time for some money.
Pasta bags? Tricky. Buy the biggest container you can find – that way at least you’re reducing the plastic/product ratio. See also: milk, rice, crisps, anything that comes in various sizes. For perishable goods, portion up for the freezer, using the smaller versions of the products you bought before.
Reusable bags? I’m pretty sure you’ll already have swapped the 5p bag for a reusable one. If not, DO IT NOW! If you haven’t got any ‘proper’ bags, use the ones you got given last time, and the time before, and the time before.
If you’re wanted to step up your game a bit, there are plenty of other swaps that require a small purchase or a bit of effort, but are still pretty easy:
Coffee cups for when you’re out and about. We all know that the disposable cups you get from coffee shops are an environmental nightmare. Purchase one reusable coffee cup, and make sure it’s one you really like so you’ll enjoy using it. If you’re nervous about asking for your drink to be made in your own cup, choose somewhere that has already publicly stated that they accept reusable cups (such as Starbucks or Costa). Alternatively, independent cafés are usually pretty relaxed about it. Reusable insulated mugs are available all over the place, and you can get them for a few pounds or a few more pounds. My favourite ones are by Corkcicle.
“No straw please!” When you’re ordering a drink, ask for it without a straw. If you want to know why straws are a terrible idea, you only need to see this video of a turtle having a straw wrenched out of his nose. Or you can just believe me, because frankly, it’s horrible to watch. If again, you feel a bit silly about asking, it can be easier to make the request part of a bigger sentence, such as “can I have a slice of lime, but no straw please?” For some reason, it just feels less weird. Try it!
Stop buying bottled drinks, especially water. Unless you live in an area where bottled water is the only solution, it’s generally a pretty bad idea, environmentally speaking. Just like the reusable coffee cup, choose one water bottle that is sturdy, non-leaky and looks nice enough that you’ll actively enjoy drinking from it. For other bottled drinks, try relegating these to treats when you dine out, rather than just when you’re thirsty – not only are they more likely to come from a bulk source (for example how colas are dispensed in bars) and let’s face it, it ain’t that good for you anyway. My bottle came from A Fine Choice, who are lovely and have a good selection to get started.
Produce bags. You might have managed to swap your big shopping bag for a reusable bag, but you still need to stop the stuff going in it from going everywhere. You can now buy bags specially designed for your food shop, either for putting your loose bread into (see above), or your loose fruit and veg. I used to reuse the small bags over and over, which is a great free way to start saving on them, but they get a bit ratty after a while and rip easily. Produce bags look smart, work nicely and are a surprisingly big hit with check-out staff. My favourites are the Onya Weigh bags, but any small cloth bags would probably do.
So, that’s probably quite a lot to start with. Try one thing at a time, or try them all, whichever works for you best. But do remember that one failure is not complete failure, it’s OK if you feel a bit silly at first, that’s completely normal. Next time, I’ll move on to bigger changes for when you’re feeling a bit more in the swing of plastic-rejecting-things and share some of the ideas that help keep me on track. But to get on track in the first place, you could do an awful lot worse than seeing A Plastic Ocean.
More details and film trailer at www.plasticoceans.org
Any questions, please leave me a comment below! I’d love to hear if you’ve seen the film, or what you think are good beginner steps to reducing your plastic waste.
Part 2 of this post available here…