I was recently invited to talk to a lovely bunch of people about single-use plastics in January this year. It’s a hot topic in the UK at the moment, following the success of the wonderful Blue Planet II TV series aired on the BBC. Even the Government are getting involved, with their 25 Year Environment Plan pledging to tackle the growing problem of plastic waste.
Whilst we still have a huge mountain of waste to climb (both literally and figuratively), there has undeniably been big spike in awareness of plastic pollution growing across the UK, with bars swapping to paper straws, and supermarkets pledging to reduce or even swap out their plastic packaging. It really feels as though the tide is starting to turn.
So it seemed a better time than ever to talk to a room of people about the wonderful world of living without single-use plastic, through rubbish stats – that’s stats about rubbish, not poor quality data – and why recycling isn’t actually a good thing, just a less-bad thing. Although my talk was aimed at a UK audience, I think it contains some ideas that would work in all sorts of places! And so I thought I would share it with you lovely people too, because I really do just love talking rubbish 🙂
So why is single-use plastic such a bad thing? Some stats to put this in perspective:
- It’s estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by weight.
- The annual recyclable plastic waste of UK consumers is 1.5 million tonnes, but only one third of that is actually recycled.
- We use a staggering 38.5 million plastic bottles every day in UK.
- A study conducted by Newcastle University surveyed crustaceans at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean on the planet. Every single one contained plastic. A scientist on the project said “It is highly likely that there are no marine ecosystems left that are not impacted by anthropogenic debris.”
Imagine that – there is no part of any ocean, sea, river or lake that most likely isn’t impacted by human-created pollution. It’s more likely than not that by the time we find places we haven’t even yet imagined, our waste is already there.
Plastic is an amazing product in the right place. But when the average plastic bag is used by a consumer in the UK for just 15 minutes, that’s a very poor use of a material that lasts for hundreds to thousands of years.
So what happens to used plastic?
- The worst case scenario is that it’s littered or lost into the environment, either on land or in water, or just slightly better, that it goes for incineration or landfill.
- Alternatively, we have what gets framed as the ‘good’ scenario – it goes for recycling. Unfortunately, it’s not actually a good solution, as I’ll get to shortly.
Why is plastic in the environment a problem?
Well, loads of reasons really, but here’s a few to start with:
- Turtles can eat plastic bags as they mistake them for jellyfish.
- Animals can get tangled in packaging and drown or starve.
- It looks bloody awful.
But wait, there’s more!
The thing about plastic is that doesn’t really break down. It’s more accurate to say that it breaks up. It doesn’t biodegrade but instead fragments into smaller and smaller pieces. These small pieces of plastic when in water act like ‘magnets’ for pollutants, which have got there from pesticide runoff from farms, oil spills, or chemical waste from factories. This means that the plastic becomes much more concentrated in toxicity than the water around it.
These polluted plastic pieces are eaten by animals like seabirds, fish and mammals, which causes all sorts of problems, including:
- Filling their stomachs so they don’t have room for food and starve.
- Toxins leaching into their muscle tissue, organs and in the case of mammals, their milk.
The effects of the plastic get passed further up food chain as smaller fish are eaten by bigger animals and humans. A University of Ghent study indicated that shellfish eaters may be consuming up to 11,000 plastic fragments in their seafood each year.
So why isn’t recycling the answer?
It’s at this point a lot of people are thinking ‘but I put all my plastic in the recycling, so what’s the problem?’
Well, I’m here to ruin the recycling party. The problem is that a lot of plastic not so much ‘recycled’ as ‘downcycled’. It’s often turned into lower quality products, such as water bottles being ‘recycled’ in to car parts or road surface. Because of the degrading quality, a large amount of plastic waste is recycled just a few times before it cannot be recovered any further.
In addition, we’re reliant on a market for the plastic to be taken for recycling. This has recently become what is officially a VERY BIG PROBLEM – as of January 2018 China have stopped taking UK household plastic for recycling, which was where around two thirds of all our plastic waste was going for recycling until now. What this means is that our plastic waste is more likely to be incinerated or even landfilled in the short to medium term.
Even on the simplest level, you just need to think of the resources required to get to the point where the discarded product is actually ready for recycling: we start at the oil extraction – then go to processing – to making into plastic – to selling and shipping to a distributor – to being used to wrap the product – then the product is then shipped to store – where it’s bought by the consumer – who then throws the packaging in bin – the bin is picked up by the binmen – where it’s taken to a waste centre for sorting – and finally sent for recycling. That’s a lot of energy for something you’re going to use once for 15 minutes.
Shocked enough to start reducing your plastic? (I really hope so…)
Now, disclaimer/warning first. Becoming the kind of person who lives (mostly) plastic free is a skill you build up, a bit like filling a piggybank, or training for marathon. You need to start small, take it in gentle increments, and slowly build up your anti-plastic muscles.
Start off with a bin audit, by taking a look in your rubbish to see what plastics are you throwing away in your landfill and recycling bins. Build up a mental picture of where you are creating waste.
Next, move to on changing your approach to waste creation, by asking the following questions when you’re next about to purchase something in single-use plastic:
- Do I really need it?
- Is there a reusable alternative?
- Do I already have something similar?
- Could I make it?
- If I really need it, is there a better product I could buy?
A good way to approach this is through what’s known as the Five Rs:
Refuse – Reduce – Reuse – Repurpose – Recycle
Some examples of each of these are:
- Say no straws when ordering drinks.
- Look for loose fruit and veg – try markets, greengrocers, farm shops or veg boxes schemes if your supermarket doesn’t have a great selection.
- Look for alternatives in cardboard, such as for laundry or dishwasher powder.
- Swap shower gel and shampoo for bar soap and solid shampoo.
- Buy bread loose at the bakery (take an extra clean canvas bag).
- Check www.findmeamilkman.net to see if you can get milk and juice delivered in returnable glass bottles.
- Swap plastic toothbrushes for bamboo ones.
- Think about purchasing food in bulk:
- For things like dairy (milk/yoghurt etc.), buy the biggest bottle or package possible and freeze it in portions.
- For rice, pasta, pulses and oils, buy the biggest bag possible. If you don’t use a lot, why not see if you can bulk buy and share with friends/neighbours?
- Swap out individual portions like multi-pack crisps (plastic bags within an extra giant bag, nooo!) for sharing bags that you portion yourself, and ditch single-serving microwave packs of rice and beans – cook in bulk and freeze in portions for just a little extra effort.
- Say no to products designed to be single use within single-use packaging – get rid of ‘baby wipe’ style disposable face cloths and disposable surface wipes for fabric cloths you can wash and a bottle of product.
Choose or find items designed to be reused (and reuse them again and again and again!):
- Cloth bags instead of new plastic bags.
- Refillable coffee cups and water bottles.
- Check local health food shops for cleaning product refills, or try dilute-at-home cleaning concentrates like Splosh.
- Ask butchers/fishmongers/delis if they will refill your own containers.
If you have the plastic already, use it instead of purchasing new items:
- Use butter and ice cream tubs for storing bits and bobs that can build up in junk drawers, like colouring pens, screws and nails, or keys.
- If you’re still paying money for new sandwich bags for your lunch, stop! Try reusing cereal bags or bread bags.
Even though recycling isn’t great, it’s still better than sending your rubbish to landfill or incineration, so here are a few things to remember:
- Check your council or waste company’s website – don’t contaminate your recycling bin with things you think should be recycled, but aren’t. It just means the whole lot is more likely to be landfilled.
- Have a look at Terracycle, a company that specialises in recycling the hard-to-recycle. They do drop-off points around the UK for things like biscuit wrappers and food pouches, as well as zero waste boxes you can buy for the home or office.
- Check out Polyprint, where you can send polythene (like bubble wrap, bread bags etc) to be recycled, just for the cost of posting it to them.
Phew! Your brain is probably bursting at the seams with plastic-related info now, so it’s time to sum up…
I know it seems like a lot of work at first, but once you have a routine, I promise you that it really isn’t. Once you’ve found the routine and products that work for you, you’ll barely notice the difference. I don’t spend any more time shopping, cleaning or tidying than I used to, and much less time taking out the bin!
We need to remember that ‘convenience’ culture isn’t convenient for the planet in the long term – is a non-recyclable plastic-lined coffee cup that will spend hundreds of years in landfill really worth the effort saved from not popping a reusable cup in your bag?
The reason I think little actions like this are so important is because through our actions we show our values. Politicians and businesses are followers, as well as leaders, and it’s up to us to show them how we want to live and how we expect them to help. If we want a better environment, we need to put our money where our mouth is and demonstrate that we’re serious about changing to a future without single-use plastic pollution.