Look At Life: Plastic

30th June 2017

Rising to the Challenge: for an Ocean of Reasons

By Summer Greatorex

At the start of June, I received a challenge – to go plastic-free for a month. Plastic-free? Isn’t that for Green Party activists and people who spend their days sauntering around farmers’ markets with a (fair trade, unbleached) straw tote over their arm, picking out loose and lovely things for dinner? Not me. I’m a working mum, heavily reliant on the convenience of online shopping, where everything comes beautifully wrapped in individual plastic packets.

The challenge, issued by the Marine Conservation Society, was accompanied by unsettling information about our ‘plastic soup’ oceans – including the problem that 600 billion plastic bottles are manufactured each year and thrown away after a single use. Many end up in landfill, but the equivalent of a truckload of plastic is dumped into our oceans every single minute. Disturbingly, it’s estimated that by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic waste than fish.

It’s not just unsightly, it’s dangerous: to marine life, of course, and also to humans. Bottles are swallowed whole by larger creatures like whales and dolphins, and smaller pieces of plastic get picked up by birds and fed to their young. As plastic breaks down – estimated to take up to 450 years for bottles – it’s absorbed by smaller fish and plankton and ends up in our food chain.

I consider deleting the plastic-free challenge email, but I find I can’t shake off the images of the birds and marine life tangled up in all this waste. Maybe this is my chance to make a teeny tiny difference. I don’t want to do a Trump and refuse to sign up to something important just because it’s not convenient.

The first place to start is lunch. No more pre-packaged sandwiches; instead, I make my own. And definitely no more chilled fizzy drinks either. Greenpeace UK recently surveyed the ‘big six’ drinks manufacturers (Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Suntory, Danone, DrPepperSnapple and Nestlé) to see what – if anything – they’re doing to tackle the problem they’re helping to create. Not one had any targets or deadlines to reduce waste. Moreover, they hardly use any recycled plastic, except in niche products (a tiny fraction of their overall output), aimed at greener consumers.

I’m happy to drink water, and find it surprisingly easy to get into the habit of carrying my own water bottle around, just as coffee drinkers have started to take their own refillable, take-away mugs into cafés and on their commute.

It’s a simple thing. Now we’re all used to bringing our own bags shopping (since the 5p charge was introduced, England’s plastic bag usage has dropped 85%), the idea of carrying our own drinking vessels just seems like a natural progression. It’s not surprising that environmentalists are calling for greater access to public water fountains.

Another thing I cut out is supermarket milk: we get through pints. I easily track down my local milkman, digging up happy childhood memories of writing notes and arguing with my brother over the ‘top of the milk’. My children – reared on shop-bought semi-skimmed – have no idea what I’m talking about.

Oh, and it’s time to buy bars of soap, instead of liquid in plastic dispensers. Who knew there was so much choice? I get carried away with all the gorgeous organic smellies available in cardboard, recyclable packaging.

Once you start thinking about plastic, you start to be aware of just how much over-packaging there is, from food (do pears really need to come in a moulded acrylic case? Whatever happened to brown paper bags?) to Amazon’s fondness for sending out small items in huge boxes stuffed with bubble wrap. And from festivals to football matches, there’s an excess of empty plastic cups left behind when the crowds go home.

Even the MCS charity concedes that it’s virtually impossible to go completely plastic-free – as, of course, I found – but it’s the single-use stuff they want us to target as a priority. And why not?
In a world where politics has gone mad, I accept that there are many more important things to worry about. However, in terms of helping the environment, trying to minimise our own plastic consumption seems a relatively easy and civilised place to start.

Remember how we stamped out animal testing in the beauty industry in the 80s, by going mad for cruelty-free cosmetics? And how we’ve refused to buy tuna that isn’t dolphin-friendly since the 90s? We can make things happen when we want to.

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