Year of Environmental Action: Reducing Plastic
31st October 2022
Walking through the woods this half term, the bright blue of a sweet packet catches my eye amongst the autumnal leaves. As I start to collect bits and pieces of rubbish lying around it, I notice how much litter is single use plastic; a takeaway tray, a scrunched up water bottle, a crisp packet, a blue vinyl glove. Before long I had filled a bag full, but it was barely a drop in the ocean of what is there, littering our natural spaces. Plastic chemicals are leaching into our soil, rivers are polluted by plastic debris and sea birds and marine mammals are choking on the millions of tonnes that end up in our oceans. The UK generates more plastic waste per person than any other country, apart from the USA – we have to do something about it now. I have been seriously attempting to reduce my use of plastic since the start of the year, using the waste hierachy triangle as a guide to how I can break my dependence on this finite resource that hangs around forever.
REFUSE: The biggest section of the triangle, because the easiest way to get plastic out of your life is to not let it in in the first place. I have been refusing plastic bags in shops since the 1990’s, when it was an act of defiance to insist that no, you really did not need a bag with your purchases in shops, because you’d brought your own. Since the Single Use Carrier Bag Charges Order was introduced by law in 2015, we’ve got used to taking our own bags to the shops, vastly reducing the number of plastic bags used. How much easier it is to do the right thing for the planet when the law backs up our individual choices!
REDUCE: Even when you try to cut down on buying stuff, there are some purchases that are just a necessity. So I’ve been trying to swap products for plastic-free versions. Shampoo bars, refillable deodorant canisters and dilutable cleaning products have all performed well and taken plastic out of my bathroom. Its a shame these innovative products cost more than the plastic-bottled versions, but perhaps if more people bought them, or there was a tax on single use containers, we could bring the prices down…
REUSE: Our throwaway culture has lead us blindly to the piles of discarded plastic spoiling our planet, and single use items are the worst example of this. Our (great) grandparents knew the value of resources and wouldn’t let anything go to waste. Channelling my granny’s waste-not-want-not attitude, I’ve tried to imagine a second life for single use items, scrubbing out tubs for plant pots and repurposing used inner tubes for elastic bands. Last week, a group of volunteers in Get Out More’s Outdoor Taskforce spent the day collecting used plastic tree guards from a new woodland, which are being collected by Yorkshire Dales Millenium Trust in a fantastic scheme to reduce plastic in the countryside. If we had to pay for the true environmental cost of the items we throw away, we’d all think harder about how we reuse what we already have.
REHOME: Swapping books with friends and passing on toys to younger relatives ensures no-longer-needed items have found another home. I got a few new fab outfits for free at a ‘swishing party’, where we piled our unwanted clothes on the floor then took home what we like the look of. I haven’t used this yet, but my daughter is a strong avocate of the Olio app which matches neighbours or local shops with food to spare to others who might like to make use of it, saving tonnes of food from landfill and cutting her monthly food bill to almost zero, (catching the attention of the media in the process!)
RECYCLE: One of the smallest sections of the triangle, as its one of the least effective ways to combat waste. The recycling message is so strong that we could almost believe sticking the plastic container in the recyling bin is the solution to the problem. But the UK exports over half of its plastic waste abroad for recycling, making it someone else’s problem. Greenpeace reports that much of that claimed to be recycled, is in fact ending up dumped or burned in illegal rubbish tips abroad. If we have to buy plastic, recycling it is something, but much better to refuse, reduce and reuse where possible.
Reducing plastic from our lives, is really challenging, especially when it comes to food packaging. Its ironic that the material produced for cleanliness and hygiene, is the stuff that is making a dirty mess of the planet. It may feel like we are drowning, faced by a flood of plastic, but Greenpeace proposes that ‘reducing single-use plastic by 50% would not only allow the UK to end waste exports, but would also mean less plastic going into incineration and landfill‘. We need governments and supermarkets to deliver this goal, but we can start with our own consumption. So choose plastic free, and give nature a fighting chance.
By Annie Berrington