The big news on the morning of writing this piece (23rd October 2018) was that plastic had reached the human food chain. A study found as many as nine different types of plastic in the digestive systems of all participants they tested (Time, 2018). I’m sure that everyone will have noticed that plastic has become an increasingly visible topic of discourse in the media in recent times. Some truly disgusting statistics have emerged which have shocked many people.
“By 2050 there will be more plastic bags in the ocean than fish!“
The existence of a “plastic continent” in the Pacific Ocean has horrified us all, and the gigantic time periods certain types of plastic can take to break down are by now distressingly familiar. The realisation that our everyday rubbish might be washed up on beaches 400 years into the future becomes more disturbing the longer we think about it. Archaeologists of the 18th century found the Rosetta Stone enabling them to translate hieroglyphics and piece together ancient Egyptian history. Archaeologists of the 28th century might discover perfectly preserved polystyrene packaging in a long-forgotten landfill site which will teach people of the future little besides the fact that their ancestors were selfish and irresponsible (polystyrene is almost impossible to recycle).
So should we make more of an effort to recycle plastic on our end as consumers? Well, one problem is that according to a recent consumer group analysis, a third of supermarket plastic can’t be easily recycled (Guardian, July 2018). Some supermarket products only show the “non-recyclable” logo when you actually unwrap the product, and it’s often very tiny. I have noticed that a lot of people like to put all plastic they’ve used in plastic recycling bins, perhaps unaware that a large amount of it can’t be recycled. As I began writing this article in early October, I was going to make an additional point that several councils don’t even bother recycling easily recyclable plastics anyway.
All these observations seem to have been made superfluous this very week however. It has transpired that the companies which are paid to recycle our plastic have been telling lies. As you may know, China banned imports of plastic from the UK earlier this year due to the majority of it being contaminated, perhaps by us not bothering to notice which plastics aren’t recyclable, or by being too lazy to rinse pasta and yoghurt pots before throwing them away. Now this created a problem, since the UK exports two thirds of its plastic waste (BBC, 19/10/18). Companies are paid to ship them overseas, and the manufacturers can then claim to be dealing with their own plastic waste. It seems that the system involved the shipping companies being asked to put in claims for how much they’ve recycled and then get paid for it by the ton. However, the Environment Agency noticed that something rather odd seemed to be happening. The amount of plastic companies were “claiming” to have recycled was much greater than the amount that the UK was actually producing. The other mystery was that since China had banned importing our plastic rubbish, where was all this stuff going? Surprise surprise, “plastic waste is not being recycled and is being left to leak into rivers and oceans” according to the BBC.
So plastic recycling, as fiddly, unreliable and unsustainable as it is already, turns out to be another scheme for companies to get richer while allowing our rubbish to make its way back into nature. The response to this has been immediate, “Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council took the decision to temporarily close plastic recycling banks” (Public Finance, 21/10/18), with many more looking set to follow. Plastic will now be going in the landfill or will be incinerated.
What a scam! This is before we have even begun to talk about the environmental costs of extracting crude oil, fractional distillation and then manufacturing it into plastic packaging. These costs are totally appalling, and in the wake of the recent IPCC report warning us that we have 12 years to avoid a global environmental catastrophe, I say that it should stop! We can’t afford to be this unsustainable anymore. Even if all plastic was recycled, it behaves differently to glass and aluminium, which can be recycled indefinitely. Plastic becomes brittle and breakable after being recycled a few times, and before long it reaches a stage where it will no longer be re-usable, at which point it ends up in the landfill. It’s a disturbing thought that every piece of plastic you see around you will one day end up in the landfill, the ocean or as black smoke being sent into the atmosphere after incineration.
By now, you will get the idea that I am well and truly fed up with the awful stuff. It shouldn’t exist! Plastic is now being reported in tap water and soft drinks. It appears in human waste. You can’t go to a beach and not see plastic washed up on the shore. I’ve seen a pipefish and a seal pup choked to death with plastic waste on Anglesey in the last year alone. I feel that it offends me on every level, from posing a threat to the air I breathe, the water I drink, the food I eat and even on a spiritual level. Knowing that all plastic will ultimately end up poisoning the planet in some way makes me feel that it has no place in my life.
So from the beginning of September this year I decided I would no longer be buying plastic. I thought if I developed an infrastructure which did not require plastic, I would be able to survive without it. I’ve been pleasantly impressed with how well it has gone, since Sep 4th I’ve only bought two items of food (in emergencies!) which had plastic packaging. I will very happily share with anyone where I’ve been going for my plastic free food if they are interested (in short, wholefood suppliers and the plastic free pantry!).
But what’s the point of not buying your favourite tortilla wraps from the supermarket to cut down on your plastic footprint when the companies and manufacturers aren’t remotely interested in changing their plastic footprint? They’ve already shown they’re prepared to lie and tell you they’ll recycle your plastic when in fact they dump it in the sea, haven’t they?
It’s true that any individual person cutting plastic out of their life will have a negligible impact in the grand scheme of things. Even if you manage to convince everyone you know to go plastic free, it still won’t make much of a difference. However, manufacturers do listen to consumer pressure. The way to fight the problem is to deal with the source. Complain to the supermarkets. What is the point of wrapping bananas in plastic? They already have their own natural wrapping!
The companies are clever. If nobody cared or gave any indication that they wanted supermarkets to stop using plastic, I guarantee nothing would ever change. However, since the discourse about plastic use intensified, a distinct change has occurred. Morrisons, for instance, now provide paper bags for loose vegetables instead of plastic ones. I’ve found this very helpful, and use these same paper bags for buying loose bread rolls. Lidl let you buy loose nuts. Various coffee chains now give you a discount if you bring your own mug. The 5p plastic carrier bag charge has massively reduced plastic bag use in the UK. So if you see unnecessary packaging and it bothers you, complain about it! We humans love to complain, it’s in our nature.
I still think that giving up plastic was a good decision. Although it has hugely restricted much of what I can buy, I’ve been pleased to see that I’ve ended up going for much healthier foods as a result. Some of the easiest things to get plastic free are avocados, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, garlic and various other loose veg.
I particularly hope that Cae Mabon will be able to be at the forefront of showcasing how sustainability, reducing our environmental footprints, recycling and low-impact living can be done, and how it not only lets us live in harmony with nature, but nourishes the soul and can make us feel at peace with our environment, working as a beneficiary to the ecosystem we inhabit, rather than a pathogen.