This week’s campaign blog features the reflections of Plastic Free Ambassador Rebecca Howarth. Rebecca is a legal secretary and works in Worcester.
EARLIER this year I gave up plastic for Lent. It was tough. Unsurprisingly, I found that living without disposable packaging takes a mammoth effort. For 40 days, I did everything I could to avoid purchasing products in single-use plastic packaging. Amazingly, I managed to complete my plastic-free challenge. Along the way I learned an awful lot about how plastic has become engrained in the psyche of the modern-day Briton.
Sourcing plastic-free food proved to be Lent’s biggest headache. Food is such a basic need but we have made the act of sourcing what we eat so messy and complicated. The largest source of plastic packaging is the grocery retail sector, which accounts for almost 1 million tonnes of plastic packaging. It only takes a walk around one of Britain’s 14,000 supermarkets to see why the sector generates so much plastic waste. As you traipse around the store, you are bombarded with row after row of technicolour goods laden with single-use plastic.
But it is not just the supermarket where avoiding plastic requires no little skill and cunning. The high street coffee shop is now a hotbed of throwaway plastic. Every day in the UK, up to 7 million coffee cups are thrown away, with less than 1% thought to be recycled. The main barrier to effective recycling thus far has been the plastic film that lines paper coffee cups. As a result, only 1 in 400 coffee cups in the UK are thought to be recycled. Plastic certainly isn’t fantastic when it comes to coffee.
Wherever possible, I try to recycle everything from my yoghurt pots to my bleach bottles. Recycling is necessary and commendable, and the percentage of Brits’ waste that is recycled is increasing due to better waste infrastructure, education and government advertisements.
Recycling isn’t the magic bullet that will solve all our plastic woes, however. I was surprised to find out recently that more than two thirds of the UK’s plastic packaging waste was exported for recycling in the first three quarters of 2016. Even the British Plastics Federation admits that the modest successes of plastic recycling schemes are achieved largely by exporting recovered plastic to Asia. Statistics published by WRAP reveal that the UK exports more than 600,000 tonnes of plastic rubbish to China every year.
My sister likens Britain’s penchant for exporting plastic to China to Australia’s practice of exporting coal (deemed too dirty to be burnt by Australia’s governing environmental standards) to its Asian neighbours. Subcontracting our recycling to China is a great way of abdicating responsibility for the devastating effects of our decades-long addiction to plastic packaging. I don’t see how we can boast about our recycling success when in fact we have essentially dumped the majority of our plastic on the other side of the world.
With the plastic crisis getting worse day by day, the answer surely is to first reduce the plastic in our own trolleys and incentivise retailers to offer plastic-free alternatives. Once we begin to change our own behaviour, we must then seek to change the mindset of those who write our laws, package our products, and indulge their plastic addiction without thought for the consequences.
As one of A Plastic Planet’s growing band of ambassadors, I have been leading calls for A Plastic Free Aisle in supermarkets in my home town of Worcester. I am deeply passionate about kickstarting a movement to finally reverse the years of environmental degradation caused by our incessant plastic consumption. We can be the generation that ends the lunacy of throwaway plastic.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Let’s go.