I Gave Up Plastic for a Week, to See If We Can Really Save the World
All photos: Bekky Lonsdale
We, the British public, are once again at war. The enemy? The humble plastic straw.
If you've gone out for a drink this summer, chances are you were given one of those biodegradable paper things, or just nothing at all. As someone who simply loves straws, this has been mildly annoying. For others – the disabled and elderly, who might need straws to enjoy their beverages – it can be a genuine problem. For Telegraph columnist Jamie Whyte, it is nothing short of fascism.
Following the final of episode Blue Planet II, which highlighted the issue of ocean-clogging plastic, there has been a collective rush to get rid of straws and save the turtles – even though straws are far from our biggest problem when it comes to marine plastic pollution. Still, they have become what environmentalists refer to as a "gateway plastic" – a way to engage the public in a conversation about the prevalence of single-use plastics in our daily lives.
Now that this conversation has begun, what can we actually do to combat plastic waste? In the name of saving planet Earth, I decided to minimise my plastic footprint every way possible for a week, with the aim of proving that we can all do our bit without having to move to a solar-powered cabin in the Peak District to wear one pair of Crocs for the rest of our lives.
First up, though: some depressing facts. Plastic is not biodegradable, which means when it becomes waste it generally ends up either in landfills or washes into the ocean. Large plastics degrade into smaller particles called microplastics, which are the main danger to the environment and to humans. Not only are they ingested by animals, and produce chemicals that are potentially toxic for various creatures – including us – but they last literally forever.
According to a study in Science magazine, we create 275 million tons of plastic waste every year, of which between 5 million to 13 million tons end up in the ocean. There is a floating plastic island in the Pacific Ocean three times the size of France. It is estimated that there are 150 million tons of plastic in the ocean, and that if we continue on the path we're on now there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.
Currently, our levels of single-use plastic waste are so high that my brain genuinely struggled to process them while researching this article. In 2016, more than 480 BILLION plastic drinking bottles were sold across the world, and Euromonitor International estimates that this will increase to 583.3 billion by 2021. In the UK alone, we use 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups every year, which is particularly worrying as they are often not actually recycled, even if you put them in the recycling bin, as I have smugly been doing for years. To hold liquid, "paper" coffee cups are lined with plastic polythene, and this mixed material means that cups cannot be recycled at most recycling plants. The reality is that less than 1 percent of coffee cups end up being recycled.
Feeling very overwhelmed by all this, I called up Imogen Napper, a Sky Ocean Rescue Scholar, to find out how I could become more environmentally-friendly. "I think we're definitely at the right stage to turn the tide, so to speak, and bring back the health of our ocean," she tells me over the phone from Vancouver, where she's working on a project. "You've got to start small, and once you start getting comfortable in the small changes you can make more changes and start building that up. For me, the most effective thing is education and informing people that they have a choice, and that choice is a really powerful voice. If you start using a reusable water bottle and people see you using it, hopefully they in turn will want to get one themselves. Empowering people to make small changes in their life that can make big changes in their environment."
Armed with this advice and a list of everyday items to replace, courtesy of Imogen, I start looking online for plastic-free alternatives. I like to think of myself as a reasonably eco-aware person: I'm obsessed with recycling, to the point that I keep my plastics in my bag all day to take home and recycle if I can't find any recycling bins; I don't own a car, and walk wherever I can; I don't buy meat from supermarkets; I've said no to plastic bags for the last two years, even if it means I have to carry my shopping home in my arms; and I don't use glitter, because I'm not a basic bitch.
Having said that, there is a lot of room for improvement – I don't even own a reusable water bottle, and I'm a sucker for immediate gratification, which means a lot of takeaways, single-use cutlery, coffee cups and supermarket vegetables.
To get going I order some basics from Boobalou, an online store devoted to eco-living: a bamboo toothbrush, bamboo cotton buds, a KeepCup, natural deodorant, package-free soap and a reusable makeup removing cloth. I also order a slightly less-basic Guppy Friend, a nylon bag you wash your clothes in, in order to prevent microfibre pollution (most of our clothes are made from synthetic materials, which shed synthetic fibres into the water – and eventually the ocean – when washed). I allow myself a pass when it comes to hair products, because I've just gone blonde and that shit is high-maintenance; sorry, fishies.
Aside from the 17 products for blonde hair I have just bought, the heatwave means that my biggest challenge comes in the form of the plastic cups and straws for the 800 iced beverages I'm drinking every day. I alleviate some of this guilt by deciding to wash out the cups and re-use them so that they're not technically single-use plastic anymore.
Once I've got my products I head out to do my weekly shop. This does not go well: all I come out with is a couple of lemons, some ginger and some tinned goods. Literally everything else is wrapped in plastic.
Side note here: if you find yourself inside a supermarket, getting more and more incensed by the amount of unnecessary plastic lining the goods all around you, please do not try to engage in the form of "mild direct action" which involves self-righteous middle-aged people removing the packaging and leaving the minimum wage Tesco staff to clean up after them. This achieves literally nothing. Instead… try shopping somewhere else! A lot of smaller stores don't wrap fruit or vegetables in plastic, and shopping there is a double whammy of good, because you're not only reducing your plastic use, but also supporting a local store. Win-win!
Next, I head to the (organic, free-range) butcher to pick up some meat (shout out to Dulwich's William Rose Butchers for being incredibly accommodating when I tell them I'm trying to go plastic-free). I leave with some chicken breasts for tonight and some lamb chops to freeze for another day – both wrapped in paper. (Side note: I realise I am exercising some wild middle-class privilege here in terms of location.)
Next, I head across the road to the "farm shop", where I pick up some fresh fruit and vegetables and package them in brown paper bags, snacking on the sweetest most delicious cherries I've ever eaten as I go. I'm feeling rustic and wholesome! After finding out that there's plastic in most teabags (seriously, it never ends), I replace my Twinings with some loose-leaf tea and plastic-free teabags. These items are all premium goods, and my shop has cost me a lot more than what I normally spend. Furthermore, I've had to go to multiple shops to get everything I need, and I haven't even thought about cleaning products.
Imogen encountered the same problem when she attempted a similar experiment: "I was expecting it to be quite easy, but what I found was that it was actually quite difficult – I spent a lot more money and it wasn't as convenient," she admits. "We have to change things so it's convenient and doesn't cost a lot of money. I ended up having to drive to different farm shops to get my refills, scout online for plastic-free items which charge postage... for the average Joe family who doesn't have a lot of time or a lot of money, that's not realistic."
Governments and corporations are starting to wise up to the threat of plastic waste: aside from the numerous plastic straw bans, plastic bag bans or charges are also in place worldwide – a trend spearheaded by Denmark, which started charging a tax on them in 1994. Scotland is banning the sale of all cotton buds, while Ethiopia has Africa's first waste-to-energy facility. The EU has pledged €100 million for research into better designs, durability and recyclability of plastic, and has a plan to make all packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030, along with plans to promote easy access to tap water on European streets to reduce the demand for bottled water.
On the recommendation of Ingrid Caldironi – founder of Hackney's Bulk Market, where you can buy what you actually need and package it yourself – I head to a zero-waste store in Clapham called Hetu ("purpose" in Hindi, for those of you wanting verification that white people are committed to making me roll my eyes no matter how little plastic they use).
Here, I pick up some freshly ground coffee, pasta, flour, eco-friendly washing up liquid and some toilet paper, all in paper bags or re-used glass jars. Despite the name, the owner is super helpful and more than accommodating, even though I haven't brought any of my own containers. Also, crucially, my shop comes to about a tenner – so not much more than a normal shop. After forgetting to take it out with me for the first three days, I also remember to bring my KeepCup, and get my first totally plastic-free iced coffee from the café next door.
My next big challenge comes in the form of cleaning the bathroom: although I've replaced my environmentally-unfriendly Fairy Liquid with an organic alternative, I'm not quite ready to branch out into the world of totally natural cleaning, mostly because this involves eschewing usual products such as bleach and Mr Muscle for cleaning vinegar and bicarbonate of soda. Ingrid, however, swears by it, so if you're feeling earthlier than me, please feel free to give this a go in your own home.
With our departure from the EU and its policies imminent, our government is trying hard to look tough on plastic, but it's hard not to see almost everything in Theresa May's 25-year environment plan as a surface-level gimmick.
A focus on straws and coffee cups is all well and good, but these policies are undermined by the fact that recycling rates in the UK are actually decreasing, mostly as a result of Conservative cuts to council funding, which leaves them without adequate resources for recycling the gigantic amounts of waste we create. And why aim for select "plastic-free aisles" at supermarkets instead of just going all out and banning unnecessary packaging?
George Monbiot rightly argues in the Guardian that the oxymoron of "clean growth" at the heart of the plan means that anything positive will be negated, as "the more an economy grows, the more resources it will consume". Ultimately, this is the crux of the problem. We need to consume less and change the way we live to be more in tune with the planet and its finite resources.
It's hard news to swallow, but our late-capitalist culture of immediate gratification, convenience and hyper-consumerism is ruining the planet. At best, eco-friendly consumerism is a way to make a small impact; at worst, it's a scapegoating of responsibility from governments and corporations onto the consumer, who must now buy even more stuff to save the planet – and it's not cheap; a KeepCup costs an average of £20.
Current government policy also means it is taxpayers, rather than industry, who pay 90 percent of recycling costs. The only policy where responsibility that doesn't lie with consumers in the government’s plan is a "suggestion" from a committee to the government for corporations to take more responsibility.
Imogen is clear about the need for further corporate and government responsibility: "The industry needs to take more ownership on what they're making and putting into circulation," she says. "When they're making a product, they should be thinking, 'At the end of its life, what's going to happen to it? How can we make sure it's going to be reused or that it doesn't end up in the ocean or create pollution? Is it environmentally safe?' Governments need to enforce all of this – so, for example, the 5p bag charge in the UK, which reduced bag usage by 80 percent and also created a lot of fruitful discussion about why we're having it."
Ingrid also became aware of the extent of the problem when she started her zero-waste journey: "I started checking actual statistics on recycling in the UK – all the manufacturers say things are fully recyclable, but they're often not. There is so much of this material, and most boroughs don't have the capabilities to process all of it, so most of the plastic is not actually recycled even if it is recyclable. Making no rubbish is the best option, not trying to recycle or deal with it afterwards."
By now, it's becoming increasingly clear that the key to eco-friendly living is a lot of preparation and foresight (along with a healthy amount of time and money). Remembering to buy meat (if you eat it) from the butcher and then defrosting it for dinner; remembering to pack your KeepCup, your water bottle, your reusable straw and your shopping bag; being able to afford to spend four hours of your week wandering around various stores to buy everything you need to run a household.
Until zero-waste stores become more common, it's hard to imagine the average person having the time to shop totally plastic-free, much less people on low-incomes with multiple jobs and families to feed. Essentially, our plastic-wrapped world is the natural outcome of the lives we now lead: convenience-based, disposable, time-poor and increasingly more and more detached from the processes that create our food and clothing.
I'm approaching the end of my (attempted) "plastic-free" week, and I can't lie: I'm starting to feel a little hopeless. Single-use and un-recyclable plastic is everywhere, a problem that is further compounded when I have to make a last-minute international work trip. I've used plastic for my liquids bag, drunk two plastic water bottles and had a Starbucks before I've even got to Berlin (I have not packed my KeepCup, because it is actually quite heavy, sorry). The next two days are decidedly not plastic-free, although I am refused a straw for environmental reasons when I order a Coke, which meant that *Carrie Bradshaw voice* I couldn't help but wonder: are straws the new cigarettes?
Before I end on my depressing conclusion about the state of the Earth, let's be clear about one thing: we can ALL be doing a bit more to help prevent our planet spontaneously bursting into flames, or all our beaches becoming covered with plastic water bottles.
Stop fucking littering for a start (seriously, if you are still throwing rubbish on the ground in this day and age, you deserve the death penalty). If you have the expendable income, invest in a reusable water bottle and coffee cup. Whenever possible, say no to straws, plastic cutlery and plastic bags. Try to do a weekly shop at a local store that doesn't wrap everything in cellophane rather than running to a chain supermarket at the end of the day to pick up dinner – particularly when it comes to fruit and vegetables. If your hair/skin type allows it, replace your toiletries with ones that use either plant-based materials for packaging, or none at all, such as Lush's packaging-free range.
Ultimately, however, aside from individual consumer action, we need a huge rethinking in the way we live our lives so that we consume less. We need more money invested into adapting and progressing recycling methods, supermarkets to be forced to cut down on plastics immediately and corporations bound by law to a "polluter pays principle", which sees them having to take responsibility for the waste they create. Until we have genuine change at government and policy level, saying no to a plastic straw is sadly going to be but a drop in the increasingly-polluted ocean.