“Progress has been made by two flames that have always been burning in the human heart. The flame of anger against injustice, and the flame of hope that you can build a better world.” Tony Benn
I am aware that a post on reducing plastic may may some people feel a bit eye rolly. Like when your dad started talking about you getting a pension when you were in your twenties. It may seem a bit over cautious, and not something to worry about right now. And a poll by the National Centre for Social Research earlier this year would inidicate that lots of people feel this way – it concluded that the majority of people in Britain know about climate change and acknowledge a human component, but are overall ‘relatively indifferent and apathetic’ about it. (Barasi, 2017). Whilst this is depressing for those of us in panic mode, we cannot afford to sit around being depressed. There simply isn’t the time. We have to change mindsets, and fast. At the risk of sounding like Sarah O’Connor in Terminator 2, every single one of us is in grave danger. But I am still clinging to the hope that progress can still be made, and that the flames of anger and hope are still burning. The alternative is simply unthinkable.
Last week a programme on Radio 4 indicated that 20% of people are very worried about climate change and are actively trying to do something about it, another 20% don’t believe that it is actually that bad or don’t care even if it is, and 60% do care but feel that their individual efforts won’t make enough of a difference and so they don’t bother. This is GOOD NEWS because it means that if we can persuade those 60% that their efforts will make a difference, (and they will), then that’s 80% of people who could be doing something about it, and that would really change things.
I know that most life lists are long. There are SO MANY things to do and there is so much to worry about. I know that many people live in poverty and literally cannot care about the state of the planet because they are just trying to survive. I know that there are health issues, and unhealthy marriages, and that there is loneliness and loss, and a lot of pain. But this post is for anyone who feels that they are lucky enough to be in a position in their life to make some positive changes.
The IPCC’s report published last week concluded that in order to avoid environmental disaster the world must embark on a ‘World War II-level effort’ to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Because of the reasons mentioned above I can’t see how we can do this at full capacity, but for those of us who are able and willing the ways we can help are almost endless. We can do the obvious things; drive only when absolutely necessary, fly much less, FaceTime instead of travelling to meetings, switch to the greenest energy companies we can find, insulate our homes, preserve electricity and water, and use Ecosia instead of Google, but the single biggest thing that anyone can do is to adopt a vegan diet. Cutting out meat and dairy will slash your personal emissions by 70%. If this still seems just too impossible then I am sure you can see the sense in a least trying to cut down.
This problem is huge and you only have so much time to give me, and so for now I am going to focus on reducing our plastic waste. Plastic is an extraordinary material. It’s cheap, cheerful, and colourful, and because you can make into all kinds of shapes you can make ANYTHING out of it – and we do. Lightweight, strong and extremely hardwearing, plastic can in fact be more environmentally friendly than alternatives for some things, for example when used to build homes and vehicles. Some plastic packaging actually saves energy too – the milkman switched to plastic bottles because it meant using much less fuel than when he transported heavy glass bottles around – and some plastics are treasured – you’d be hard pressed to find anyone slagging off lego wouldn’t you. There are also those who would argue that plastic packaging prevents food waste and since we still seem to have an insaitiable appetite for imported food, this may well be true. However, when it’s used to make items which are ultimately designed to be thrown away, plastic is hugely destructive. Once we’ve tossed it aside and forgotten all about it, plastic exists FOREVER.
Many of us saw the documentary “Drowning In Plastic.” (If not you can see it on BBC Iplayer HERE.) I don’t know about you but the scale of the destruction took my breath away, made me cry and kept me awake long into the night. By 2048 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. We are quite literally, trashing our beautiful planet, and we have to stop. A lot of people argue that unless the US and China and other powerful countries get behind this issue that there is little point in us trying. We do need alternatives to fossil fuels and we must vote for those in power who will fight for change (and we need to because Theresa May’s plans to eradicate avoidable plastic by 2042 are NOT good enough). But our every day actions do matter as well – the Thames alone pumps out 18 tonnes of rubbish into the sea every year, and now China is no longer taking our plastic waste then we have to take responsibility for it ourselves.
We can’t do it alone, but by acting as individuals our efforts make up a chain that is much more significant than we think. Just look what happened with the plastic bag ban! It started a domino effect. It can happen again. You refusing a plastic straw the next time you go for a drink will send a message to the barman who may then consider switching to paper straws. Taking a metal water bottle to the gym may encourage other gym bunnies to look into buying their own. Using a reusable cup in your local coffee shop may encourage the barista to think about the disposable ones he is handing out left right and centre which may well lead him to consider making changes in his business. One person’s small changes become their neighbour’s changes, and so it goes on. You are a very important part of an absolutely essential chain. Your actions matter. (My hope is that it will soon become deeply awkward to be seen with a bottle of Evian or a Starbucks cup. Mortifying even. In an ideal world – social suicide.)
Historically speaking, human behaviour change can be slow. I know that we have to be the change, that we need to be patient and wait for people to finally clock onto the severity of the situation themselves – but we are running out of time, and so we need to hurry people along. The politician wastes no time on those who will never vote in their favour. So forget the 20% of people who don’t care, let’s not waste time trying to get them on board. Let’s focus on our own behaviour, and then on those who potentially could become willing to act. It all starts with the mind and perspective and so we will start there.
Firstly we need to know what goes on once our recycling is taken away by our friendly bin men. Out of sight and out of mind it may be, but plastic is complex and made up of all sorts of unsortable different plastics and so recycling it is expensive and time consuming. Because of this, only 9% of plastics are recycled and even then usually only once. It is FAR cheaper just to make more of the stuff and so that’s what we do over 90% of the time. So recycling should really be considered a very last resort. Remember ‘Reduce, re-use and recycle’ – and in that order. And REDUCE is the important one!! It means – try not to even buy it in the first place. I can hear you saying ‘Crikey’ under your breath, but once we start looking at a plastic bottle mineral water as an object that will take between 450 and 1000 years to break down, if it breaks down at all, and most plastics do not, then we start to question whether in fact we really need to buy it, which may then lead onto us buying a reusable bottle. This is then noticed by others – we all love to copy each other don’t we, and stainless steel water bottles are oh so cool right now. And so the chain goes on. If you consider that the yoghurt pot you had in your packed lunch on your very first day of school in 1981 is still sitting somewhere, either under mounds in landfill or floating about in pieces in the sea, you start to question everything you buy. Soon you become more conscious about avoidable purchases. Perhaps you’ll find yourself looking at the plastic bottle of coke you usually choose with your meal deal and wondering where it will be ONE THOUSAND YEARS from now. Maybe you’ll find yourself asking if you can really justify hastily buying those plastic encased croissants that will be eaten a matter of minutes if the packaging will exist forever, and perhaps you’ll pick up some loose apples instead. Your behaviour will start to match your thought processes, and that’s how habits form. Soon you will be questioning everything you buy and asking yourself those really important questions; do I really need this, can I reuse it when I’m done, can I recycle it and how, and where will it be after I am dead and gone? How would I feel if I had to store ALL THE PLASTIC I have ever used? (Asking yourself these questions often means you save a lot of money as well as sealife.)
My thinking has changed a lot in a short time. I remember wanting a new, warmer duvet for my daughter last Autumn. I planned a trip to M&S. I was going to have a coffee in the café and make a morning of it. I was excited about it (because this is what you get excited about when you are nearly 40). Then I looked at the one on her bed, about to be discarded. What would happen to it? Could I really justify getting a new one? She had three quilts lovingly made by friends, as well as two blankets in the cupboard. I had a little think, and then I mentally cancelled the shopping trip and layered up her bed until it was gorgeously snug and cosy. Then smiling, I went downstairs to make myself a coffee.
Changing our thoughts changes our behaviour. We need to be thinking when we are shopping! There are so many changes that we can all make, and I am going to list as many as I can below. PRIZES IF YOU DO THEM ALL!! (NB the prizes are kisses.)
REUSABLE WATER BOTTLE AND COFFEE CUP
The most obvious and the most easy. Have fun picking them out and then use them with pride. Do not leave the house without either of them and you’ll never be caught short.
Buy local food in person
Online shopping is hugely convenient and I was a massive fan for a long time. But the amount of plastic packaging got worse as time went on, despite my pleading emails to head office, and I had no control over what I was receiving and so we stopped. Shopping in person allows you to take back control and involves the family more. (Even though you may well rather poke sticks into your eyes than take your children shopping, kids really need to be part of these conversations so that they grow up aware of how to avoid plastic and live more sustainably.) Most people can make the time to find a greengrocers, or visit a market each week. Supporting local organic producers and buying food that hasn’t flown wherever possible is better for our bodies but also means you are giving business to those who are working hard for a better world rather than to the supermarket giants – who are just not. If you are still buying meat, dairy and fish then take your own containers along with you to fill with at the counters instead of buying it plastic wrapped.
Look into getting a veg box delivered
Guy from Riverford has been working himself to the bone for years trying to grow the most eco friendly, seasonal, organic and plastic free produce that he can. I like all the veggie boxes but Riverford is my favourite because they only send you what has grown which forces you to eat seasonally and I love that. Plus Guy writes you a little letter each week.
Try loose tea
Nearly all tea bags on the market have a thin layer of polypropylene plastic around the edges to enable the bags to be sealed. Loose tea in a teapot will make you feel quaint. And it tastes better too.
Buy cans, jars and cardboard instead of plastic
Choose the glass bottle of ketchup over a the plastic one. Buy canned lentils instead of those ‘handy’ plastic pouches. Find the pasta that comes in a cardboard box. Instead of plastic wrapped pastry and croissants use Jus Roll (which is also dairy free!) Avoid multipacks of cans which are usually plastic wrapped for convenience. Sigh.
Find Zero waste stores and buy in bulk
Zero waste stores are popping up all over the place, you can find one local to you here – just tap in your postcode. Grab your jars and tins, and then take your kids and let them help you weigh out pasta, rice, grains, flours and dried fruit. We need to get back to doing it like Grandma did. Suma is the UK’s largest worker co-op with 7000+ ethically sourced, fairtrade and eco friendly products available to buy in bulk online. You can order with a group of friends to make it easier and more cost effective.
Seek out alternative packaging
Here in Holland I can buy all sorts of things in compostable packaging that looks like plastic but is actually made from tree sap. Flashy no? Many other alternatives are popping up. Whenever your time and budget allows it, do support these good ventures. Think of it like this; every single purchase we make is a vote for the kind of world we want to live in.
Grow your own
I feel like a criminal writing this one because I am so shit at this. But I try. Herbs are easiest.
Along with your stainless steel water bottle, pop a metal straw in your bag (we use these ones from Lakeland), and whip it out whenever you order a drink so that the staff and everyone else can see the statement you are making with it. Ditto with your own cutlery for take away places. You will feel like a knob the first time you do it. After that you will just feel proud, you’re a hero! Always have snacks that will fill you up so you aren’t tempted to buy shitty, processed, plastic wrapped crap when you are out and about. When you leave the house just make your current checklist longer; wallet, phone, keys, water bottle, coffee cup, straw, cutlery, snacks.
Use a cloth shopping bags– decide that from today you have a zero tolerance for plastic bags. Keep cloth or string ones in your bag, in your car, and strapped onto your bike so that you are never without.
Make your own
As vegans we get through a lot of hummous – some of the clichés are true – and so this was one of the first staples I learned to make from scratch. I also make oat milk and am on the way to making my own butter since it is proving impossible to find plastic and palm oil free dairy free spreads. When I have perfected this I will share the recipe! There are LOTS of things we buy without thinking, that if we really need we could make ourselves. I know how busy everyone all is but the United Nations could not have been any plainer – we need World War 2 level efforts here. We need to learn to wait for things, to make and mend, even to go without things. All in all I am sure you agree that in these times of apparent plenty, some making and waiting will be good for us.
If we choose out-of-season foods they will invariably be packaged in plastic so that they can survive their long haul journeys. Enjoy the plastic free food of the season you are in, and look forward with anticipation to the food of the next. You can always pick your own berries in the summer using your own containers, and then freeze them to tide you over. And Autumn is for blackberries which you can find on your Sunday walk in the woods. Sweetcorn is out until next Summer now, as are strawberries and raspberries, but having to wait for something usually makes it even more delicious.
Avoid relying on plastic wrapped convenience food by using the weekends to prepare food for the week ahead. Learn some vegetarian and vegan recipes. (Please. I will pay you.)
Loo Roll– If you know me at all you will have heard me harping on about Who Gives a Crap toilet paper for a long time now. Great for your bum, amazing for the planet – and you will never run out of loo roll again! There are absolutely no excuses now folks. It is no more expensive than other brands and so if you are not using this company then please do sign up right now.
Buying handwash and shower gel used to be something I did weekly without giving it a second thought. Now when I think of all those plastic bottles I bought sitting in landfill or in the sea somewhere I feel crushed. Such a ridiculous purchase – your average bottle of shower gel is mostly water! Switching to bars of soap instead is such a simple change to make. You can now buy shampoo and conditioner bars as well which like soap bars are highly concentrated and so last for months. (My local Dutch zero waste company has agreed to ship these to the UK so get in touch if you would like to order one.)
Toothbrushes– anyone with access to the internet will have seen all the new companies making bamboo toothbrushes. I have made myself keep all the old ones for cleaning – and to remind myself just how everlasting and plasticky there are.
Toothpaste– if you’re in the UK can use Euthymol which comes in a metal tube which should be incentive enough to embrace the hardcore taste. If that’s a no go consider dentabs which you can buy online here.
Deodorant– most people are now aware of the dangers of aluminium deodorants even if they have read all the bollocks their google search brings up. There are a plethora of natural deodorants to suit every budget available nowadays and many come without plastic. (Nuud is good and comes in a tube made of sugar cane but for those looking for something cheaper try Ben and Anna, which is available online or in health stores.
Make up remover pads and cotton buds– there are SO MANY zero waste stores online nowadays offering plastic free alternatives. Coconut oil is amazing at removing make up!
PLASTIC FREE PERIODS – in capitals because this is so important. Did you know that some sanitary pads contain up to four plastic bags worth of plastic? Or that half of all tampons, (along with wipes, cotton buds, plasters and ALL SORTS of other things) are being flushed down into our Victorian sewer systems which simply cannot cope – by one third of our population? It has got to stop. Now. I have been banging on about my Mooncup for nearly a decade now but to my dismay it is nowhere near becoming mainstream yet. Ladies – please consider using one, and then once you’ve fallen in love with it (which you will) then please bang onto your friends about it and let’s make some headway here. THINX are becoming more popular now too – if you invest then please shout about it. Friends – we need to tell everyone about our pants.
Make your own cleaning products
Packed with toxic chemicals, your average plastic bottle of kitchen or bathroom spray is as bad for you and your family as it is for the environment. Invest in stainless steel spray bottles and make your own instead. You can even make your own dishwasher detergent! This website is tremendously helpful, and you can contact my lovely friend Gus via her website to learn about how essential oils can transform your home and life.
Use a laundry egg
These save you using detergents which pour chemicals into the water system. You can add a few drops of essential oils to the little pellets that go inside so that you can still have the fresh smelling laundry you love. We use an eco egg which lasts for 720 washes – that’s just 3p per wash.
Use a washing bag
Every time we do a load of washing, up to 700,000 microplastics are washed off our clothes sand enter the water system. These end up in the ocean, and then in the bellies of sealife, and then, if you eat fish, inside your own body. The Guppy Friend bag is the best scientifically approved solution against microplastic pollution from washing. After each wash you will see the plastics on the bag which can then be gotten rid of safely.
Avoid cheap clothing
Fast fashion is the second largest polluter on earth. Toxic chemical waste causes water pollution and huge amounts of textiles end up in landfill, many of them containing plastic fibres. Buy less, buy second hand, and organise clothes swaps with your friends. They are much less wanky than they sound.
Keep kid’s clothes in circulation
If you are in London please consider supporting Little Village, and if not consider setting up a clothes swap system in your school or playgroup so that the little clothes don’t end up in landfill either.
Use washable nappies
Almost six million nappies a day, or two billion nappies a year, end up in landfill where they emit methane, and take about 500 years to decompose. Despite having dear friends in the cloth nappy industry I am ashamed to the very roots of my hair to say that my babies mostly wore disposable nappies. I was told that the energy needed to wash the cloth nappies cancelled out the benefits of using them – which is not true. I also used baby wipes, choosing the believe the marketing hype about how much more environmentally friendly there were compared to a decade ago. Every single nappy and wipe that I used are all still in existence somewhere, and they will be for a very, very long time. Everything I think about this I want to cry. There are many washable nappies on the market now and they all look absolutely amazing.
Refuse to buy plastic wrapped toys
With Christmas coming up this is going to be a biggie. Buying toys online has the same downsides as groceries – you cannot control the level of packaging. We are aiming for a plastic free Christmas this year and so buying second hand will be a good option. You could consider wooden toys instead of plastic ones if you’re buying for small children. (As for wrapping paper, each year we throw away 226,800 miles of the stuff – enough to stretch nine times around the world – and lots of it ends up in landfill. Use newspaper or old magazines instead and be PROUD to do so. You are trying to save the planet here!) I usually buy books for other people’s children instead of plastic toys, and always choose birthday cards that do not come in plastic.
Stop eating fish
We need to realise that protecting our oceans from plastic goes hand in hand with protecting the life within it. Fish are sealife, not seafood. The fishing industry is responsible for 46% of the discarded plastic in the ocean. So whilst ditching our own single use plastic is important, we need to consider our eating habits when it comes to fish too. This TED talk by the amazing Sylvia Earle explains more about why the oceans are in danger and what we need to do about it.
I am sure that there are more ideas – and I would love to hear your tips! And after changing our habits, the next part of the chain is conversation. We have to start talking about this. We have to put it at the forefront of all of our minds. The more united our effort, the less the demand on each individual. So if you do make any changes the coolest thing you can do is shout about it. Don’t be shy – you are awesome and you will inspire even those who pretend not to hear you. Talk about this problem when you’re having dinner with your friends, bring it up in conversations with colleagues. If you use social media, use it to share your efforts. You will feel less alone in this if you join zero waste Facebook groups and follow people who promote sustainable living on Instagram. As well as sharing our lives with each other we have to use social media as a tool to save our world and future now. Mention it throughout your day with your kids. They are the ones who we need to normalise this behaviour for after all. And encourage the people around you to do the same. It may be awkward, but look at the bigger picture and it will give you courage. Believe in the ripple effect. What you do matters.