We need to talk about plastic

Today I want to discuss plastic… it’s in the news a lot at the moment and it is always portrayed as being evil. Well, I want to say that I disagree. Please stick with me on this and I’ll explain why I’m worried about the huge number of “plastic-free [insert town name here]” initiatives that are springing up and the way that plastic is presented currently in the media.

Language is very important, what we call things affects the way we perceive them. Call it “global warming” and the immediate image (in the UK at least) is nicer summers; call it “climate change” and that just means things are going to be different, and, after all, we all know that “a change is as good as a rest”; but call it “catastrophic climate breakdown” and there are no comfortable images to hide behind. See what I mean?

The limery… a good use of plastic?

And so to “plastic-free” towns and cities. I know this term has been coined because it’s short and snappy, but it’s also very misleading. Think what your town would be without any plastic; think what your home would be without plastic, First, all my windows would fall out, I wouldn’t be writing this because I wouldn’t have a computer; my sewing machine (mainly metal) wouldn’t have any knobs; the limery wouldn’t exist… I could go on, but you get the drift. The idea of being plastic-free, just doesn’t make sense in our modern world. What we really need to do is stop using plastic indiscriminately and unnecessarily. I don’t even mean that we should abandon single-use plastics, because there are cases where they do much more good than harm: minimising food waste, for example.

However, there are many, many uses of plastic (and other materials) that are completely unnecessary. Ages ago I wrote a post about buying a new set of earphones and the amount of packaging (plastic and card); once unwrapped I was able to fit the entire contents into a matchbox although the original pack was measured 13 x 14 x 4.2cm. Many items that don’t need any packaging at all (cauliflowers, for example) come surrounded by it and many items that are in a container (e.g. a bottle) have some additional card or plastic surrounding them. Lets cut down on such unnecessary use of any materials, plastic or otherwise.

Lots of products come with a plastic “tool” in every pack – balls for dispensing laundry liquid in the washing machine, for example, or scoops in tubs of stain remover. In all likelihood, the ball for laundry liquid will last hundreds of washes and certainly doesn’t need replacing with every bottle. These unnecessary items are bound to end up being discarded because, even if you can think of an alternative use for a few of them, there is a limit. So, they end up in landfill or going to be recycled.

And, of course, there are things that we really should just stop making because they are completely unnecessary and highly damaging to the environment. My greatest irritation in this respect is balloons – especially those filled with helium, a rare and precious element in itself. And the idea of deliberately releasing ballons at events makes me so cross – we might as well go and chuck our plastic waste in the local river.

However, I still think plastic is a good thing when used wisely. In addition, we have a lot of the stuff already around and simply stopping using plastic items does not address this fact. I occasionally read of people discarding all their plastic containers in favour of glass and metal in the kitchen and I think of all the waste being created. There are issues with storing food in plastic (see, for example the efsa information on Bisphenol A, a chemical found in many plastic food containers and linings of food containers such as steel cans), but these can, to some extent, be mitigated by enclosing the food in another wrapper before putting it into the plastic container and also ensuring that you never heat food in the microwave in plastic containers. As with most things, the best way to reduce your impact on the environment is to keep using what you have and not just throw it away and buy something that’s marketed as being more environmentally friendly (hello “greenwash”).

But, what about all that plastic that we are finished with? What about all that plastic that’s polluting our seas and land? Well, here’s the thing: it already exists and we need to think very carefully about how we deal with it. Currently, far too much plastic is simply discarded – being complacent because it goes in the recycling bin is not the answer. Recycling is not the magic solution we would like to imagine, and recycling only works for certain types of plastic under certain circumstances. Similarly, adopting the attitude that all plastic is evil and to be shunned is not helpful. What we need is a sensible approach to dealing with the plastic that has come to the end of its useful life and to that end, we need to use it again, Without a market for recycled plastic products, there is no incentive to do anything other than discard it. So, if you want to buy something made of plastic, have a look to see if there’s a recycled version and, if not, contact the manufacturers and tell them you want to see one.

Some of the big pots already in use for growing peas and beans

Recently I wanted to get some large pots to increase our available growing space. Now, whilst terracotta pots look good, they are heavy and cumbersome to move, especially when full of compost and containing a plant. I was, therefore, delighted to find some 35 litre pots, with handles and made of recycled plastic. It seems to me that this is exactly the sort of thing we should be using recycled plastic for – they are destined to have a long and productive life and deliver many years of vegetable-growing.

So, yet again we return to the 3Rs, in order of priority: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.

REDUCE: if we don’t need it, let’s not produce it in the first place.

REUSE: once we have an item, let’s get the maximum use possible out of it – for its original purpose or for something new. Single-use items are bad for the environment and should be avoided unless absolutely necessary (which is sometimes the case… let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water).

RECYCLE: when we’ve had the maximum possible use out of a particular item, let’s recycle the materials and treat them as a valuable resource.

And this is not just the responsibility of individuals – this is something we have to demand from producers and politicians. So, as well as RRR, do some writing. I encourage you to tell manufacturers and retailers what you want: let them know that simply substituting one thing for another is not good enough: we want to see a reduction in packaging, we want to be able to have containers refilled, for example. In addition, let’s try to force the issue by changing the law – write to your elected representatives.

So, what plastic items would you ban? What alternatives would you prefer? And who is responsible?

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31 Comments

  1. Wowsah!!!! What an excellent post. it’s the most sensible thing I’ve read in a long time. May I share this on my blog?

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  2. Ann Pole

     /  June 13, 2019

    I’m with you Jan, in all you have said. For the Peach House we had plastic assembled in Hinckley (though I don’t know where it comes from, I doubt it is too far) or a long lasting wood grown in New Zealand and manufactured in Poland. The local ones provided local income for local people, and the whole construction saves Co2 in heat saved – without regular maintenance.
    And balloons? Yup, ban them. Totally

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    • It’s so true – I had a very long discussion with our builder of the relative merits of wood vs plastic for the limery – in the end, the local company, the minimal maintenance and the heat retention won the day. Our lovely builder did, however, use scraps left over from the other projects for the under-floor and wall insulation and the floor is the reclaimed flags from the patio that previously occupied the space. And, of course, we’ve had four years of growing, of photosynthesis, of reduced food miles and simply enjoying the space 🙂

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      • Ann Pole

         /  June 15, 2019

        Totally. Our builder didn’t have any left over bits to use, but the skip he put on our drive was a gold mine – he put stuff in, we took it out! Had some amazing materials. In the end, he just stacked things next to it and let us decide!

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  3. I’m currently very consciously thinking about the fourth R that can be added in front of the three others: REFUSE, REDUCE, REUSE, RECYLE.
    One of the local bakeries has just started allowing their salespeople to hand the breads over the counter unpackaged – for customers to put into their own bags/containers. That’s quite a bit of packaging I don’t need to carry home and later to carry out again.

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    • Absolutely, we Refuse in many circumstances. Our local grocery sells all sorts of things unpackaged: bread/pastries, oils (olive and sunflower), seeds and dried fruits, fresh fruit and veg and various other things and we do our best to take our own containers… I guess we just need more shops who are happy to do this.

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    • Patricia Collins

       /  June 14, 2019

      Thanks for alerting us to this useful word – ‘refuse’ or perhaps I should say words for bothe meanings/readings are so relevant to greening our lives. Refuse- to deny, Refuse- rubbish.

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  4. So much sense written here. Along with nose people I’m doing all I can to reduce waste, reusing whatever I can, and only buying new after much consideration.
    Using what we already have is important. Also recognising that sometimes plastic is a good, long lasting commodity. Just not great when it’s single use.

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    • I think that lots of individuals are doing their bit… now we need to bully manufacturers and shops making the effort too. Refillable containers really are the way to go for lots of food items and, as Kate says, doing away with those stupid clam things that you have to attack with a weapon to access a simple cable or whatever.

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  5. I’d like to see plastic water bottles banned. Let’s have public water dispensers where we can refill our steel or glass drinking bottles. And cling film/Glad Wrap; most of the time it’s not needed, and there are beeswax wraps or containers with lids. And those dratted sealed clam packs you get round stuff that have to be attacked with teeth, knives, scissors or whatever to open; really, why does a power cord need to come in a clam pack? I’d like to ban those plastic bags butchers put your meat into before they wrap it in paper; what’s wrong with the old fashioned waxed paper they used to use, which didn’t leak? I’d like to ban plastic cutlery, especially when it’s sealed inside a little plastic bag. I’ll bring my own, use bamboo alternatives, or eat with my fingers if necessary. Good post, Jan, there’s a lot of anti-plastic-hysteria out there.

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    • We are starting to find suppliers who do meat in old-fashioned butcher’s paper.
      I agree about bottled water – all that unnecessary plastic.

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      • … and the fact that the bottles from all that water end up polluting more water by being carelessly thrown away and getting washed into rivers and then the sea.

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  6. Totally agree! Great read. Don’t get me started on people tossing pur perfectly gold plastic to replace it with glass/wood etc. Just use it until it’s done! We’ve drastically reduced our meat intake and I’ve co.e to love Quorn but I wish they’d use card like Linda McCartney.

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    • It’s worth finding out about the packaging – if the plastic used is recycled and recyclable and if it’s keeping the Quorn fresh for longer, thus avoiding food waste, then that’s very different to if it’s made anew and is difficult to recycle. Perhaps you should write to the manufacturers and ask them some tough questions…or ask them publicly on a social media platform, I like to use Twitter for this purpose. We are doing our best to support local farmers who rear meat in such a way that the system sequesters carbon -it’s worth investigating grass-fed livestock if you want to consider ways to reduce carbon emissions.

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  7. Exactly! she says reading your article instead of finishing an essay on landscape conservation. (shhh don’t tell Barry). Should really be called landscape history reading. 😛

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  8. I like the idea of plant pots made of recycled plastic. I really don’t need any more pots but it would be nice to see them more readily available.

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  9. A really interesting post -you made some great points. Thank you.

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  10. Wow…An excellent post and I bang that drum for plastic waste and you have made me not rethink but certainly think outside the box…Sitting here and not even turning my head I can see as you say so much which is the plastic…my laptop, my mobile, my pen, my USB sticks, my fan(it’s hot) here, my Fitbit watch strap…I could go on…I have tweeted and tried to reblog but it won’t let me…I will keep trying if not I will link back..Have a great weekend 🙂

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  11. Thank you as always for putting things in perspective.
    I need to have some windows replaced and am thinking of aluminium over plastic as aluminium can be recycled once it reaches the end of its use.
    I had red cedar window frames put in when I did some earlier renovations, it turned out to be an expensive hassle getting them made. They look great except I get water staining in the bottom corners when it rains and there is a tiny bit of draught around the windows that open.
    I would be interested on your thoughts, given that you went for pastic in the limery.

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    • My issue with metal window frames is that they conduct heat so efficiently that I was concerned about losing heat from the limery and it getting especially cold in the winter. A friend had a sun porch made of wood and they have never managed to stop it leaking – the wood expands and contracts so much more than the glass that it’s a constant battle. The rest of our house has plastic-framed windows and they have been in for 30 years and still going strong, so it’s really not a short-lived plastic and discussions with our builder led me to the conclusion that plastic was the right choice for the limery. In addition, the one plastic-framed door that we had removed ended up being used by our builder n the greenhouse that he was constructing entirely from doors and windows he had removed, so is still going strong in a new life.

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  12. Great post and right on!

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  13. dezertsuz

     /  June 17, 2019

    I love your reasonable approach! My mother used to have a saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” I think that applies to plastic. I’m sitting in my living room being cooled by a fan made of plastic, drinking water from a plastic container, which I reuse over and over, and surrounded by other things that are plastic and that are reused items, many times.

    Some of my beads sit in one of those plastic divided boxes that Lunchables come in, for instance. I shop in Aldi and bring my own cloth bags, but I have some old plastic ones in there that I keep reusing, too. The market down the street also has a bin for tossing them to be recycled into new bags. It isn’t plastic that’s evil, it’s what we do with it, how we dispose of it, and all the things you mentioned here. Extra packaging – ugh! How often I see that! That’s a place we need to focus!

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  14. Thanks for this sensible post. Like Kate, I also shudder to think about the millions of plastic water bottles being used in countries where the tap water is perfectly safe to drink.

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