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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