I wonder how many people have made planet-friendly resolutions for 2022? It seems likely that reducing plastic use will feature high on many lists. For those raised in the shadow of the ‘make do and mend’ culture that lingered long into the post-war years, there is often a palpable sense of guilt about the amount of waste created by modern life.

From make do and mend we moved on into a culture of single use, disposable, built-in obsolescence. The reality of several decades of prolific wastage and dumping of non-biodegradables was mostly hidden from view. Then the plastic bubble burst as investigative journalists and filmmakers brought it all home in unforgettable images. In 1997 Charles Moore discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; a vast area of ocean with accumulated plastic debris. British diver Rich Horner filmed himself swimming through dense plastic waste off the coast of Bali in Indonesia. David Attenborough brought us Blue Planet. We saw images of creatures whose guts had been virtually replaced by our plastic junk. 

One of the main sources of the problem is food packaging. Many of us try to get as much as possible from independent grocery stores and street markets, but until the major supermarkets come on board fully, then plastic-free will remain a somewhat niche market. However, supermarkets respond to demand, and to what appears to be the prevailing culture. The more consumers reject over-packaged goods, the more effort manufacturers and shops will be willing to make in order to keep our custom. So how are they doing so far?

Morrisons started selling loose fruit and vegetables next to the packaged produce at the end of 2019. Before rolling the scheme out they conducted a ten-month trial and discovered that their customers approved. Many shops are now carrying re-usable and washable produce bags so that shoppers can separate their onions from their bananas. And we know we’ve come full circle when we see the good old paper bags back on the shelves. 

Also in 2019, Waitrose trialled refill stations where customers fill up their own bags and containers and pay by weight. It was a great success with 90% of customers wanting the scheme to continue. This enthusiasm was backed up by a 2020 Greenpeace poll finding that 90% of UK citizens were in favour of plastic-free packaging. Iceland has pledged to get rid of all plastic packaging from their own-brand products by 2023. They also plan to get rid of the black plastic trays, which cause a lot of problems at recycling centres. 

Recycling: created an industrial addiction to this indestructible, toxic material

In January 2021, Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigative Agency released their third report on supermarkets and plastic packaging. The analysis was broken down into seven areas from recycling to transparency. In terms of actual plastic reduction, M&S was a clear winner with a remarkable 67% reduction. Waitrose was just behind them with 60%. All others had a lot of catching up to do. Disappointingly, Morrison’s did badly with their plastic use actually increasing, mainly due to plastic bags and water bottles. 

Ban the Bag

In 2002 Bangladesh was the first country to ban single use plastic bags as they caused floods. Many African countries have already banned the throwaway bags including Rwanda and Kenya. Ireland was the first country
to introduce a plastic bag tax in 2002. It led to a 90% reduction in bag use – one billion fewer bags. The money raised went into environmental projects. It was 2015 when England finally imposed a 5p tax on each bag. By this time we were using 8.5 billion bags per year. In Denmark, the bags are so expensive people have virtually stopped buying them. 

The one thing that assuages guilt for many of us is the fact that we can separate our rubbish from recyclable materials. We do this with varying degrees of care and attention to detail. The most assiduous check the codes and wash everything that goes in the green bin. But perhaps underlying the dedicated time and effort is the slight concern that it may not be worth it. We’ve all heard tales of recycling ending up burnt, in landfill or exported.

Losing the Plastic Plot

At the end of 2021, Boris Johnson told a group of schoolchildren that plastic recycling didn’t work and wasn’t the answer to the problem. He said the only solution was to cut down on plastic consumption. The Recycling Association said Johnson had “completely lost the plastic plot”. But others praised the PM for his transparency. According to Sian Sutherland of ‘A Plastic Planet’, “Less than 10% [of plastic] is actually recycled in the UK”. 

CREDIT: Mumtahina Tanni/Pexels

Recycling systems, sold to the public as a solution, helped justify over-production and “created an industrial addiction to this indestructible, toxic material”. Household recycling remains important but our plastic consumption far outweighs our capacity to cope with the waste.

Dumping Grounds 

Johnson had actually paved the way for a more honest debate. The rubbish was out of the bag. We were simply producing and consuming way too much stuff. According to Greenpeace, well over half our ‘recycled’ plastic is actually sent overseas. Over recent years China, Malaysia, Pakistan, Turkey, Poland and Indonesia have been taking in most of our plastic junk. But there are limits to how much they can deal with. Much of the trash ends up in landfill or waterways. China called a halt to most plastic waste imports in 2018 due to pollution and contamination. In 2021 Malaysia’s environment minister Yeo Bin Yin said the country would no longer be “a dumping ground to the world”. In 2020 seven countries including Indonesia requested containers of UK waste be returned. 

From January 2021, the EU banned shipments of plastic waste from EU to non-OECD countries. The UK is the second biggest producer of plastic waste in the world after the USA. However, despite promises of maintaining environmental standards post-Brexit, the government has relaxed the rules and will continue to ship waste to developing countries. Hopefully there could be less of it as the government will bring in a UK Plastic Packaging Tax from April this year. 

Facts and Action

• France has banned plastic packaging on more than 30 types of fruit and vegetables from this month. The ban is expected to reduce plastic waste by one billion items annually.

• Around the world more than one million birds and 100,000 sea mammals and turtles die annually from eating or getting entangled in our plastic waste.

• Only 30% of household waste is reused, recycled, or composted in Hastings. A lot of rubbish ends up on our beaches.

• Strandliners is a local volunteer led group founded by Andy Dinsdale in 2012. Beginning as a beach-cleaning project it has now moved into research, monitoring pollution along our shores. 

Zero waste stores 

Trinity Refills is open Thursday to Saturday at 41a Cambridge Road.

Wonderfill is at 35 King’s Road, St Leonards-on-Sea.

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