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Money & Rights

Giving up plastic

Plastic pollution is wreaking havoc on our world, but how easy is it to give up plastic products? Jo Cooper reports on the small changes that can help

We all know the damage plastic can do, thanks in part to David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2, which showed the impact it is having on our oceans and sea life. Hardly a day passes without a story on the news involving plastics or other pollutants poisoning our fish or being ingested by mammals

Sadly, we’ve become a throwaway society. In Britain alone, we work our way through an alarming 13 billion plastic bottles and 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups every year. Many of these can’t be recycled and end up in landfill or even washed out to sea.

Recently it emerged that many of the plastic food containers we wash out and put in our recycling bins cannot be recycled. For example, the mixture of plastics used in many yoghurt pots and ready-meal trays limits the ability of councils to recycle them.

The Local Government Association is calling for manufacturers to work with councils and develop a plan to stop unrecyclable packaging from entering the environment in the first place. Councillor Judith Blake, LGA environment spokesperson, says: “We’ve been calling for producers of unrecyclable material to develop a plan to stop this entering the environment for years. That needs to happen urgently, but the Government should consider banning low-grade plastics, particularly those for single use, to increase recycling.”

“We need a collaborative approach where together we can reduce the amount of material having an impact on the environment. But if industry won’t help us get there, the government should step in to help councils ensure we can preserve our environment for generations to come.”

Friends of the Earth plastics campaigner Julian Kirby agrees: “Unfortunately too many manufacturers are still putting their own convenience and profits ahead of our environment – despite huge public concern about plastic pollution.

“Ultimately we need to phase out the use of all but the most essential plastics. At the very least firms must make sure plastic packaging can be recycled – and pay their fair share for ensuring this happens.

“At the moment companies only contribute a tiny amount to the cost of recycling schemes – leaving Council Tax payers to pay the lion’s share.”

“Ministers must make manufacturers and retailers do far more to tackle the scourge of plastic packaging.”

The Government has already banned manufacture of products (such as cosmetics) containing microbeads and has announced plans to outlaw the sale of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds.

The Chancellor is expected to announce new taxes in the Autumn Statement designed to encourage manufacturers to use more recycled plastic in their products, and discourage them from using packaging which is hard to recycle, such as black plastic food trays.

Treasury Minister Robert Jenrick said the Government was looking at ‘smart, intelligent incentives’ to get plastic producers to take responsibility.

“Tackling the scandal of plastic pollution is one of our top priorities and we know the public is right behind us,” he added.

We can only hope the Government acts on its word and the Chancellor takes some bold action.

Ditch the plastic

While government, manufacturers and companies seriously need to tackle the problem of single-use plastic, we can play our part in using less plastic and recycling responsibly.

Here are a few ways to reduce your plastic footprint:

1) Invest in a green bag for shopping. Now supermarkets charge for carrier bags, there’s been a massive 85 per cent drop in their use and most of us have switched to more environmentally-friendly ones like jute or canvas bags.

2) Buy locally produced food – order your milk in glass bottles from your milkman and consider buying meat from local farm shops or butchers rather than packaged meat from the supermarket. For information on the former, see: (www.findmeamilkman.net).

3) Choose cardboard or paper rather than plastic when you shop. So pick pasta in a box instead of a bag, or detergent in a box instead of a bottle. And consider whether you need those small bags for fruit and veg. Most items can go straight into your basket.

4) Re-educate yourself to drink from a reusable water bottle filled from the tap (which is just as safe as bottled water in the UK) rather than buying endless plastic bottles of mineral water. Stainless steel water bottles cost from £11, from: (www.onegreenbottle.com).

5) Carry a reusable coffee cup if you can’t resist a caffeine hit from the local coffee shop. An estimated 2.5 billion coffee cups are thrown away every year in the UK and fewer than one in 400 are recycled. Some cafes now offer a discount if you bring your own cup. Huskup makes reusable cups from natural rice husks. The cups, priced £10.95, last for years and at the end of their life they simply biodegrade: (www.Huskup.com).

6) Switch from plastic to silicon bags. Stasher reusable food storage bags are made from silicon and can be used for storing, freezing or even cooking food. One medium sandwich-size bag costs £12.99, from Lakeland: (www.lakeland.co.uk).

7) Say no to plastic straws and educate grandchildren to do the same. We’ve all seen enough turtles and other sea life with straws stuck up their noses. Or, as an alternative, buy paper straws or consider reusable silicon straws. A set of six reusable silicon straws plus a cleaning brush for them costs £11.99, available from: (www.boobalou.co.uk).

8) Can’t live without clingfilm? You can now, with beeswax wraps. Ideal for wrapping sandwiches or covering food, beeswax wrap protects food from air and moisture and lets it breathe. A variety pack of three differentsized wraps costs £14, from: (www.boobalou.co.uk).

9) Change to eco-friendly cotton buds. The plastic variety all too often get flushed down loos and end up in the sea. Cotton and bamboo buds are 100 per cent biodegradable so can be put into your compost bin; 100 buds cost £2.25, from: (www.andkeep.com)

10) Say goodbye to your disposable plastic toothbrush. You can now buy toothbrushes made from bamboo. From £4 available at: (www.andkeep.com)

11) Try giving up plastic pump soap dispensers and opt for traditional bars of soap instead, but make sure you buy soap wrapped in waxed paper or card, not plastic.

12) Use refill stations for detergents.It’s harder to give up plastic containers containing washing-up liquid or laundry detergent, but there are now some places around the country where you can refill your old bottles. Try a postcode search at: (www.zerowastehome.com).

13) Choose natural fabrics. A lot of clothing these days is made from synthetic materials such as polyester, acrylic and Lycra. In other words, plastic fabric. These synthetic fabrics create microfibre pollution when washed. So next time you’re shopping, try to opt for organic cotton, hemp, wool and other natural fibres.

14) Buy refills of products such as air fresheners, coffee and herbs and spices. It will all help to reduce your plastic usage.

15) Give up the balloons. Sorry, kids, but what goes up also comes down and chokes some poor creature in the ocean or on the land.

Recycling headaches

It’s not always easy to know exactly what can and what can’t be recycled. The problem is while some things can be recycled in one area of the country, they can’t be in another. It’s all rather confusing at times. To find out what items your council can recycle, see their website for details.

According to the Local Government Association, some plastic products use combinations of materials that make them extremely hard to recycle. For example, while microwave meal and meat packaging can be re-sorted and recycled using an optical scanner beforehand, and the scanner can sort any colour other than black, manufacturers intentionally use black packaging for aesthetic reasons.

Other problem plastics include some margarine and ice cream tubs which contain polypropylene which is very difficult to recycle. Yoghurt pots too can be tricky as they often contain a mixture of two polymers which make them harder to recycle.

It’s not just plastics that are the problem. Friends of the Earth plastics campaigner Julian Kirby says: “Britain is a nation of crisp-eaters – but crisp wrappers can’t be recycled and often end up polluting our oceans and waterways and blowing around in our streets, parks and countryside.

“Manufacturers must take rapid steps to ensure that crisp packets can be recycled. We can’t keep making our environment pay the price for their inaction.”

Protect the planet

We all have a responsibility to do what we can to protect our precious world, whether that’s educating children to put litter in bins or making sure we are recycling as much as possible. However , it’s possible to go further by joining groups that campaign for change or helping to clear plastic and other rubbish from our countryside and beaches. For example, the Marine Conservation Society organises Beachwatch beach-cleanevents around the UK.

Another initiative involves walkers carrying a special tote bag in their rucksacks to pick up litter left on the mountains, moors and countryside of the UK. Julia Bradbury, Britain’s face of walking and co-founder of The Outdoor Guide, has teamed up with Trail magazine, Keep Britain Tidy and others to promote litter-picking.

To order your canvas tote Litter Heroes bag, log on to: (www.theoutdoorguide.co.uk/ litter-bag-sign-up). Postage and packing cost £2.75.

Find out more:

Friends of the Earth is running a Plastic-free Friday campaign with lots of tips on how you can avoid plastic in your daily living: (https://act.friendsoftheearth.uk/act/join-plasticfreefriday)

Greenpeace is asking people to sign its ‘Ditch throwaway plastic packaging!’ petition aimed at UK supermarkets that currently generate 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging every year: (www.greenpeace.org.uk)

Plastics Watch brings together the best content from around the BBC to help you discover everything you want to know about plastics but didn’t know who to ask

Plastic Planet campaigns for plastic-free aisles in supermarkets: (www.aplasticplanet.com)

The Marine Conservation Society organises beach-cleaning events where volunteers help to clear rubbish as well as collect valuable data about marine litter: (www.mcsuk.org).

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