Stylist questions whether single-use plastic will soon become as unacceptable as smoking indoors and investigates how we can cut down.
I was a waitress at a local cafe as a teenager. Every four weeks we took turns serving the smoking section and I wheezed my way through every shift (I have asthma), dodging fugs of smoke, picking up plates with cigarette butts pushed into egg yolks and watching as children shared teacakes and nicotine with their parents. Nights out often ended with rogue cigarette burns on your arm, and trains, aeroplanes and offices were all smoke-friendly. It’s only 11 years since the smoking ban came into effect, but those scenes already seem archaic. The ban prompted an almost two million drop in the number of smokers in the UK, and today only 15% of women smoke. It’s one of the sharpest social U-turns in history. And we’re about to experience an even bigger one.
Plastic has become our newest source of shame. Last week I was tutted at when I said yes, I did indeed need a bag for my avocados in the supermarket. My cheeks burned. It’s just over two years since charges for plastic bags were introduced (cutting our usage by 85%) and forgetting my cotton bag felt as socially unacceptable as asking for a lighter in a doctor’s surgery. We think of the scene of albatross parents unwittingly feeding plastic to their chicks in Blue Planet II. Justin Hofman’s award-winning photograph of a seahorse clinging to a bright pink cotton bud is in our minds. And it seems nearly every day brings a new addition to the horrifying roll call of plastic facts: by 2050 there will be as much plastic in the ocean as fish; a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute; a sperm whale found dead near Spain was found to have been killed by gastric shock after ingesting 29kg of plastic waste; microplastic from Scotland has been detected in Antarctica. Plastic, or specifically single-use plastic, is really starting to trouble us.
Daily routines are being reconsidered now we know that the tea we’re drinking probably contains plastic (almost 160 million teabags thrown away every day in the UK are made with polypropylene), the clothes we wear are responsible for most of the microplastics found in the ocean, our plastic toothbrushes take around 75 years to decompose, our chewing gum contains malleable plastic and our tampons will most likely make their way to a beach (on UK beaches there are nine plastic tampon applicators per km). Every day there is a shock discovery and something new to think about.
It’s only 70 years since plastic became a widely used material almost overnight, but it seems we’ll reject it as quickly as we adopted it. At a government level Theresa May has launched a 25-year plan to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste, companies such as Coca Cola and Pret have made public plans to address their plastic pollution, juice brand Press is pioneering new edible packaging, and all leading supermarkets have pledged to make significant reductions to their plastic waste. Even the Queen has banned straws and plastic water bottles across her estates. “It’s unprecedented for an environmental issue to be having a reaction on this scale. Blue Planet II was undoubtedly the tipping point; in China alone it was downloaded 180 million times,” says Will McCallum, author of How To Give Up Plastic (£4.99, Penguin) and head of oceans at Greenpeace UK.
“Everyone has had the experience of walking along a beautiful beach and seeing the household items they use every day destroying it. It’s a very tangible issue,” says McCallum. As such, many of us now carry a reusable water bottle, say no to plastic straws and ask the barista to fill our KeepCup rather than contribute to the 2.5 billion coffee cups that are thrown away every day in the UK (there’s plastic in the cups, not just the lids). We’re asking questions, sharing solutions and beginning to feel empowered enough to create change ourselves via beach clean-ups, plastic amnesties in offices and schools, and lobbying our supermarkets.
As our attitudes continue to shift, will buying a bottle of water with your lunch or tucking into a plastic tray of sushi soon become as socially unacceptable as smoking indoors? “I prefer to think of it as becoming socially acceptable to refuse plastic,” says McCallum. “But there’s no doubt the future of single-use plastic will look very different.” Shilpi Chhotray, senior communications officer for the movement Break Free From Plastic, says change is happening globally. “It’s becoming rarer to see people carrying plastic bags or for restaurants to stock plastic straws. It’s definitely the case in major cities. People are starting to directly associate that plastic water bottle with harming a turtle.”
The reality is that while plastic pots of mango fingers are madness, not all plastic is bad. Millions of lives have been saved by plastic medical equipment and sanitation. Experts like Professor Richard Thompson, head of international marine litter research at Plymouth University, stress we shouldn’t have kneejerk reactions: “If we banned plastic tomorrow, our food waste would increase dramatically.” Leading to, among other things, more wasted water and more methane released into the atmosphere.
We need to rethink our ‘Now, now, now!’ culture. “Just as you check the weather forecast for the day, you should check you have a reusable water bottle, cutlery and coffee cup. It’ll become second nature,” says Thompson. Chhotray agrees: “It’s going to take more planning ahead – bringing glass jars to the supermarket to fill up with cereals, making a shopping list and targeting plastic-free stores – but the more you can encourage friends, colleagues and neighbours to adopt plastic-free habits, the more it will become the new norm.” McCallum also believes that reducing single-use plastic speaks to more modern sensibilities: “Young people are buying experiences not ‘stuff’, and plastic is part of that ‘stuff’ that clutters up your flat or holiday pictures. Influencers and bloggers are inspired by it. On a cultural level, cutting down plastic waste is becoming fun, and that will have a huge impact.”
We may also experience a growing sense of purpose. “There is a real opportunity for this movement to lead to a greater sense of community where we come together to solve the problem,” continues McCallum. “That could mean colleagues making and eating lunch together rather than buying individual plastic-wrapped salads and large-scale beach walks and organised activities.”
With statistics this depressing the collective responsibility can feel overwhelming, leaving you with no idea where to start. But the message is just start, whether that’s recycling properly, buying a lunchbox and shunning plastic salad pots or simply using your voice (M&S took its plastic-wrapped ‘cauliflower steaks’ off the shelves after uproar about the amount of packaging). “We have an amazing opportunity to exact change through social media,” says Chhotray. “Amplifying and sharing your own tips and tricks through Instagram can embolden others to try. The fight against plastic from country to country isn’t that different.”
“It’s about inspiring people to become part of the solution,” says McCallum. “The design opportunities for new food packaging alone are a designer’s dream. If we can harness this huge passion for change, encourage businesses to innovate and not simply swap plastic for something else, but stop the need for that item in the first place, and take advantage of the amazing economic opportunities that could provide, then that’s all really positive.”
From a terrible realisation has come a profound thing: a world of people with one shared value – saving our planet. There is real power in that.
20 ways to reduce your plastic usage
Whether it’s making a small change to our daily life or recognising the businesses and projects that are striving to make a real difference, here’s how we can do our bit
Support zero-waste stores
Australian Makayla Drummond opened the first UK franchise of The Source Bulk Foods, a popular zero-waste store from Australia, in west London last month. “We discovered bulk food stores in Canada where we could buy the small amounts we needed in paper bags,” says Drummond. “It’s such a simple idea but so impactful. The UK needs shops that allow customers to bring their own containers to reduce the global demand for plastic and reduce food wastage at the same time.” Scoop and weigh is not a new idea – bring your own sacks, jars and containers, take what you want and go home, plastic packaging-free – but it’s a sensible one and something we’ll likely soon see adopted by most major supermarkets. Support them. (Also check out Bulk Market who is crowdfunding to finance a permanent waste-free supermarket in London, and EarthFoodLove in Totnes, south Devon).
Shake up your straw
Plastic straws are on the agenda to be banned completely following news we throw 8.5 billion of them away every year. (Though there are issues with this ban as many people with disabilities rely heavily on plastic straws.) There are various plastic-free straws on the market: try glass ones (£13 for four, amara.com), paper straws (£3.29 for 25, prettylittlepartyshop.co.uk), bamboo (£25 for 10, pittwhitebamboo.co.uk) or a stainless-steel straw (£4.99 for four, amazon.co.uk).
Double-check your ready-meal
Is your microwaveable chicken korma served in a black plastic tray? Put it back. 1.3 billion black plastic trays used in ready meals are burned or dumped in landfill each year as they cannot be recycled because machines aren’t able to identify them in the recycling process. Pick up a wood-pulp container instead. Pringles tubes and Lucozade bottles are also almost impossible to recycle.
Utilise your voice
“What Amy and Ella Meek, just 11 and 13, are doing with Kids Against Plastic [clearplasticuk.net] is really inspiring,” says Will McCallum, head of oceans at Greenpeace UK. “The media coverage they’ve generated through their pledge to educate, inspire and collect 100,000 pieces of plastic waste shows that normal people can really have a voice in this issue.” What do you want to change?
Seek out water fountains
Again, the humble water fountain is not a new invention but it has the potential to prevent a significant proportion of plastic waste. The Refill scheme is a nationwide initiative that aims to introduce a refill station on every street in the country and shops, cafes, museums and restaurants can also participate too by placing a ‘refill’ sticker on their window to let the public know they can fill up their water bottle there. Costa, Tate Modern, Leon and Premier Inn have already signed up. Download the Refill App to show you where you can fill up your reusable water bottle (we love S’well’s new Liberty Fabric collection, above; £42, libertylondon.com).
Recycle your bathroom products
While most of us have our kitchen recycling down pat, only 52% of people regularly recycle their bathroom products. The rule is: if it’s plastic and bottle-shaped, it’s recyclable. Which means shampoo, bleach bottles, cleansing bottles and foundation bottles (if they’re not being reused) can go in the recycling bin.
If in doubt, read our guide to what can and can’t be recycled in your bathroom.
Consider plastic free beauty
Microbeads are out – hooray. But some brands are taking plastic-free beauty seriously, with incentive s to reuse packaging, reduce plastic and recycle. Leading the way is The Ordinary with a pledge to remove all plastic from its packaging by the end of the year. Aveda, Kiehl’s, Mac, Burt’s Bees and L’Occitane are following suit, opting for aluminium and sugar-cane casings instead of polymers. Lush – forever the environmental trailblazer – has transformed half of its liquid products into solid versions and has just opened its first ‘Naked’ (packaging-free) shop in Milan.
Use a period cup
The average woman may use as many as 14,000 tampons in a lifetime. The time it takes for said tampon or pad to degrade in a landfill is centuries longer, particularly when wrapped in a plastic wrapper or bag, which is why we need to woman up and get our heads around using period cups. Yes, those silicone cups that are inserted in your vagina to capture your menstrual blood, which you then pour down the toilet and wash before re-inserting. Try Lunette Menstrual Cups (available from lunette.com for £28), which come in two sizes and last for up to 10 years.
Say no to plastic tea
Your daily cuppa? Likely swimming with bits of plastic (especially if the bag is ‘pyramid’ shaped). Treat yourself – and the ocean – and use loose-leaf tea or pick a brand without added plastic, such as Teapigs, Pukka or We Are Tea. And try compostable pods in your Nespresso machine from Percol, The Eden Project or Novell L’Espresso.
Rethink your takeaway
A takeaway is, frankly, a plastic waste nightmare. There are huge innovations being made – edible cutlery is being developed by an Indian company called Bakeys and edible condiment packets made from seaweed are underway. In the meantime, make sure you ask your takeaway provider not to include single-use plastics in your order (Just Eat and Deliveroo give customers the chance to opt out of receiving plastic cutlery, sauce sachets and straws) and give back your plastic containers with your next delivery.
Use matches instead of a lighter
Plastic lighters sit in landfills for years and have been found in the stomachs of dead birds. Simple solution: use matches.
Support sustainable fashion brands
We already know how much plastic fashion contributes to our oceans. But brands are starting to right their wrongs. G-Star have produced the world’s most sustainable denim, H&M are leading the way on the high street with new sustainable materials (including one made from old fishing nets), Reformation is a brilliant fashion-forward brand selling sustainable clothing (it ships to the UK but you’ll have to pay hefty taxes) and Veja trainers are not only on the feet of every fashion name, but they’re eco friendly too.
Choose plastic-free travel
Being mindful of plastic consumption while travelling is a hot topic. Whether it’s simply thinking ahead – taking your own plastic-free food and drink, saying no to environmentally disastrous plane pillows and avoiding face wipes and wet wipes on-the-go – or being aware of the travel operators who are addressing it: responsibletravel.com has a plastic-free holidays section and companies such as Tiny Homes Holidays (tinyhomesholidays.com) are on their way to being completely plastic-free.
Switch to a plastic-free toothbrush
When you consider we get through 300 of them in our lifetime, it makes sense to switch to one of the hundreds of plastic-free varieties today. You can even get biodegradable toothbrushes in your Ocado order (Natural Family Bio Toothbrush, £7.99). No excuse.
WELCOME BACK THE LOCAL MILKMAN
Is it nostalgia, is it us after an Instagram moment or is it that we’ve finally decided throwing away millions of plastic milk cartons a year is unethical? Whatever the reason, there has been a reported 25% rise in milk deliveries in glass bottles over the past two years (a returnable glass milk bottle makes an average of 20 round trips against the plastic version’s one). Look for deliveries in your area via milkandmore.co.uk.
DITCH SINGLE-USE WIPES
You’ve seen the pictures of giant fatbergs blocking up drainage systems. Unlike toilet paper, single-use wipes don’t disintegrate in water as they contain – you guessed it – plastic and should definitely not be flushed down the toilet. Swap wet-wipes for flannels (or Yes To Wipes, made from plant cellulose; £3.98, feelunique.com), and kitchen wipes for knitted dishcloths or biodegradable Ecover Wipes (£2.05, waitrose.com).
CHAMPION THE INNOVATORS
When he was just 16, Boyan Slat took a diving course in Greece and was so shocked by the level of pollution that he vowed to come up with a solution. By 17 his TED talk setting out his vision was one of their most-watched ever and now his company The Ocean Cleanup – powered by £23.5million of investment – is about to enter its first phase of ocean clearing (using advanced technologies to essentially sweep rubbish from the sea). He believes he can remove 50% of the Great Atlantic Garbage Patch within five years. Let’s get him talked about.
SUPPORT A SCHEME THAT TURNS PLASTIC WASTE INTO CURRENCY
Operating in areas of the developing world with high levels of poverty and plastic pollution, The Plastic Bank (plasticbank.org) is a worldwide chain that accepts recyclable plastic waste as currency. Everything from school tuition vouchers to cooking fuel can be bought using plastic rubbish, which is then recycled. Watch founder David Katz’s TED talk for more details.
GO PLASTIC-FREE AT FESTIVALS THIS SUMMER WITH CO-OP
The Co-op is launching a deposit scheme at four festivals this summer – Latitude, Download, Reading and Leeds – where plastic bottles sold in their pop-up stores will have a deposit added to their price. Return your bottle after you’ve used it and you’ll receive a voucher to use in the Co-op on-site stores. All of the bottles collected will be recycled and used to create Co-op’s own brand bottled water. Clever. (While we’re talking festivals, avoid glitter – it’s made of thousands of particles of plastic. Biodegradable brands such as EcoStardust are a much better alternative.)
BUY A GUPPYFRIEND
Did you know a third of all plastic waste in the ocean is the result of microfibres? A third of those microfibres are released by our clothes when we wash them, and they’ve been found in the stomachs of more than 600 fish species. Which is where the Guppyfriend (available from boobalou.co.uk for £24.95) comes in. It’s a bag made from a fine nylon mesh that captures fibres shed by your clothes in the washing machine before they enter the marine ecosystem, so you can then dispose of them responsibly.
Surprise! More plastic
Our non-biodegradable enemy hides away in some surprising places…
The ethical alternative to animal skins has an impact too. The synthetic fibres in fake fur contain plastic elements and garments can take centuries to biodegrade.
Most gum contains synthetic rubber which doesn’t biodegrade – as anyone who has ever looked under an old school desk will know.
Glass jar lids
They’re often plastic-lined to help them seal. That said, jars are easier to reuse than plastic containers so keep washing and reusing.
You might think aluminium cans get off scot-free but they are in fact coated with a plastic lining to resist rust, staining and acidic foods such as tomatoes.
Images: Getty, Jess Watters, Jez Timms, Quin Stevenson, Matt Seymour, Alex, Alberto Bogo, Aranxa Esteve, Unsplash