subject: A month without plastic
posted: Fri, 01 Aug 2008 10:28:40 +0100

A month without plastic

By Christine Jeavans
BBC News

I am giving up plastic for the whole of August.

By this I mean not buying or accepting anything which contains
plastic or is packaged in plastic.

So, no take-away coffees, bottles of water or pre-packed sandwiches.

I'll be forsaking punnets of strawberries and packs of chicken,
supermarket milk and bottled cleaning products, and switching to
reusable nappies for my toddler.

No longer will my other half and I be able to slump in front of the
telly of an evening with the latest DVD, a takeaway curry and a
bottle of wine (the cork could be plastic).

I am, if you like, donning a polyester-free hairshirt - with the aim
of seeing how possible it is to live without new plastic.

I will, however, be keeping the plastic I already own. But even so,
it's going to be very difficult.

Durable, versatile, lightweight, hygienic, cheap and strong:
synthetic plastic is arguably one of the most useful inventions of
the last century.

It is essential in medical equipment, technology and thousands of
devices which have increased our standard of living.

But those very same attributes of durability and cheapness make
plastic one of the most pervasive forms of waste on the planet.

Plastic soup

Evidence of our failure to deal with plastic rubbish is everywhere,
from bulging landfill sites and countryside litter in the UK to a
toxic plastic "soup" swilling around the middle of the North Pacific,
thousands of miles from continental land.

Island groups such as Hawaii and Midway which, by their location in
the Pacific should be pristine, instead are awash with plastic,
killing seabirds, turtles and other marine life.

The UN Environment Programme estimates that there are 46,000 pieces
of plastic litter floating in every square mile of ocean on Earth.

Some marine scientists believe that microscopic plastic fragments in
the ocean can soak up pollutants which may then get passed up the
food chain into fish and, ultimately, humans.

Plastic audit

I'm as guilty as anyone of treating this useful resource as utterly

I do try to remember to take reusable bags to the shops and I drop my
bottles into the recycling bag which the council collects every week.

But I, like almost everyone else in the UK, junk the vast majority of
plastic which comes into my home.

I've kept a month's worth of my plastic waste, to use as a barometer
for my month of abstinence. It isn't pretty - 603 items, including:

36 carrier bags
67 food packaging bags and films such as bread bags, cheese wrappers
(and a jumbo pack of Maltesers!)
23 polystyrene tea cups with lids and 24 coffee cup lids
15 fruit punnets and vegetable trays
13 yoghurt pots
16 water bottles, 10 milk bottles, 7 juice bottles
Two toothbrushes

Probably the least pretty aspect to my household's waste at the
moment comes in the form of disposable nappies.

Our 18-month-old son gets through four or so a day so that's about
120 a month, plus individual nappy sacks, nappy bin bags and wipes,
which go straight into landfill.

Inevitably, however, packaging forms the greatest part of my plastic

Nationally we throw away 58 billion items - 1.5 million tonnes - of
household plastic packaging a year, according to the government-
funded Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) and it's growing
annually by 2-5%.

Considering that most plastics are lightweight, that's a mind-
boggling volume of rubbish, especially as it does not include non-
packaging plastic waste (as government figures do not exist for

In theory, most household plastics can be recycled but in practice,
most local authorities only offer the facility to collect and recycle
plastic bottles. A handful do collect all plastics but they are few
and far between.

These make up a third of household plastic packaging waste so even if
every single bottle was recycled (currently 35% are), the majority of
our plastic rubbish would still be destined for landfill or

It's something that annoys consumers admits Paul Davidson, plastics
sector manager at Wrap.

"Plastics packaging waste in particular is a very visible part of the
waste stream and it's also growing.

"Ironically as we become more successful at recycling generally,
what's left in the bin tends to be just the plastic. So more and more
people are looking in their bins and saying there's just bits of
plastic here why can't I recycle them?"

The situation will improve in the next three to five years, he adds,
as UK recycling plants are developed which can handle trays, tubs,
pots and punnets as well as bottles.

Under-packaging - worse?

Everyone has their favourite over-packaging bugbear be it the
infamous shrink-wrapped coconut or bananas packaged singly on
polystyrene trays.

But the other extreme leads to food waste, which has a far greater
environmental impact than excess plastic according to Dick Searle,
chief executive of the UK Packaging Federation.

"A lot of packaging is designed to lengthen the shelf-life of the
products that are being sold so if you take it out of the packaging
there's a good chance that it will actually not last as long.

"And unless you're very, very disciplined - and most of us frankly
aren't - then you're quite likely to end up by throwing more [food]

Meat is a prime example, he says, with so-called "modified atmosphere
packaging" - gas-filled supermarket packs which delay deterioration -
meaning that packaged cuts last as much as two weeks longer than the
same product bought from a butcher.

Plastic-free wagon

And yet we used to manage without all this plastic. In the 1950s,
less than five million tonnes of plastic was produced worldwide,
today it is close to 100 million tonnes.

The clink of glass milk bottles on the doorstep has been replaced by
the purchase of two-litre plastic bottles at the supermarket.
Chocolate bars were once packaged in foil and paper; packed lunches
used to consist of a homemade sarnie in some greaseproof and an

But our lifestyles have changed too - we no longer shop for groceries
every day, many more women go out to work and fewer meals are eaten
or prepared at home.

If plastic in general, and plastic packaging in particular, is all
about facilitating our current way of living, will I have to return
to the labour-intensive shopping patterns of previous decades to
complete my non-plastic mission? I'm about to find out.

I will be keeping a record of my progress - and any falls from the
plastic-free wagon - in a blog which you can find here.

[at the URL above - Ed]

* Origin: [green] revolution through evolution -

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