climate change

Cutting out plastic is not a climate change solution

Almost every week, I’ll hear somebody say how they want to do their bit for the climate, and they are cutting out single use plastic. I’ve heard it on the radio, at the kids’ school, from people on the council and from friends. In a recent survey from Good Energy, people were asked “what one change do you think would have the biggest impact on reducing your carbon footprint?” The number one answer was ‘avoid plastic’.

It’s remarkable how often a conversation about climate change turns into a conversation about reusing plastic bags, and how people variously remember or forget to bring a reuseable bag with them when they go shopping. All fine, but as George Marshall cautioned a decade ago, plastic bags account for around 1/5000th of our carbon footprints.

Nobody gets taught this kind of thing in school, so I’m not going to judge anyone for this misunderstanding. (Besides, I only discovered last year that fridges are one of the biggest contributors to climate change, and it’s my job to know this stuff.) Environmental issues tend to get lumped into one basket. Plastic is visible on the beach or blowing down the street in ways that CO2 isn’t, and it’s shot up in profile since Blue Planet II captured people’s imaginations.

Plastic matters, and does have carbon footprint. But it’s a long way from being the most important thing we can do to reduce our climate impact. By thinking it is, we may be harbouring complacency about our carbon footprints.

There are similar problems around meat, which many people don’t recognise as having anything to do with the climate. This is despite meat consumption having a bigger global impact than transport at the moment. We could switch to 100% renewable energy across the entire world, and still have runaway climate change if we don’t change habits and aspirations around eating meat.

People aren’t going to know about these sorts of problems unless we talk about it, so that’s the best thing we can do. We don’t want to deter anyone from acting on plastic – just don’t think that having ‘done our bit’ by remembering that fabric shopping bag, ‘our bit’ is now done.

What does make a difference?

  • Switching to a renewable energy tariff, and this is why Good Energy have done the survey. Green energy tariffs are not created equal, so I’m going to go ahead and recommend Ecotricity again, so that you can get green electricity and invest towards that rarer beast, green gas.
  • Eating less meat. Go vegetarian or vegan if you want to, but start lower on the ladder if you prefer. Beef is the most damaging meat by a big margin, and most of us could stop eating beef today and barely notice.
  • Flying less. Again, cut it out entirely if you can. Take one less flight a year. Holiday locally. If you have to fly for work, start a conversation with your employers about how you can fly less or travel in other ways.
  • Improving your home efficiency. Focus on heat rather than electricity, as heating is the biggest energy user in the home. Insulate the loft, line curtains, do some draught-proofing, and save up for double glazing or external cladding if you need to.
  • And finally, bear in mind that having one less child is by far and away the biggest environmental choice you can make. Don’t beat yourself up if you’ve made your choices already – every child is welcome and we should never imply that someone shouldn’t have been born. This is very much a choice for those planning a family. The cumulative emissions of a new person, over the course of their lifetime, will blow almost everything else you do out of the water. There are 101 different considerations to be made when choosing whether or not to have a child, and its increasingly important that the environment is one of them.

For more on all of this, check out Seth Wyne’s book on the things that make the biggest difference.




  1. Wait how does the scale work on that graph? It looks like skippping a flight saves you 2 tons of carbon and skipping a kid saves 60? That is legitimately crazy if I’m reading that right. Wow.

  2. Thanks for this useful post Jeremy. This looks like a really useful graphic at the bottom, but is low resolution, even on download.
    Can you please let me know the source, so that I can obtain a higher resolution graphic to use when talking to groups about climate change
    Regards – Peter

  3. Still, cutting down single uses plastics is something each one of us can do. Also think of the effects of all those microplastics in our environment.

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