Last week I reviewed Turning the Tide on Plastic, by Lucy Siegle, with its step by step advice on eliminating plastic. Yesterday I wrote about the Everyday Plastic Survey, which is all about inspiring ordinary people to take action on their plastic consumption.
I fully support those sorts of projects, and yet I find myself frustrated. I have read a bunch of books and reports on reducing plastic, seen TV programmes about it, and have been working on avoiding plastic for years. And my house is still full of plastic.
It’s easy to make a dent in your plastic consumption if you’re starting from scratch. It’s just quite difficult to get beyond the initial first wave of bad habits. For example, every crusade to get rid of plastic will tell you to carry a reusable coffee cup and a water bottle. The average person in Britain apparently gets through 150 plastic water bottles a year, which is actually insane. So this is a good place to start. But water and coffee on the go are not habits I ever got into in the first place, so none of that advice applies.
Then the book will go on to talk about refills, and how you can buy kitchen and household essentials in refillable containers. This is entirely dependent on where you live. I used to have a refill station for cleaning products at a local Fairtrade shop, but the shop went out of business because not enough people used it. On the plus side, a local grocer opened this year with big binfuls of lentils, raisins, nuts and other things that you can buy by weight. We’ve been making use of that, but the last time I went in the range of refill products had halved. Outside of cities or posh market towns, refill stations are rare and businesses that set them up in places like Luton are taking quite a risk.
Since refills – like organic food – are currently things that middle class people are asking for, they are priced accordingly. The nearest dedicated refill shop to me is the lovely Wholesome Weigh in Hitchin. Even if it was local to me, I couldn’t afford to shop there regularly. The same goes for milk. Ours comes in glass bottles from the milkman, but that’s considerably more expensive than walking 100 yards to the shop and buying it in plastic.
Another regular suggestion is to switch to plastic free alternatives, like shampoo bars or toothpaste tablets. Those are niche enough that I have to order them online. That has a cost of another kind, and I’m not convinced that a delivery van driving out to drop off my plastic free toothpaste is worthwhile. Besides, the kids won’t use the tablets, and my wife once ordered a bar of shampoo that came with with an unadvertised free plastic loofah.
Recycling has geographical variances too. I can recycle tetrapacks, fabrics and even small electrical appliances in Luton, but not plastic tubs and trays. ‘Widely recycled’ they all say, but not here. I can avoid certain food categories, but there are some that don’t appear to have any alternatives – tubs of margarine for example. Every time we get through one of those, I want to put it in the recycling to make a point to the council, but I’ve seen the picking line and the people working on it. I don’t want to make work for them. So it goes in the bin, and probably gets incinerated or dumped in a hole for a thousand years.
We’re a committed and highly motivated household when it comes to sustainability, and yet cutting out plastic has proved practically impossible.
And that leads me to what is really the central point: cutting out plastic isn’t just up to us. It’s not our job. I shouldn’t have to order wierd toothpaste over the internet. Colgate and Aquafresh need to sort themselves out.
Of course we should all stop buying single use plastics wherever we can, but most of them shouldn’t be on sale in the first place. The fact that responsibility is being shifted onto consumers is a failure of the larger system. It’s timid politics and lazy business.
While the ‘Blue Planet II’ effect has inspired many people to look at plastic in their own lives, seven out of ten supermarkets actually increased their use of plastic in the last year. We need action higher up the chain. More of us need to be leaving our packaging at the supermarket for them to deal with, or posting plastic back to the companies to deal with. We need to talk to our politicians about it more. It’s not all down to us.
Don’t stop trying to reduce your own plastic footprint. Individual action does matter and I expect most of us could halve our plastic use with a little effort. But it’s going to take more than consumer action to stop the flow.