Plastic is everywhere – there is no place you won’t find it. As I write this blog, I look out of a PVC-framed window and see the plastic fascia and guttering on the edge of my house. On my desk sits my podcast mic and phone, encased in plastic. I’m wearing an old jumper made from plastic, and my chair sits on a carpet containing plastic. The floor lamp at my side has a plastic switch, and a fabulous Ficus plant sits in a plastic pot. I’m lucky enough to have a garden I can view from my window; I’d like to think it’s a plastic-free zone, but I know enough about plastic to realise microplastics are leaching into nature, whether it’s on land or sea. Humans have made this fabulous durable material we can’t seemingly do without that is polluting our world, and we are only touching the surface of the repercussions of its legacy.
However, the plastic I described in the scene above is at least not thrown away daily. It is durable, and its function is relatively long-lived. It is the single-use packaging we throw away, or at best, place in appropriate recycling, that is the primary issue. This common-place plastic packaging found in our kitchens (bread bags, crisp packets) and bathrooms (deodorants, shampoo) typifies a throwaway society where little respect is paid to natural resources. They litter our streets and pollute nature.
There are some great people and organisations shining the light on the plastic problem, and one such person is Daniel Webb. When he came on the podcast, he told me how his move to Margate in Kent was pivotal. He’d been reading more about environmental matters, such as climate change, so when strolling along the beaches in his new town, he couldn’t avoid seeing the swathes of plastic litter. Some of it was recognisable, some displayed different languages, and some were potentially from a different era. He embarked upon further reading and discovered 8 billion tonnes of plastic had entered the ocean since 1950. His new flat resided within an area where the council did not provide kerbside plastic collection, so he embarked upon a personal experiment to uncover how much plastic he wasted through his everyday living and stored every piece of plastic waste for a year.
With the help of a friend, Dr Julie Schneider, they took his collection to a music venue (of 2000 people capacity), and with friends and volunteers, they emptied the bags; it covered the floor, and Dan remembers it being the most shocking, visceral moment of his plastic experience to date. They counted, categorised and weighed each item; it took about 3-4 days. They produced a report analysing all 4,490 pieces and used it to construct a mural. Understandably, Dan became very connected to his purchasing actions and reflected on the price of convenience, chucking things into your basket without a moment’s thought. It all costed money, but he barely remembered using any of it.
Dan started the social enterprise Everyday Plastic, and as demand for his story grew, he attended schools, businesses and events, talking and connecting people to the plastic problem. He developed the Everyday Plastic Survey, using the robust methodology Julie and he had used in analysing his waste; 200 people took part. Again, this story struck accord, the press reported on it, and it even got picked up by DEFRA, who responded through a blog post.
Everyday Plastic aims to kickstart people’s journey in buying less plastic, reusing what we do purchase, and exploring refill options. In 2022, Everyday Plastic collaborated with Greenpeace to launch The Big Plastic Count, a scaled-up version of the EP survey. It was the perfect opportunity for anyone to become more aware of their throwaway plastic. It facilitates people to count and categorise their plastic waste for a week through a tick chart and provides analysis of this data. For many, it was fruit and vegetable packaging and lots of snacks (83% collected was food and drink packaging). Nearly 100,000 households took part, totalling 6,437,813 pieces of plastic waste; the average household collected 66 items. This data estimated 1.85 billion pieces of plastic packaging are wasted weekly, equating to 96.57 billion pieces a year in the UK alone. Terrifyingly, only 12% is likely to be recycled, less than would be exported (17%), 25% sent to landfill and 46% incinerated (not great for climate change and pollution when plastics are manufactured from fossil fuels).
This year, Everyday Plastic, in collaboration with City to Sea, is running a #ChooseLoose campaign, targeting supermarkets to remove the packaging on five fruit and vegetables: potatoes, onions, apples, bananas and carrots. These foods are the most wasted products in the home, and according to WRAP, they amount to 300 million collectively every week. They also state that plastic packaging doesn’t necessarily extend the shelf life or freshness of fruit and vegetables and in most cases increases food waste. Reducing packaging would therefore benefit food waste and save money. It’s crucial for system change on packaging to enable individuals to make buying less plastic easier.
Plastic is embedded within our daily lives and is not going away anytime soon. However, there is much scope for reducing the amount of everyday single-use plastic. Living with less plastic will undoubtedly benefit people, places and nature.