The pressing need to be “Plastic Clever”

Did you know that 80% of plastic in our oceans originates from the land?

On Wednesday 31st May, I attended Raw Foundation‘s event: Plastic – From Source To Solution at the Royal Geographical Society in London. It was a packed event with a fantastic panel, led by Melinda Watson, the organisation’s founder.

In 2016, Melinda and three colleagues travelled the length of Africa from Cairo to Cape Town, covering 10 countries and bushcamping all the way, with their aim being to create a written and photographic record of the waste they found,  tracking it from source to sea. They stopped every 100km along the route to place a quadrant by the roadside, noting what waste they found within it. They also spent time investigating dangerous and polluted landfill sites, questioning government officials, and speaking with local tribes to tap into innate, indigenous knowledge.

From their study, they found that 98% of waste within the quadrants was plastic, the main offenders being polystyrene (28% – very difficult to recycle and with little market value), plastic bags (19%) and plastic bottles (18%), with a smaller percentage attributed to plastic cutlery, straws and suchlike. However, Melinda noted that these figures only represent what was found curbside and doesn’t cover the mountains of empty, single-use plastic bottles heaped behind shops and cafés that weren’t recorded as part of their study: they saw bottles everywhere. Indeed, we were informed that the number of single-use plastic bottles in the world is set to double in the next six years, and that Greenpeace are currently campaigning for major drinks manufacturer, Coca Cola, in particular, to take responsibility for the vast swathes of its bottles that are found littering land and sea.

Oceans quote

Hugo Tagholm of Surfers Against Sewage reiterated the challenge that currently faces us. Between 2002 and 2012, more plastic was produced than ever before in the whole history of plastic, and that by 2050 it is estimated there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. Facts like these are almost unfathomable. As he says, now that the Bathing Waters Directive has vastly improved the state of the UK’s waters and coastline, plastic is the new challenge.

So, what can we do?

We are reaching the tipping point for plastic waste, but this doesn’t mean we are doomed. Thankfully there are some amazing individuals and organisations finding solutions to the growing plastic issue, and working to spread the word and educate the masses.

Getting the message out there

Jeremy Irons, who was also on the panel, released a film in 2013 called “Trashed” (watch the trailer here), which highlighted the problems caused by our throwaway culture and the creation of plastic that never disappears. He quoted some crazy figures on the night:

  • 12m tonnes of plastic enters the oceans every year, which equates to around a truckload every minute;
  • 90% of seabirds have plastic in their stomachs;
  • Henderson Island, part of the Pitcairn group, is an uninhabited island where marine scientists found 17.6m tonnes of plastic with 13,000 new items arriving every day.

I was astounded to learn this, but at least now I know (and so do you).

Engaging the wider public 

Campaigns such as Refill and #SwitchTheStick by City to Sea, founded by Natalie Fee, are doing great things in encouraging the public to use refillable water bottles and in getting major high street retailers to switch from selling plastic stick ear buds to ones made of paper. This alone has already saved 320 tonnes of plastic buds each year!

Music festivals are also getting involved in the action. Shambala Festival‘s Director, Chris Johnson, explained how they regard themselves as a changemaker, as they not only have a captive, open and receptive audience with whom to engage and educate, but they also have great control over their supply chain and can really champion sustainable practices, from running a ‘bring a bottle’ campaign, to having a plastic-free Shambala in 2014, to only providing vegetarian food in 2016 (which has resulted in around 70% of their festival-goers staying meat- and/or fish-free long after the festival was over – impressive!). They also run a consultancy business advising other festivals on how to be green and helping them meet the goals of Festival Vision 2025, by asking organisers to pledge to increase recycling by at least 50% and to halve their carbon footprint by 2025.

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”

Meanwhile, cleaning up the oceans is providing a new business opportunity for some. For example, the innovative design consultancy, Alexander Taylor Group, in collaboration with Parley, produced a new sports shoe for Adidas, where the upper was made using recycled and re-engineered gillnet and plastic bottles found in the Maldives. (The gillnet, by the way, was 72km long and took 4 and 1/2 weeks to trawl by hand!)

But much more remains to be done…

We have a long way to go to clean up the oceans, stop manufacturers from creating more plastic and change consumers’ deeply ingrained habits. But it is possible. Rwanda is an example of a country who completely banned the use of plastic bags in 2008, making it an illegal offence. In England, the 5p plastic bag charge was introduced in 2015 to some eye-rolling among certain groups, but did you know it has resulted in around 6bn plastic bags being taken out of circulation, equating to an 85% reduction? This is truly good news!

With regards plastic bottles, only around 50% are collected for recycling in the UK with the rest going to landfill. We are a long way from matching our more advanced European neighbours, such as Germany and the Netherlands, whose collection rates are 98% and 95% respectively, so obviously a major shake up needs to happen. If they can do it, why can’t we?

What does the future hold? 

Education and engagement are key, and it needs to start from a young age. Georgina Stevens has worked in sustainability for over 20 years, working with some big names such as BAFTA, Virgin and WWF. She understands that raising awareness needs to start early on and that story-telling can be a powerful medium to communicate big ideas to little people. Her recently published children’s book, Finn The Fortunate Tiger Shark, is all about a shark who ingests ‘yummy’ plastics and gets tummy ache (but don’t worry – his friends help him out!). I bought a copy on the night and have been reading it to my two children since, who love it. All profits are donated to Greenpeace and Social Plastic, so grab yourself a copy!

One fantastic organisation we heard from right at the end of the evening was Kids Against Plastic, set up by two young sisters who were inspired to take real action against plastic waste. They see it as a mess they are not responsible for causing, but that sadly they will be responsible for clearing up. Between them they have collected 30,000 pieces of litter, have garnered an impressive list of high-profile supporters and have set up their Plastic Clever campaign, which encourages us all to reduce – or even better, eliminate! – our consumption of single-use plastic bags, cups, lids, stirrers, cutlery and bottles.

It was a really positive note to end on. If these two young people are an indication of what the next generation can do – especially at such a young age (Q: what on earth have I been doing with my time all these years?!) – then I am full of confidence all is not lost.


One thought on “The pressing need to be “Plastic Clever”

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  1. An excellent summary of the overall situation. Tesco now trialling stores where they have no plastic bags available at all – at any price – and clients will be able to buy ‘bags for life’. Hopefully the latter will be made from sustainable materials. If it works, the rest will follow. MVH

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