Thursday, 9 February 2017

Plastic waste

It was distressing to read the story of a whale that kept stranding on a beach in Norway and had to be put down. It's intestines were blocked with over 30 plastic bags, many from the UK.

It is devastating how little respect we have shown for the ecosystems that support life and the other creatures who share our planet. I am as guilty as anyone of enjoying this convenient disposable lifestyle. Just because I put some things into the recycle bin, it still doesn't make my waste Ok.

So immediately I signed a petition or two, but this really isn't going to cut the mustard if we want to prevent a whole pod of whales dying from our plastic rubbish. And it isn't just whales. Surfers Against Sewage state that

Over 100,000 marine mammals and over 1 million seabirds die every year from ingestion of and entanglement in marine litter.

So I went to the supermarket with my bundle of canvas bags for my shopping, and marvelled at some of the beautiful shopping bags people were using since the 5p charge for carrier bags took effect. This has definitely been a positive change, but it was delayed for far too long. Several European countries had taken action more than 10 years earlier, Ireland being one of the first. 90% of consumers in Ireland switched to reusable bags back in 2002, so their waters would be much safer for marine life..... if it wasn't for England 'sharing' their plastic waste. Whoever pollutes the sea, creates a problem for everyone.

At the checkout I was offered a free carrier bag to pack my already plastic wrapped meat products in. I have been accepting these bags recently, because it is virtually my only source of bags and I use them as bin liners. I really don't want to start buying bin liners, so now the question is can I manage without any? Would it really be so bad to tip all my rubbish loose into the big black wheelie bin? Or can I reduce my non-recyclable rubbish down to virtually nothing? I don't think either of those are practical at present, but maybe I can find some kind of paper bin liner alternative?

I had automatically used a small clear plastic bag on my broccoli - now I know I can cut those bags out. My home grown produce travels home in my wicker basket packaging free, except for salad leaves which I put in plastic bags that I wash and reuse repeatedly. This is a good motivator to grow even more veg myself this year. A year ago I was buying the rest of my fruit and veg from the market early on a Saturday morning. Some of the stalls use traditional brown paper bags for cherries or apples, and even if they have plastic bags you can ask not to use one and bring canvas bags instead. I have other activities on a Saturday morning now, but I need to find another suitable time to support my local market.

I have grown a new and unsustainable habit. I drive my kids to clubs and to save petrol travelling back and forth, I wait in the McDonalds round the corner. Bear in mind that it is winter and my parked car is cold and dark, so the one cup of tea, that I eke out for over an hour, is just an excuse to sit indoors and use the toilets. The 'cardboard' cups are of course lined with plastic, making them non-recyclable. I have some lovely mugs I can bring, but the frugal side of me likes collecting the stickers on the cups, so that I get a free cup of tea for every 6 cups I buy. I will bring my own mug from now on, or maybe even look for a cozy coffee shop that is open those hours instead.

Bottled water still occasionally sneaks into our lives, mainly when there is not enough forward planning, but we re-use the empty bottles and once they are in a fairly distressed state they go to the allotment to become cloches or end protectors for support posts. (They aren't any good for storing an excess of home made comfrey tea fertiliser in, as I learnt the hard way. The decomposing comfrey tea forms gases, that caused the bottles to explode all over my shed, smelling unbearable for weeks.)

Luckily you can ask for free tap water in most restaurants or bars in the UK. We used to have these lovely drinking fountains in every town or village, but sadly they have fallen out of use. You can look up water refill stations near you in the UK using this handy website. None are listed in Loughborough yet, but there are plenty in London. It was a surprise to find that I can refill my water bottle in Lush for example, who are not a restaurant but sell bath bombs and lotions. It makes me think that there are quite a few places that I can ask for water in future.

Then there is the food packaging itself.Why can't nuts and lentils be packaged in paper bags like flour is? I have all these lovely jars to keep my food fresh, yet the products still come home from the shop wrapped in plastic, so I am still creating plastic waste. I would be quite happy to bulk buy things like oats in sacks, but my problem is where can I get them from? If I order them online they arrive smothered in bubble wrap. Does anyone have an answer to this?

On a more positive note, a young inventor Boyan Slat has a designed a way to collect the plastic at sea and recycle it. It is great that the young people can find ways out of the mess we have created for them, but I feel there is too much at stake to rely on this alone to save our oceans from all our plastic waste.


  1. Hi Judy, I have spent years finding (and often failing) to find plastic-free food! Luckily, my regional Tasmanian city (pop 80,000) has four bulk-food shops both in the CBD and suburbs. I just take my bags and jars, fill and go. I am really surprised to hear that the UK is not full of these - I thought the UK was far more inclined to be avant-garde about food shopping than wee Tasmania..

    Have you looked at Bea Johnson's (zero waste home) bulk food app? There might be something on there.

    Wait! Due to the magic of the internet, I have discovered that you can at least buy bulk nuts in Louborough, at Elf Foods on Market St :) Also there is this large whole foods company in the UK:

    They look like they at least try to deliver stuff wrapped in not too much plastic. Maybe you could start a buying club with your friends? Remember that the bulk buy whole foods shops also get their food delivered by companies like this, but at least they are wrapped in one large plastic bag rather than twenty small ones.

    We also have a mill in town that sells large paper sacks of flour and oats etc I am also finding more local, organic dry goods packed in paper, again, flour, oats, lentils etc. The other possibility is bulk buying with friends from UK organic farms. We have a couple of organic farms in Tasmania now that grow flour, oats, lentils, quinoa etc. I buy them from my whole food shop bulk bins, but often farmers will do farm gate sales.. it's tricky isn't it, but we have to keep pushing for solutions. Maybe if you go to the local shop to buy bulk bin nuts you could enthuse about the possibility of buying other dry goods there in from bulk bins as well?

    My hardest thing still is trying to buy meat not encased in plastic. I can't believe that all the farmers' market meat is cryovacced every time..

    1. Thanks for all your suggestions Jo. I am not sure that bulk bins are much of a thing in the UK. Elf food has nuts, which I do buy in bulk, but I have never seen anyone bring in their own bags/containers. I am sure they won't have a problem with it though now you have suggested it. They also have herbs, so I could probably bring my spice jars to refill too.
      Meat is a tough one because they have to think of hygiene. The organic farmshop, does have some meat wrapped in plastic but a lot is still displayed loose. Again turning up with containers would probably work as they are very friendly and helpful.
      Loughborough is just a town of 70,000 people, but I visit the city of Nottingham regularly, so hopefully they have a bulk bin store. Can't believe you have 4!! I am sure Oxford or London would be better equipped for the packaging free shopper.

  2. I'm just embarking on a serious plastic and rubbish diet, I've tried it before and failed miserably. This is timely :)

    I'm lucky that I live in a city with plenty of options, but even then its difficult not to slip into bad habits I did a beach pick-up at the weekend; and I've got to the point that my cognitive dissonance isn't working anymore.

    1. I am sure you didn't really fail last time, but made some really good progress. Maybe just not as much as you would have liked, but with a few tweaks you may be back on track soon. I certainly intended my jars to spell the end of plastic packaging, but I am not even close.

      Thank you so much for spending your valuable time off picking up rubbish. I love that there are so many people who do care about this sea of waste. It fills me with hope.

      I have been picking up odd bits of rubbish on my dog walks. I just need to find a carrier bag to take with me to collect it in!