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THE PLASTIC BAG DILEMMA

The introduction of the 5p charge for plastic shopping bags in 2015 caused a fantastic 84% drop in bags being handed out in UK supermarkets. A much welcomed and decisive step in the right direction. At the same time we have also seen the rise of biodegradable and compostable bags and packaging. But as with many new laws and inventions, there are often unforeseen consequences. Ireland’s tax on plastic shopping bags, and the plastic bag ban across some territories in Australia more recently, resulted in a significant increase in sales of heavier plastic waste bags for kitchen bins. Biodegradable bags are made of a blend of plastic and corn or potato starch and will decompose in water and in CO2 but still cause plastic pollution in the long run. Bioplastic crops needed for this type of bag, and for compostable packaging in general, compete for land with biofuels and food crops, causing big problems such as loss of rainforests in favour of agricultural land use. The dilemma continues when you consider the environmental impact of paper bags and cotton bags in terms of resource use, energy and greenhouse outcomes. According to a UK Environmental Agency report, a paper bag would need to be re-used at least four times and a cotton bag 173 times to have a lower environmental impact than a single-use plastic bag.

The simple solution is to avoid single use bags altogether and to have our own supply of cotton bags always at the ready. In addition to the usual cotton and hemp carrier bags, we can also have small fabric bags for bagging up fruit, veg, bread and other loose items in the shops. I made a variety of small bags one afternoon from fabric I had saved over time, including my sons’ first cot bedlinen. If you don’t sew, you can buy organic cotton drawstring bags from  Etsy or a dozen other online shops. As for kitchen bin bags – since I decided to live without plastic bags altogether we had to be more rigorous about separating compost, cooked food and recyclables so that the kitchen bin can be emptied straight into the large bin outside without the use of a bag. My little shopping bags are precious to me now and I wouldn’t dream of throwing them away or using them as a bin bag. It’s just a small mind shift from ‘throw-away’ to ‘keepsake’ that puts the solution to the big problems into our own hands.

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CAUSING RIPPLES IN PLASTIC-FREE JULY

In July, I was invited to give two workshops on living without plastic at the Seed Festival at Hawkwood College, near Stroud. This beautiful, small eco-festival aims to inspire a more intimate and personal connection with the world and our place within it. It featured ‘green’ speakers, movers & shakers, musicians, poets and artists. The invitation coincided nicely with the global plastic-free-July campaign.

In order to gain some practice for the Seed Festival workshops I hooked up with Transition Stroud to organise an evening workshop for anyone interested locally. Expecting a small group, I prepared a slideshow and planned to make toothpaste and deodorant together with whoever came along. To my complete amazement, over 50 people showed up and squeezed into the small venue. We had a fantastic, lively evening with people of all ages asking great questions and scrutinising the various plastic-free household items I had brought with me. The evening was followed by a public meeting in Stroud which resulted in a new action group being formed, to tackle reducing single-use plastic in our area. Four of the participants joined the plastic-free July campaign and have joined the new Stroud action group as core members. At the Seed Festival, I was once again bowled over by interest the workshops generated where, in total, some 80 people or so participated. For one of the workshops we migrated outside, as the allocated room was too small.

I am encouraged by the seemingly high number of people who want to change our reliance on plastic packaging and who want to be proactive. The number of people immediately taking some form of action when we talk about it makes me think that this ‘movement’ is ready to gain momentum and spread more widely. The thought of causing ripples far beyond our community makes me excited about how new habits can take off and become contagious. I couldn’t have thought of a better way to spend a plastic-free July.

Thank you to my friends Katie from Hawkwood College and Erik from Transition Stroud and also to my husband and sons for their support and participation.

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STYLISH ALTERNATIVE TO PLASTIC STRAWS

It’s a must-do but is so easy to forget: always refuse plastic drink straws. If you’re unaware of the environmental impact caused by the trillions of single-use plastic drink straws that are discarded after one use and if you have missed the fantastic campaigns such as One Less Straw and others, then please have a look at the links below. A fun and stylish alternative are straws made from metal, bamboo, paper, glass or even silicone. They are easy to take with you when out and about with friends or on holiday. You can have a selection at home to show off your non-plastic credentials. The ones I bought (from local Stroud Valleys Project shop) are stainless steel and come with a dinky little brush for cleaning. I see that they are also available on Amazon from about £5 for 4 straws. Have a great summer everyone!

More Info:

  • Plastic Pollution Coalition – 500 million plastic straws per day are discarded in the US alone
  • One Less Straw – a campaign started in 2009 by a couple of kids. It’s been going round the world and is a sizable non-profit organisation now. On their website are resources and information. If you are brave enough to watch it, have a look at the video about a giant sea turtle having an entire plastic straw removed from its body through the nostril by some brave rescuers. You will never use a plastic straw ever again!
  • Dive Planit – on why plastic straws seriously suck
  • Be Straw Free campaign
  • Netivist campaign

PURE ALL-NATURAL SUNSCREEN

Heeding the advice from even the most staunch defenders of all things homemade, you  will stay out of the sun or buy a good quality sunscreen with pure ingredients rather than attempt to make your own. I have put sun cream down on the list of unavoidable items in plastic packaging. I was therefore over the moon to come across NOT THE NORM sunscreen in a tin in three different sizes, made in the UK from just four pure and organic ingredients. The company also guaranteed to send mailorder items without any plastic packaging. To top it all it arrived on the hottest day so far this summer and I put it to the test straight away. Unperfumed and easy to apply it feels lovely on the skin and if I follow the directions for safe use on the website to the latter, I think this one is a winner for me. I have read so many scathing articles about the ingredients and side effects of ordinary sun cream and sun block that I would rather stay in the shade than expose my skin to these substances – I am not including any links here as the topic is so ‘hotly’ debated that it is hard to know what is real and what isn’t. You must decide for yourself whether this all-natural sunscreen is for you and how safe you believe it is.

ONE YEAR – ONE BAG OF PLASTIC

We have just reached our first anniversary of creating a plastic-free household. During the past year we concentrated mainly on unpackaged food, cleaning materials, toiletries and plastic-free clothing. We have collected every scrap of plastic packaging that we have accidentally, or otherwise, brought into the house. This has amounted to roughly one large bagful of plastic packaging from medical supplies, items that we bought which had hidden plastic packaging inside, presents that were given to us, and also from items that seemed unavoidable. Considering that UK households produce an average of 56kg of plastic packaging waste a year, our one bag weighing no more than a couple of pounds represents a great achievement.

In reality, our single-use plastic footprint is much larger than the household figures measured by Defra and in our case, it is bigger than the single bagful collected over the course of a year. Much of our plastic waste is created outside the home, for example in the workplace, at school, in restaurants, at the petrol station, at the hairdressers, at the gym, and by pursuing hobbies and other pastimes that take us outside the home. In the supply chain of the goods I conscientiously buy ‘unpackaged’, there are unknown quantities of plastic packaging. We are not the only ones in the dark: at a recent talk given by Tesco on food waste, which I attended in Oxford, I learned that all of the large supermarket retailers “currently don’t understand or know enough” about the plastic packaging waste in their supply chains. This means that the plastic packaging that each of us is ultimately responsible for is not just in our bins at home.

Over this past year I have read report after report, attended events, talked to many people and the story is the same everywhere. Most people think there is too much plastic in their lives and that we should recycle more and develop new materials to replace plastic. However, few talk about the one solution that is surely staring us in the face. The one solution that could prevent further environmental crises and help restore local communities is ethical consumption. Ethical consumption means that you choose only what you need, what has been paid for fairly, what has been made to last, and what has been produced sustainably without hurting people, animals or the earth. I might not be a shining example of the perfect ethical consumer yet, but I am immensely interested in becoming one. It seems to be one of the few things in life that is actually within my power!

Read More:

  • Waste and Resource Statistics_2016 by the Department for Rural Affairs (Defra)
  • Plastics_Market_Situation_Report_2016  by UK based WRAP, the world leaders in helping organisations achieve greater resource efficiency. Between 2010 and 2015 in England alone, WRAP initiatives reduced greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 50 million tonnes (Mt), which is equivalent to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of Portugal.
  • How did I calculate 56kg of plastic packaging per UK household? I used the most up-to-date figures provided in the two reports above which are for 2014 (new data is collected every two years, so the data for 2016 should be available soon). I applied this to the total number of households in the UK in 2014 as provided by the Office for National Statistics.
  • Article on Ethical Consumerism by Tania Lewis first publishd in 2012