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A month without plastic

Christine Jeavans and her month's worth of plastic

By Christine Jeavans
BBC News

I am giving up plastic for the whole of August.

By this I mean not buying or accepting anything which contains plastic or is packaged in plastic.

So, no take-away coffees, bottles of water or pre-packed sandwiches.

I'll be forsaking punnets of strawberries and packs of chicken, supermarket milk and bottled cleaning products, and switching to reusable nappies for my toddler.

No longer will my other half and I be able to slump in front of the telly of an evening with the latest DVD, a takeaway curry and a bottle of wine (the cork could be plastic).

Plums in punnets
It's no to any fruit packaged like this

I am, if you like, donning a polyester-free hairshirt - with the aim of seeing how possible it is to live without new plastic.

I will, however, be keeping the plastic I already own. But even so, it's going to be very difficult.

Durable, versatile, lightweight, hygienic, cheap and strong: synthetic plastic is arguably one of the most useful inventions of the last century.

It is essential in medical equipment, technology and thousands of devices which have increased our standard of living.

But those very same attributes of durability and cheapness make plastic one of the most pervasive forms of waste on the planet.

Plastic soup

Evidence of our failure to deal with plastic rubbish is everywhere, from bulging landfill sites and countryside litter in the UK to a toxic plastic "soup" swilling around the middle of the North Pacific, thousands of miles from continental land.

KEEP UP WITH THE CHALLENGE
Not My Bag blog
Christine's challenge is to live a month without buying or accepting plastic
She will be keeping a blog to note the highs and lows
See link below for her first posts

Island groups such as Hawaii and Midway which, by their location in the Pacific should be pristine, instead are awash with plastic, killing seabirds, turtles and other marine life.

The UN Environment Programme estimates that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter floating in every square mile of ocean on Earth.

Some marine scientists believe that microscopic plastic fragments in the ocean can soak up pollutants which may then get passed up the food chain into fish and, ultimately, humans.

Plastic audit

I'm as guilty as anyone of treating this useful resource as utterly disposable.

I do try to remember to take reusable bags to the shops and I drop my bottles into the recycling bag which the council collects every week.

But I, like almost everyone else in the UK, junk the vast majority of plastic which comes into my home.

I've kept a month's worth of my plastic waste, to use as a barometer for my month of abstinence. It isn't pretty - 603 items, including:

  • 36 carrier bags
  • 67 food packaging bags and films such as bread bags, cheese wrappers (and a jumbo pack of Maltesers!)
  • 23 polystyrene tea cups with lids and 24 coffee cup lids
  • 15 fruit punnets and vegetable trays
  • 13 yoghurt pots
  • 16 water bottles, 10 milk bottles, 7 juice bottles
  • Two toothbrushes

Probably the least pretty aspect to my household's waste at the moment comes in the form of disposable nappies.

Our 18-month-old son gets through four or so a day so that's about 120 a month, plus individual nappy sacks, nappy bin bags and wipes, which go straight into landfill.

Inevitably, however, packaging forms the greatest part of my plastic haul.

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The amount of plastic Chris used in a month

Nationally we throw away 58 billion items - 1.5 million tonnes - of household plastic packaging a year, according to the government-funded Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) and it's growing annually by 2-5%.

Considering that most plastics are lightweight, that's a mind-boggling volume of rubbish, especially as it does not include non-packaging plastic waste (as government figures do not exist for this).

In theory, most household plastics can be recycled but in practice, most local authorities only offer the facility to collect and recycle plastic bottles. A handful do collect all plastics but they are few and far between.

Unless you're very, very disciplined - and most of us frankly aren't - then you're quite likely to end up by throwing more [food] away
Dick Searle, UK Packaging Federation

These make up a third of household plastic packaging waste so even if every single bottle was recycled (currently 35% are), the majority of our plastic rubbish would still be destined for landfill or incineration.

It's something that annoys consumers admits Paul Davidson, plastics sector manager at Wrap.

"Plastics packaging waste in particular is a very visible part of the waste stream and it's also growing.

"Ironically as we become more successful at recycling generally, what's left in the bin tends to be just the plastic. So more and more people are looking in their bins and saying there's just bits of plastic here why can't I recycle them?"

The situation will improve in the next three to five years, he adds, as UK recycling plants are developed which can handle trays, tubs, pots and punnets as well as bottles.

Under-packaging - worse?

Everyone has their favourite over-packaging bugbear be it the infamous shrink-wrapped coconut or bananas packaged singly on polystyrene trays.

But the other extreme leads to food waste, which has a far greater environmental impact than excess plastic according to Dick Searle, chief executive of the UK Packaging Federation.

Plastics recycle bin

"A lot of packaging is designed to lengthen the shelf-life of the products that are being sold so if you take it out of the packaging there's a good chance that it will actually not last as long.

"And unless you're very, very disciplined - and most of us frankly aren't - then you're quite likely to end up by throwing more [food] away."

Meat is a prime example, he says, with so-called "modified atmosphere packaging" - gas-filled supermarket packs which delay deterioration - meaning that packaged cuts last as much as two weeks longer than the same product bought from a butcher.

Plastic-free wagon

And yet we used to manage without all this plastic. In the 1950s, less than five million tonnes of plastic was produced worldwide, today it is close to 100 million tonnes.

The clink of glass milk bottles on the doorstep has been replaced by the purchase of two-litre plastic bottles at the supermarket. Chocolate bars were once packaged in foil and paper; packed lunches used to consist of a homemade sarnie in some greaseproof and an apple.

But our lifestyles have changed too - we no longer shop for groceries every day, many more women go out to work and fewer meals are eaten or prepared at home.

If plastic in general, and plastic packaging in particular, is all about facilitating our current way of living, will I have to return to the labour-intensive shopping patterns of previous decades to complete my non-plastic mission? I'm about to find out.

I will be keeping a record of my progress - and any falls from the plastic-free wagon - in a blog which you can find here.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I think this is a great idea! Everyone should try to have a go at least for a week. Is good to try to save the planet. Deserts are full of plastic bags too.
maria kvietkova, London

First of all, good luck. I use very little plastic but, seeing from the article I can probably go a couple of steps further. I am going to try and keep out all plastic as much as possible for the whole of August - except where it is useful - credit cards :)
Uday, Bangalore, India

Very interesting article with some good facts and figures. Reflective of the way I think and feel about recycling plastic. Look forward to hearing how she gets on. I've always felt guilty about the plastic milk container, but this does go into the recycling bag as a recyclable item. Thinking seriously now about using the milkman!
Rebecca Norton, Sevenoaks, Kent

Good Luck - I'll be interested to see how you get on. I live in Germany and we have a four bin system here for recycling, but by far and away the biggest amount of rubbish is the plastics - although this does go for recycling - this is despite the fact that I use reusable nappies, shop at the local market and most of our bottles are deposit ones. I do miss my milkman though!! A few simple steps by everyone can make a real impact here so do keep posting to let us know how you get on.
Emma Lawrey, Essen, Germany

Unless your planning not using your TV, three-piece, microwave, washing machine or tumble dryer (to name just a few) then this is a mute exercise. In general it is also not the plastic packaging that is the problem, plastic/polystyrene is normally the best option for keeping food stuffs fresh and safe. my main bugbear with packaging is the waste in terms of paper and ink. No ready-meal needs both plastic and paper, instead they should be in resealable plastic tubs with a sticker on them. These could then be reused and use a lot less paper.
Ieuan Johns, Port Talbot, UK

this will be interesting as even butchers use plastic bags for the cuts of meat, loose vegetables in supermarkets are usually put into plastic bags for weighing and all bread is in plastic in the supermarket. As grease proof paper no longer is used by the food industry or the outlets and paper bags are no longer supplied for veg I see this month as being very trying at least and most frustrating in general. I wish you every success but do not hold my breath.
John Barton, Alnwick

16 plastic bottles a month?! There are two adults and one child our house, in a week alone we recycle about 1-2 black bin bags of plastic cartons and bottles, two carrier bags of newspapers and other paper and a plastic rubbish bin full of cardboard! Not writing this to look smug, just to point out that if one small normal family like ours recycles this much rubbish in week, how much is really being wasted by those who don't and simply dump in landfills?
George Johnson, Hoddesdon, Herts

While I am fully behind everyone cutting down greatly on plastic use, especially the disposable types from food trays and carrier bags, the article which focus on zero-plastic use make the wrong points. Firstly, having three people cut down their plastics use by a third each is roughly as effective and would be much less burden. Secondly, our shopping and lifestyles are not geared to zero-use, so absolutely zero-plastic use is going to be very inconvenient. Let us know how difficult/easy cutting by 50% is, that would be useful. We should all be striving for significant reductions, but some use is good and efficient. We should default to not using the tray unless there is a good reason.
Tim, Southampton

This is a great project, I wish you the best of luck! I know your experiment will be beneficial to all of us, I look forward to your results. Also be sure to check out the JUNK Craft http://junkraft.blogspot.com/. The JUNK Craft is "Sailing to Hawaii on 15,000 plastic bottles and a Cessna 310, to raise awareness about plastic fouling our oceans."
Jennifer, Yonkers, New York, United States

I wish the liberals would also go for a month (or longer) without using the media to promote their hypocrisy, intolerance and leftist bigotry. But that's one modern convenience they can't live without.
Jeremy, Houston, Texas

As a petrochemical engineer, I agree with the environmentalist, saying Christine's aim to reduce the plastic she uses will cause food wastage through shelf life reduction and similar other implications. However, Christine's changes will drastically reduce plastic we don't need. Plastic tea cups and coffee cups, sandwich wrappers, water and juice bottles are not really essentials and purely a luxury. Tap water is clean and better for you (as it's not stagnant in bottles) coffee and tea should be enjoyed sitting, not on the go. Sandwiches are better homemade (I can't believe people are becoming so lazy this is now a multi £billion industry). Nappies, I used cloth. I think it will be fairly easy for Christine.
Abi, Manchester

Yet another pointless waste of license fee payers money on behalf of the BBC, how much do these writers earn? Who cares about some liberal blogger's self-important ramblings about plastic fasting. Wow, such hardship she must be enduring living without plastic for a month, have a pat on the back... But honestly, why bother? We've all had green issues rammed down our throats for the past 5 years so much that it is probably putting lots people off what are important causes with patronising crap such as this.
David, Liverpool

Great. go for it! I will be very interested in seeing the result/how hard it will be to achieve this. but it is about time more people act rather than talk environmental issues. I wish supermarkets tried to cut their plastic packaging, then it would automatically help people using less plastic too.
liza manica, tokyo, japan

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