The last (plastic) straw

When I was studying chemistry at secondary school, our teacher told us that this era would be looked back on as ‘the plastics age’. The trouble was he either didn’t know what a problem that was or he didn’t tell us.

We learned how plastic was a petrochemical, we even made some in the lab, and that there were different types called thermoset and thermoplastic. But it must have been in the days before biodegradable plastic and definitely long before the point we’ve got to now – whereby people are just beginning to see that it’s not the wonder material we’ve been led to believe.

It’s not a new issue to me, I was writing about the evils of plastic carrier bags around 15 years ago. Before that, in the late 1990s, I was impressed by Germany’s widespread use of cloth bags and wondered why we didn’t have them in the UK. Despite this, I didn’t understand then the long term effect of a world made of plastic.

Thilo Maack, oceans and biodiversity campaigner with Greenpeace Germany, dissects a dead northern fulmar – with plastic rubbish found in its stomach.

We’ve caught on now and the ‘ban’/compulsory charge for single use carrier bags is a great step in the right direction but I wish people – all people, not just the environmentally-minded – would give a bit more thought to the impact of plastic. (Also someone needs to address the problem of those carrier bags distributed by charities to collect unwanted clothes. I get dozens every year and also see them lying in my street either undelivered or escaped from the bin).

One of the things I wrote about plastic bags was part of a newspaper column called The Green Goat (what gets yours) – which was aimed at flagging up the small things which when taken together pose a big risk to the environment.

Getting my green goat right now? The obsession with banning plastic drinking straws. I get that, as with the carrier bag levy, it is a step in the right direction but I fear once achieved most people will consider it ‘problem solved’ and therefore think we can all stop worrying about it. So let’s start a list of the hundreds of things that pose an equal, if not greater, risk to the planet.

Whether it’s the threat to wildlife (see pic above) or the contribution to climate change from their manufacture, our plastics habit needs to be broken. Before you accuse me of being a sanctimonious twerp, I know I am one of the people with a plastics habit. I also realise that – until widespread, cost effective and appropriate alternatives are available – it will be a hard habit to break. (For example hygienically safe food packaging is currently high on my ‘don’t know how’ list and tampon applicators probably top of my ‘but how will I cope’ list.)

But this is exactly the reason we need to keep talking about it, doing something about it and striving to go beyond our obsession with drinking straws (when did you last use one???) and – ok, I’ll give you cotton bud stems because everyone cleans their ears out with ‘q-tips’ even though they shouldn’t (plastic notwithstanding).

Below is my first stab at a list of other single-use/limited use plastics we need alternatives to. Please add more in the comments. I’ll endeavour to find out about some of the environmentally-safe alternatives and write about those in a future post.

Single-use plastics rounded up in my house in the space of just 30 seconds!

All the plastic crap in the world – the beginnings of a list

  • Pens – especially free ones given away as charity incentives or in your hotel room
  • Disposable razors
  • Plastic trays used to package raw meat products
  • Yogurt pot lids (They used to be foil, let’s go back to that!)
  • All other food packing which says ‘not currently recyclable’ (how about a law that says it must be?!)
  • Plastic ‘glasses’ used at festivals
  • Cheap children’s toys and ‘play figures’ that cost about 99p (or any price really)
  • Phone cases which don’t last or people discard for ‘fashion reasons’
  • Bus pass/railcard cases
  • Blister packed medicines (what’s wrong with foil?)
  • Not being able to buy new lenses for existing spectacle frames
  • Sandwich bags
  • Fridge magnets – especially the stupid slogan ones or ones with place names on
  • Powder compacts (why can’t you buy a refill?)
  • Various other cosmetics (eyeshadows, bronzer (whatever that is) etc)
  • Travel toiletries/miniatures (Waste of money! Refillable bottles should be encouraged).
  • A thousand other things… what can you think of that I haven’t mentioned above?

If you’re reading this on the date of publication, there’s just over a day left to contribute to the UK Government’s consultation on single-use plastics. Add your voice to the campaign to do something about plastic NOW and not leave it to voluntary codes of practice to solve the problem. Greenpeace have a handy online form you can use to do so (takes about one-minute to do). Find it here.

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