The Turning Tide
This month is Plastic Free July — a grassroots campaign that started with just 40 people in Australia in 2011, and has now grown to over two million participants from 159 countries. To celebrate the people saying no to plastic, Olivia Lee looks at other ways society is cracking down on single-use plastic, and what consumers can do on an individual level to help reduce their plastic footprint.
The statistics speak for themselves; 20,000 plastic bottles bought every second; one million bags bought every minute; 8.5 billion plastic straws thrown away every year (in the UK alone). Minute microplastics have now been found in products from honey and shellfish to table salt and tap water. This is not a new problem. According to a study by US academics, since the 50s some 8.3bn tonnes of plastic (equivalent to the weight of a billion elephants) has been produced worldwide, and to date, only 9% of that has been recycled. Still, it’s taken a while for the world to wake up. As Malcolm David Hudson, a marine ecologist at Southampton University, told the Financial Times; "Two years ago the whole issue of marine plastic pollution was completely under the radar. Now it is on the global agenda."
Shocking statistics, alongside what’s been dubbed the ‘Blue Planet effect’, are finally causing people to act. On an international level, this is typically being reflected in plastic taxes or bans. Most governments, for instance, have now imposed levies of some kind on plastic bag use, and those that haven’t are making plans to do so in the coming years. Some countries have gone even further, with India criminalising the use of plastic bags, and Rwanda and Kenya introducing jail time — up to four years’ imprisonment (or fines of £31,000 in Kenya) for anyone producing, selling, or even carrying a plastic bag.
The legislation does seem to be paying off. According to a 25-year study from the government's Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, there are 30 per cent fewer plastic bags on the seafloor since European countries introduced fees. In Kenya, abattoirs used to find plastic inside three out of every 10 animals taken to slaughter. This has gone down to one. Other plans to curb the plastic problem include the world’s first ‘plastic cleaning machine’, set to launch this summer off the coast of the US, with hopes that within five years it will have cleaned half of the ‘Great Pacific garbage patch’ — a section of water between California and Hawaii with enough plastic to cover the surface of France, twice.
Despite the progress, there is still a long way to go. At current estimates by Greenpeace, 12 million tonnes of plastic is still entering the ocean every year. When confronted with facts like these, it can feel impossible to know what to do on an individual level. “It’s incredibly overwhelming,” says Clare Osborn, a former lawyer who quit her job in 2017 to volunteer for marine charity Incredible Oceans. “The stats makes you think: How can one person make a difference? But they can.” Last month, Clare kayaked from Bristol to London, collecting plastic as she went. The waterway is a fair distance to kayak — 300 kilometres in total — but just a dot on the map compared to the rest of the planet’s oceans. Still, in that short stretch she picked up 5,673 pieces of plastic, including a Walkers crisp packet with a use-by date of 2005. “We need to highlight the ways people are making a difference, and then show others how they can get involved,” she says. “My key thing is that plastic is not bad, it’s just the way we’re using that needs to be addressed.” Clare has done a number of ‘paddle pickups’ and is always keen for more people to join her.
Group initiatives similar to Clare’s are now gathering pace across the country. The Waterbike Collective, for instance, is a 1,000-mile community project in which anyone can sign up to ride a waterbike — a kind of pedal-powered raft — along a stretch of England's rivers and canals, picking up plastic as they go. The goal is to collect a million pieces before the end of September. Similar projects are taking place abroad, such as the ‘Peloton Against Plastic’ bicycle ride, which set off last month from Hanoi in an attempt to generate conversation about prevention of plastic pollution.
As well as clearing up the planet, another significant way people can make a difference is to cut the problem at its source — that is, limit purchases of single-use plastic and recycle whatever they can. The success of Plastic Free July demonstrates it is possible to go totally plastic-free, but it’s not easy. Supermarkets make it so that choosing plastic-free options either blows your household budget, or means sacrificing other values, like avoiding products containing unsustainably sourced palm oil. Going plastic-free also requires so much continued conscious effort that it’s easy to slip back into plastic-consuming habits when time is limited and motivation wanes.
Cal Major, founder of Paddle Against Plastic — a British organisation set up in 2016 as a way to talk about the issue of plastic pollution —is keen to highlight that people don’t have to go cold turkey when it comes to plastic: “It’s not about feeling guilty for the plastic products you can’t avoid, but about feeling proud of the ones you can. Change doesn’t happen overnight. But if you start to look at the plastic you’re using in your life, you can see where you can switch it out. Start with the simplest and most impactful — a reusable water bottle, for instance — and go from there.”
Cal has done a number of expeditions in an attempt to raise awareness, including paddle-boarding solo around the Isle of Skye to show how even the most remote wilderness have been affected by plastic. She’s just got back from a two-month world-record trip, paddling the length of the UK from Land’s End to John O’Groats, in aid of the plastic crisis. “Everyone has a role they can play, however big or small. Just by adding your voice to the millions of other people around the planet who care about this issue will help to put pressure on the companies and governments that are able to make change. There is a lot to be done, but this can only be done collaboratively, and caring about the problem is the first step to being part of the solution.”
Here at Firepot, we are no strangers to the difficulties of going plastic free. We have been working towards that goal since our inception, but have come up with plenty of challenges in sourcing materials that keep food fresh and hot, without causing lasting damage to the planet. Since the start of the year we have been trialling biodegradable pouches, which Clare, Cal and a number of other explorers have used on recent expeditions. Thanks to the success of the trial, we will be introducing a range of this fully compostable packaging in the autumn. It’s not a total solution, but it’s a start, and we will continue in our attempts to cut down single-use plastic going forward. To find out more, please get in touch.
Images courtesy of James Appleton, Julia Kirby and Ian Finch.