May’s plastic ploy shirks responsibility

Over the vacation, I took advantage of my free evenings and BBC license to catch up on David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II. Stories of the sea’s rich wildlife were intertwined with stark ecological warnings, and one night, as I watched a baby puffling’s parents clack beaks and kiss, I felt a sudden well of rage surge up within me. It wasn’t the puffins’ display of affection which so angered me, but the injustice that these animals must suffer because of humanity’s selfishness. How dare we deplete the ocean’s resources so that those puffins have to fly further and further to find their puffling food? How dare we pollute the ocean so that those puffins join the numbers lying dead with plastic in their stomachs? And how dare I watch these puffins and empathise with them while all the time creating a little pile of plastic Quality Street wrappers beside me, complicit in the planet’s destruction?

Theresa May’s announcement last Thursday, that where “technologically, environmentally and economically practical”, plastic waste will be eliminated in the UK in 25 years’ time, fails to grasp the urgency of our ecological crisis. We can’t wait until 2042. 12 million tonnes of plastic are entering our oceans every year (Greenpeace). At current rates, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish (Ellen MacArthur Foundation). Greenpeace’s Louise Edge described the plan as “a missed opportunity” which “lacks urgency, detail and bite”, while Shadow Environment Secretary Sue Hayman called it “years behind schedule”. The planet doesn’t have time to wait for a politician’s deadline conveniently vague in scope and, safely for her but dangerously for the oceans, well outside of her own tenure in office. We need to prioritise ending single-use plastic now.

Theresa May’s announcement last Thursday…fails to grasp the urgency of our ecological crisis. We can’t wait until 2042.

The government’s failure to take meaningful, immediate action is disappointing, but there are some hopeful signs from major supermarkets. The Co-op and Iceland are leading the way on plastic waste, backing a mandatory bottle return scheme. While just 57% of plastic bottles are recycled in the UK, countries with bottle deposit return schemes enjoy return rates of over 90%. The supermarket Iceland has gone a step further and pledged to become plastic-free by 2023, a more appropriate timeframe for transition than 25 years. Hopefully, Iceland will be rewarded for its vision with custom and other supermarkets will follow suit.

While it is governments and corporations who hold the obvious power to make the environmentally-friendly option the easiest one and end our addiction to plastic, we don’t have to wait until 2042. Many of us may have a vague (or strong) desire to have a positive impact upon the world with our lives, but the reality is that the everyday choices of the majority of people in highly-developed countries like the UK are destructive, exploitative and murderous towards our planet, other people and animals. I include myself in this statement: today, I have eaten apples which came in a plastic bag, bread from a plastic bag, a brunch bar in a plastic wrapper… Yesterday, my tofu bento from Wasabi came with a plastic lid and plastic disposable cutlery which quickly found their way into a bin. All of this is an unnecessary use of finite resources; all of these things have the potential to damage our oceans.

Aiming to reduce our personal consumption in the ways we can is worthwhile, even if we occasionally fall shy of perfection

Alternatives to plastic waste are already on the market, and we can take individual action by making conscious consumption choices and using these ourselves, in turn increasing demand and availability. If the puffins aren’t enough to convince you, investing in a long-term alternative to disposable plastics often works out saving money. From carrying reusable shopping bags, coffee flasks and drinks bottles to using solid naked shampoos, shower gels, soaps and deodorants, there are a lot of really simple steps we can take to reduce our ecological footprints. Plastic can be swapped out for bamboo toothbrushes, natural sponges and stainless steel razors. Taking string bags shopping to purchase vegetables loose, trying a menstrual cup or reusable pads, and making an effort to carry and use your own straw, takeaway pot and spork (or cooking for yourself) are all other plastic-reducing options. Websites like ‘Trash is for Tossers’ provide plenty more inspiration for zero-waste living.

Entirely ending one’s dependence on single-use plastic and going zero-waste might be challenging. However, aiming to reduce our personal consumption in the ways we can is worthwhile, even if we occasionally fall shy of perfection and forget to bring our own bags, or succumb to the temptation of a polystyrene-packaged Solomon’s or Hassan’s. Meanwhile, we can use our political powers, our ability to elect those who will take more initiative in tackling the plastic crisis, and our capacity to campaign and put pressure upon this government to push for real policy change.