What my week without plastic taught me
PUBLISHED: 11:17 14 May 2018 | UPDATED: 11:17 14 May 2018
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We’re surrounded by oceans of plastic; and so are the oceans. Our plastic bags are clogging Earth’s waters; microplastics are entering the food-chain, as birds, fish and other creatures mistakenly feed off them; even wildlife nearer to home – in the Cotswolds themselves – is killed and poisoned by this litter. So is it possible to live without plastic? And will that save the Earth? Katie Jarvis has no idea – but she tries it for a week
Look, I’ll level with you. Before I’ve even started, I’ve got problems. (Not a good way to open an article. (Do you think I don’t know that!).)
Here’s the rub that Hamlet never had to deal with. Firstly, what even is plastic, for heaven’s sake? I don’t recognise it anymore. Like, say, the cartons that some milks come in look paper-based. But are they? (Anyway, I’m scuppered because the ring-pulls are plastic for sure.) Or the netting around satsumas? Or butter packets?!? I’ve even been told that metal cans of tomatoes are lined with plastic. I need a degree in chemistry and a fully-equipped lab to do this.
And if you think I’m going to start buying bamboo toothbrushes with hedgehog bristles, or an inlaid walnut-and-maple computer with ivory keyboard, then you’ve all got another think coming. (Unethical lot.) (And how am I supposed to pay for this stuff anyway? Polymer tenner or a PVCA credit card? Hmm? Do keep up.)
So. I’m unilaterally already refining my terms. I’m going to stick to avoiding single-use plastic – which includes most food packaging. And even that isn’t going to be easy. For one thing, I live in Nailsworth which – though a fantastic place to shop – doesn’t have a dedicated greengrocer. (Surely getting into a car to buy unpackaged goods is at least as bad as buying plastic?)
I start by wandering round the town, looking at what food I CAN buy. I can take my own paper bag into Shiny Goodness, the health shop in Fountain Street, and get porridge, muesli and seeds from a (plastic but fixed) dispenser, and refill my Ecover cleaning bottles.
Green Spirit in Market Street has a fab selection of organic fruit and veg (I can only see lettuce that’s plastic-bagged) such as butternut squash, mushrooms, potatoes, apples, satsumas and onions, all as nature intended. A feast, with paper bags to go!
Fact: Five trillion plastic bags are produced yearly. Side by side, they would encircle the world seven times (theworldcounts.com)
Tip: If you’re going to go the whole hog’s hair bristle, there are websites that detail hidden plastic in everyday items, such as ethicalsuperstore.com
Today, I’m going all-out ambitious: a protein forage. Country Quality Meat, the butcher in Old Market, is a revelation. Mike Rigg, who runs it, gets nearly all his meat from the locality: Stroud, Tetbury, Horsley, occasionally Malmesbury. The carcasses come straight in, without touching plastic, for the lads to butcher themselves on the premises.
“Customers are welcome to bring in their own containers. Quite a few people already do that. And there are no downsides,” Mike says. “Not with raw meat – you’re going to be cooking it anyway.”
So what did butchers do before plastic?
“They’d put your meat in a piece of greaseproof and wrap it in paper. Can’t do that now...Paul!” he shouts to a colleague out at the back. “You worked out what it would cost us to use ‘proper’ greaseproof, didn’t you?”
“Tenfold,” Paul calls back.
“And it would be much bulkier to store and deliver,” Mike adds. “What you’ve got to remember is that plastic keeps everything fresh, and it’s cheap to produce. We’ve always got to minimise costs in a business like this.”
Mike and his team reuse everything they can. Even give away bones to dog-owners – ideally for a donation to one of their charity tins.
“We don’t know what else we can do,” he says.
Fact: Plastic may take thousands of years to decompose (recyclingconsortium.org.uk)
Tip: If you ask, loads of stores – including some supermarkets – are happy to use any (sensible) containers you bring in within their deli, fishmonger and butchery departments.
I have lunch with friends at a local pub. (Delicious risotto.) (Though (ah-hem) almost certainly rice from a plastic bag.) “There’s that line in the Graduate, isn’t there,” one of my companions says, when the P subject rears its ugly head. “’I want to say one word to you,’” she quotes. “’Just one word. Plastics.’”
“Well, don’t forget,” says another. “We were all told not to use paper because it meant death to trees. Plastic was the great environmental solution.”
I’d forgotten about that, but it’s true. I can see that plastic is evil in its most polluting form. But – like so many environmental issues – it is confusing trying to figure out the right thing to do. For example, when I look in horror at cucumber halves double-wrapped in plastic, there’s potential ignorance in my gaze. “Food stays fresher in plastic,” points out a press officer at one of the supermarket chains I speak to. And she’s certainly validated by organisations such as moveforhunger.org, which confirms it can reduce food waste.
Still, two things do raise my blood pressure. One is watching a woman in a supermarket putting avocado pears – sold loose and unwrapped – into a thin plastic pull-off bag. Why?!?
The other is the fact that nowhere can I easily find paper bags to buy.
So I load into my trolley loose satsumas, loose onions and loose mushrooms in Morrisons and simply weigh them – corralling them like recalcitrant cattle - at the self-service till.
Fact: Co-op is the first retailer to switch all its own-brand bottled water to 50 percent recycled plastic; the move will happen later this year and, the chain estimates, save almost 350 tonnes of plastic annually.
Tip: If you’re looking for 100 percent recycled loo roll, uk.whogivesacrap.org not only sells it, but half of all profits are donated to help build toilets.
I’m reading a Jared Diamond book: The World Until Yesterday - a mesmerising comparison between traditional societies (as still exist in places such as New Guinea) and a Western way of life. The author relates an incident involving a dozen New Guineans he’s paid to carry heavy equipment up a steep trail to a mountain campsite. The trek takes all day; when they finally arrive at sunset, they discover that a second group of porters bringing food has failed to turn up. “Faced with hungry, exhausted men and no food, I expected to be lynched,” Diamond writes. Instead, the carriers laugh and proclaim it no big deal; they’ll sleep on empty stomachs and eat the next day instead.
That anecdote is transformational. Just a minute, I think! Instead of scouring places to find the food I want, why don’t I just manage with whatever I can find! “I samting nating,” as the hungry New Guineans casually dismiss their predicament. (And I’m not even going to go hungry.)
I think of this as I enviously view the samphire encased in a plastic box in Morrisons. (Blistering barnacles; now there’s an ocean-sized irony for you.) Well, I samting nating. If I never eat it again, I’ll probably still live.
Fact: WRAP – Waste and Resources Action Programme – is a charity based in Banbury, helping to reduce waste and develop sustainable products: wrap.org.uk
Tip: If you want an incentive to stop buying single-use carriers, shop at Morrisons – they’re not going to be selling them anymore.
You know, the great thing about this experiment is that I’m getting to know Nailsworth better. And I thought I knew it inside out! Even my pathetic moan about samphire has been negated. I can pile it into a paper bag at William’s Food Hall in Fountain Street. There are also gorgeous green beans, globe artichokes – lots of wonderful plastic-less veg – and a glorious fish counter which, the lady serving tells me, they’ll happily load into your own container. Same with cheese and other deli products.
“There’s a shop opening in Stroud, in that street where all the Indian restaurants are,” she adds, as she weighs out the samphire.
“Gloucester Street?” I suggest.
“That’s the one. Going to be totally plastic free.”
Fact: A study by Dr Dave Morritt of Royal Holloway University concluded Britain’s rivers are being choked by plastic which is largely hidden on river-beds.
Tip: If you want to know how to shop ethically, visit pfree.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/shops-and-products-vs2.pdf
My list of Nailsworth food shops where plastic isn’t an issue – or, at least, is avoidable - is growing. The butcher I pop in to speak to at Leonard Walker, on George Street, says two of his customers already bring in their own containers. Hobbs, the baker’s, put their bread inside bags that are waxed but compostable in four weeks – and they’re aiming for all their shops to be plastic-free by next year. Halls, the bakery in Old Market, put their bread and cakes (bar sliced breads) into ordinary paper bags; same with Walkers on Wheelwrights Corner, behind Brutons Hardware.
There’s the wonderful Nailsworth Country Market – with its boxes of veg – in the Mortimer Rooms on a Friday morning; and the farmers’ market – behind the bus station – every fourth Saturday morning.
Nevertheless, when you start to become aware of plastic, you walk into shops and feel dazzled by the reflective glow of a thousand different PVC surfaces. It’s beginning to make me feel sick – never a good sensation with which to begin a food shop.
How much of it is genuinely recyclable? How much of it is going to end up killing hedgehogs, songbirds, coral reefs? I don’t know.
It makes me want to parade up and down outside supermarkets holding placards with some of the worst images I’ve seen: an albatross killed by plastic jamming its digestive system; a turtle with a blue strip streaming from its mouth; whales wrapped in almost as much plastic as my cucumber. Once, walking by the river in Tiverton, I saw a gull unable to fly because of a plastic bag entangled in its feet. I edged down the bank, pretty much knowing there was nothing I could do. And, despite its incontrovertible predicament, the gull certainly wasn’t going to let me near.
Fact: The Government is working on a drinks can- and bottle-deposit scheme, which the UK’s biggest supermarkets are supporting. However, it’s not yet clear who will stump up the estimated £1bn to implement it.
Tip: Find your own Country Market selling local, seasonal and hand-made goods at country-markets.co.uk
I receive an email from Nailsworth Town Councillor Robert Maitland – by complete coincidence (he doesn’t know I’m writing this) - commending the work of refill.org.uk. “The idea,” he writes, “is to reduce plastic pollution by making it easy for people to refill water bottles with tap water.” He’s looking at how the council can help Nailsworth become a ‘Refill’ town. “It would mean traders, the town council, the TIC – anyone with a tap – letting people fill up their bottles,” he explains.
Interestingly, he’s copied in Jeremy Allen, who owns the hairdressing salon Gyles Allen in Market Street. Various people have told me: “Speak to Jeremy!”
So I ring him. He describes a holiday he had last year in Devon, where he happened across the town of Modbury. “As I drove through, they had a big banner saying, ‘Modbury: plastic-bag-free for 10 years!’ And I thought: How is that possible?”
He discovered the idea came from wildlife camerawoman Rebecca Hoskins, who went to the Pacific to film marine life for the BBC. So devastated was she by the plastic pollution she encountered that she went home and persuaded every single Modbury trader to do away with plastic bags. Even the local Co-op.
Jeremy wants Nailsworth to do the same. “I’d like us to follow on from being a Fairtrade town to being a plastic-bag-free town. In fact, I’d like Nailsworth to print its own fabric carrier-bags that could be sold to raise funds for the youth club or the festival or whatever.
“I’d also like traders to do away with plastic straws; and I’d love it if all the cafes and places that sell take-out coffees would get together to bulk-buy biodegradable cups that they could then brand with their own recyclable sleeves.”
At the same time, he’s reducing his own carbon footprint – trying to source sustainable products for his salon, and reducing his rubbish at home. He can get one black bin-bag to last a month.
Chatting to him is inspiring. And slightly dangerous as we egg each other on. First of all, we start talking about people behind their backs. “There’s this one supermarket,” I say, “that reassured me they’d banned plastic in cotton buds 10 years before anyone else. I mean, that’s great. But there’s hardly going to be mass cheering amongst Arctic seals.”
“I know,” he gripes back. “It feels, with supermarkets, as if it’s the barest minimum at the slowest possible pace.”
“I feel,” I say, “like making placards showing animals covered in plastic, and parading through town streets.”
“I’m up for it,” he says.
So we’re meeting for a coffee. And then? Who knows. But I know this much. I’m angry. I’m probably more troubled about this than about any other environmental issue. And I need to research more, for sure.
• Is it OK to use recyclable plastic?
• Does some plastic actually help the environment?
These are among the issues I still need better to understand.
But I do know – one week later – that any way I can avoid disposable (now there’s an oxymoron), single-use plastic, I will. A real sea-change.