In just a few decades, it has become almost indispensable to human existence. We all use it, often hardly noticing it’s there.
But as we munch our sandwiches, take a bite of chocolate or a sip of coffee, it is there, sometimes slipping away, unwanted and ignored, to cause untold problems for sealife, the environment in general and, increasingly, humans.
Just how much we use plastic is easy to forget until, like I did, you try to stop using it. For a month, I took up a challenge by the Marine Conservation Society to avoid “single-use” plastic.
I didn’t think it would be that hard. How wrong I was.
When you are trying to live without it, sometimes it feels like everything is made out of, wrapped in or comes with something plastic.
There’s a committee of international scientists currently pondering whether we should rename the current geological epoch from the Holocene to the Anthropocene to reflect human’s extraordinary impact on the planet.
I’d like to suggest a new name: the Plastocene. And I’m half, maybe more like a third, joking. Really, it’s that bad.
Walk into any supermarket, particularly the small ones that lazy city folk like me use, and virtually nothing is for you.
And if you happen to find pie in a cardboard box amid the gleaming ranks of goodies enticingly displayed in see-through plastic packaging, then beware.
When I got mine home, switched on the oven and admired the lovely picture on the box as I opened it, turned out it had been carefully preserved in shrink wrap. And it wasn’t even very nice either.
Pizza, I thought, would be a plastic-free treat that would help polish my somewhat tarnished halo of self-righteousness. I mean, they all come in a cardboard box so what could possibly go wrong?
The little plastic tub of dipping sauce that came unbidden with the pizza was presented almost as a gift from the chef. Oh hell, I thought, suddenly remembering pizzas also tend to come with a miniature plastic table to stop the cardboard sticking to the cheese.
Sauce had proved my downfall on the very first day of the challenge.
I knew the excellent takeaway Leon, just round the corner from The Independent’s office in London, provides food in paper bags. The wraps come in tinfoil, so no plastic there. A question about the environmental effects of tinfoil jumped into my head and was swiftly ignored.
It was all going so well until I was asked by one of the always-friendly staff: “Would you like some sauce?” Without really thinking about it, I replied: “Yeah, tomato, thanks.” At my desk, I opened the paper bag and pulled out the little plastic tub and sighed. My noble, month-long quest had lasted all of a morning.
It was the first of a number of similar setbacks.
My mind was perhaps not quite on the task in hand when I went for a clandestine meeting about a potential scoop in a city centre café.
We sat down and began to talk and then the four cups of tea we’d ordered were brought to the table. All were in the usual takeaway cardboard/plastic cups with white plastic lids. I looked at mine, sighed for what seemed like the umpteenth time that month, and drank my tea. The lid seemed a particularly gratuitous use of plastic, given that its working life was all of about 10 seconds.
There were a number of tricky choices. A lot of paper and cardboard packaging is mixed with plastic, and sometimes it’s hard to tell. I bought a couple of lovely Greek-style peppers stuffed with rice from a local deli. The box they came in looked like plain cardboard, but when I opened it, the inside had a plastic-like sheen.
Overall I think I did manage to reduce my use of single-use plastic by maybe something like 75 per cent. There were many days when I managed to avoid it altogether.
And there were other benefits. On several occasions, I cooked my own lunches the night before. They were tasty and a heck of a lot cheaper than buying a takeaway. If I can get in the habit of doing that (some hope), the savings would really start to stack up. On the down-side, my metal lunchbox leaked a bit.
I now own a coffee travel mug and a plastic water bottle that I bought a while ago has been washed free of dust. My water may still come in plastic but at least it won’t be single use.
And, make no mistake, humanity simply cannot go on throwing away the amount of plastic that we currently do. At some point, we are going to realise this and do something about it.
If we don’t, it is estimated that by 2050, there could be as much plastic as marine life in the oceans.
I somewhat sheepishly contacted the MCS to report how I’d done and find out how others had got on. Turns out I was not alone in struggling.
Others among the 982 people who took part in the challenge also had stories about how difficult it was.
Delia, from Hampshire, wrote on the MCS website: “I have to say, it was very challenging to go plastic free and I have to admit that I didn`t manage to go through the whole month 100 per cent plastic free.
“I definitely believe that, if nothing else, this challenge is a massive eye opener. It makes you realise that this evil plastic has taken over our lives and it`s very hard to get rid of now. However, nothing is impossible and with time, patience and perseverance, we can win the fight over plastic!”
And Patrick Joel, of Warwickshire, said: “Parsley bunches came with a plastic label to tell me I've bought parsley. The Plastic Challenge was to be much harder than I first thought!
“I found it is impossible to avoid all single use plastics, but you can get by without most of it.”
Emma Cunningham, senior pollution campaigns office at the Marine Conservation Society, said the idea was to raise awareness by getting people simply to try to avoid single-use plastic. And for good reason.
“Plastic bags, bottles and tiny plastic pieces are regularly found in the stomachs of turtles and other sea creatures, and in some cases have caused their death from starvation or choking,” she said.
“As plastic never biodegrades at sea – it just breaks down into small pieces but does not disappear, these pieces and microplastic particles are now found inside filter-feeding animals like mussels that we then eat – ultimately we are ingesting our own plastic waste and potentially any toxins transferred with it as it enters the food chain.
“Giving up single-use plastics isn’t an easy thing to do, but it will certainly change your attitude towards it, and will encourage us all to value plastic as a resource and stop taking it for granted.”
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