Purging plastic… is it even possible?

Last Friday, I was challenged by George Smith, presenter of the ‘The Friday Night Takeover’, on BBC Radio Lincolnshire – to cut down on my use of plastic (well, as much as possible), for an entire week.

Listen to George and I discussing the challenge here. Skip to 42.10 for our little chat – but do listen to the whole show if you can, class tunes are guaranteed.

In all honesty, it has not gone well. My lack of prior planning on Saturday (& Sunday – I’m a mess) led to a shop-brought lunch – a sandwich. With a plastic insert. Brilliant start to my no-plastic challenge.

But, and I’m being totally honest here – I spent a lot of time (valuable time, I might add, breaks in retail are fleeting!) – trying to find something to eat that was not packaged in plastic. I could not find a single thing – apart from loose fruit and veg (which, I might add, you are encouraged to put into a plastic bag).

Single-use plastic has become synonymous with food retail. Image by vedat zorluer from Pixabay

I knew plastic was widely used, but I hadn’t fully realised how integral is has become to food retail. It is inescapable.

Whilst I’ve been sat on the till this week – I’ve also noted how many people choose to buy plastic bags – rather than bringing their own. I’d say it’s roughly a 50/50 split – but fluctuates depending on the day. Sometimes you’ll have periods where everyone is super prepared, but I’m sad to say – for those who are not – the 10/15p charge has lost its impact.

As part of the challenge – I’ve been doing a little more research on the ‘plastic problem’. It has been incredibly eye-opening. Let us begin with the origins of plastic as a product (classic historian).

In 1907, Belgian-born American Leo Baekeland invented ‘Bakelite’ (clueless as to where he got the name from…) – which was the first synthetic plastic to be produced – derived from fossil fuels, not plants or animals (which had previously been the base product of choice). After this invention, other scientists began developing and creating new kinds of plastic: polystyrene in 1929, polyester in 1930, polyvinylchloride (PVC) and polythene in 1933, nylon in 1935.

At the time: revolutionary. Plastic was durable, cheap – and fundamentally: lasted forever. It was not made from a natural organism, so there was nothing in our ecosystems that could break it down. Originally recognised as a scientific triumph, now… an ecological catastrophe. Find out more about the history of plastic here (way more fascinating than it sounds, I promise).

Plastic is now so integrated into our daily lives – we often don’t even realise that we’re using it. Our clothes, glossy magazines, cosmetics… even chewing gum and sunscreen. It’s difficult to imagine a world without it.

This week’s essentials… minus the headband (70% polyester… whoops).

Now – I realise I have made plastic sound like a product produced by the devil. It is not. I’m pretty sure Baekeland’s intentions were not environmentally malicious. As I said to George when we chatted last Friday – plastic saves lives (needles, catheters, insulin pens), it keeps us safe (smoke alarms, child-protective caps, helmets), and helps us to explore the world (aeroplanes, boats, cars). Plus it plays a huge role in decreasing food waste. For example, did you know that a shrink-wrapped cucumber will stay fresh for 14 days rather than 3? The food waste V.S. single-use plastic debate is discussed extensively by Tim Harford here. Essentially: it’s not all bad.

It is our arrogant relationship with single-use plastic that is the problem. 

In June 2018, National Geographic claimed that ‘roughly 40 percent of the now more than 448 million tons of plastic produced every year is disposable, much of it used as packaging intended to be discarded within minutes after purchase. Production has grown at such a breakneck pace that virtually half the plastic ever manufactured has been made in the past 15 years.’ Find out more here.

It is important to note that plastic (well, certain plastics – this is where it gets tricky) – can be recycled. But, I’m the first to admit when I don’t understand something – and I really don’t understand this. Essentially, it is hugely dependent on the chemical composition of certain plastics as to whether or not they can be recycled – and – how many times (there is often a limit). As well as this, it’s often expensive, and it sometimes involves incineration – which is – you guessed it – not good for the environment (fumes etc.). Fundamentally, it’s all just very confusing. More info here.

But when they don’t get recycled – its landfill or the ocean. This is a devastating solution for our natural world. Microplastics (small pieces of plastic, less than 5mm long) in particular are causing huge problems, as marine life mistake them for food, and consume them. Plastic bags resemble jellyfish, and are often also ingested by dolphins and turtles. The UN claims that marine litter harms over 600 marine species, in their extensive 104 page document on single-use plastic. Disclaimer: I have not (yet) read all 104-pages – I’ve been a tad busy trying to find paper bags and a reusable cup…

Some big organisations are being proactive when it comes to their environmental impact. Starbucks now charge an extra 5p for takeaway cups. Boston Tea Party have gone one step further and banned them entirely. Customers have to bring a reusable cup or purchase one in the shop (you can also loan a cup, and return it to another branch for a refundable £4.50). The BBC intends to ban single-use plastic by 2020. The EU, in a monumental move, has approved a ban on single use plastic – which should come into force in 2021.

It’s an intimidating issue, and I can empathise with the whole ‘what-can-one-person-do’ attitude. I felt a little powerless this week when I realised how much plastic I use on a daily basis, because of a mix of convenience, and a lack of an alternative.


But what can be done? Paper straws instead of plastic? Metal (reusable) coffee cups instead of takeaway cups? Wooden cutlery instead of plastic?

Tonight George and I will discuss all of this – and how we both got on with the challenge (spoiler: it was REALLY hard). Tune into BBC Radio Lincolnshire from 7pm!

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