July is over, but the Plastic Challenge is not

By: Ben Garrod
Date posted: 31 July 2019

The Marine Conservation Society’s Ocean Ambassador, Professor Ben Garrod, is Professor of Evolutionary Biology and Science Engagement at the University of East Anglia. He is also a TV and radio presenter, and author of several books, covering a range of subjects from evolution and anatomy to animal behaviour and natural history.

Well, July has been a long month and memorable for many reasons. I’ve been rushed off my feet with work, writing new books, promoting new ones and teaching students at the University of East Anglia all about invasive species. We’ve also had the hottest day on record in the UK and we appear to be entering a new phase in British politics. It’s also been a month where I have tried to go plastic-free. Well, single-use plastic-free, if I’m being strictly accurate.

Pollution is one of the five main drivers behind the sharp decline in global biodiversity and within the broad heading of pollution, plastic features heavily. Although its influence varies depending on species and habitats, nowhere is more affected by the blight of single-use plastics than our marine habitats. I agreed to go single-use plastic-free for MCS for a month, in a bid to highlight how important it is, how easily it can be done and how we might make the changes to our lives in order to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

I realised early on that food is a big area where single-use plastics features heavily and this month has been difficult in terms of balancing a busy life with eating foods that don’t include plastic packaging. I tweeted about the issues with easily finding pasta that isn’t wrapped in plastic and was instantly met with helpful hints on how to make my own pasta. While I appreciated the feedback and rather see myself as somewhere between Nigella and Floyd, it just isn’t feasible to make my own pasta regularly, as well as write books, take the dog out, go to physio, go swimming, have a social life, head to meetings and the million other things we all need to do each day. I love cooking from scratch when I can, but for the rest of the week, it’s a case of heading to the shops like millions of other people and getting something that is both financially viable and doable in terms of not taking up too much of my day.

The way forward is making everyday shopping easier and more environmentally friendly rather than expecting millions of people to make decisions that are more expensive and entail more effort. I did pretty well. I ended up using some plastic, I admit it. I have already confessed to the plastic sheathing around the jar of mayo in my previous blog but I’m a repeat offender. I bought that bag of fresh pasta but as I’ve already explained, I’ll be making my own pasta twice a week at home when the BBC considers me for that new cookery series. I then went one worse and bought a bag of salad. Of course, I could have just grabbed a lettuce and a carrot and got creative but I wanted some rocket and spinach and that was that. It was, more than anything, a case of me wanting to have something I regularly had access to, and that’s the big problem here.

Many of us want to help save the world but we still want to do many of the things we enjoy or take for granted. The truth is, however, that it will take sacrifice and we are just going to have to change the way we think and act if we are to stand any chance of reducing the amount of plastic entering our oceans, blighting our beaches and literally choking our marine species. If we carry on as normal then why will the big retailers ever think to change their packaging?

It was also a month of firsts for me … I went out of town for a few days and forgot my toothbrush. I managed to find a bamboo toothbrush and felt quite good about myself. Until I used it, that is. It doesn’t feel especially good to use, the head is tiny, the bristles wiry and within a couple of uses, I was convinced I was going to get a splinter. I didn’t. But again, we need to really make it as easy (and user-friendly) as possible. I had better luck with buying some toothpaste pills. You simply chew a couple of them, your mouth froths up like a B-list movie werewolf and you brush away, with or without the use of a bamboo toothbrush. I bought a load in the ethical refill shop near mine. They’re great. I then turned my attention to other body parts and with such a busy life, I’m as sweaty as the next guy. But I try not to be.

That’s where my favourite alternative of the month came into play. I used a very funky environmentally-friendly deodorant. This amazing little anti sweat stick is made by Earth Conscious and is labelled as being a grapefruit and lemon deodorant. It’s plastic-free, comes in a sturdy cardboard tube, has apparently won a bunch of awards and is even vegan. And this is a product which is easy to use, is affordable and works well … I hardly broke a sweat, as the rest of the UK was hotter than a camel’s underpants during the July heat wave.

Did I manage to go a whole month using no single-use plastic? No. I broke a few times and, quite simply, I failed my challenge. But that’s the whole point, I guess. If it was so simple, then we’d all be doing it, there’d be no single-use plastic in our marine habitats, and we could all go home and make pasta. But we still have a way to go. The products that are being made to counter single-use plastics need to be as good as (and ideally better than) those already on the market. While some of these alternatives are great, we still have a way to go.

The area in need of focus the most is where single-use plastics are used in the food industry. Yes, single-use plastics do currently have a place in keeping food fresh and it prevents a lot of food waste but more focus now needs to be made on alternatives. Will I now be heading back to tearing into plastic-wrapped oranges, potatoes and other already naturally-wrapped fruit and veg? No, I’ve learnt a lot and am making more changes where I can. I’ll be sticking with the toothpaste tablets and the environmentally-friendly deodorant.

It’s not a case of hero or zero when helping the environment. It’s so easy to think that unless we are single-handedly saving the planet then we’re no use, but that’s not right at all. Every little change or concession we make makes a big difference. Little by little, we will see the changes we want. The tide of opinion is changing and more and more of us are doing what we can, where we can. July is over but plastic is still littering our beautiful coastline. As you head out and about this summer, see where you can enjoy a salad, an ice cream or a relatively sweat-free body without the need to use single-use plastic.