Tackling the first half of the Plastic Challenge

By: Ben Garrod
Date posted: 15 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.

Ben Garrod

I’m at home visiting my parents for a few days and I take them to a large local supermarket. It’s one of the ‘Big Three’. I don’t typically use big supermarkets much but instead shop in my local small supermarket and independent grocers. As I walk around the endless sterile aisles bathed in that ever so distinctive ‘supermarket lighting’, it really hits me just how pervasive single-use plastic is.

“Manufacturers, suppliers and retailers are, overall, not yet committed in any real way to making significant and well-meaning change in terms of tackling the widescale use of single-use plastics.”

Professor Ben Garrod

I could go on for hours about specific examples of waste but the two areas that really strike me are the fruit and veg section and the bottled water aisle. Why we wrap so much of our fruit and veg is beyond me… having evolved for millions of years, you’d be forgiven for thinking that oranges and bananas might be able to look after themselves and that nature might have provided them with fully serviceable coverings, but it seems that an extra layer of plastic is still needed. The water aisle is worse. Far worse. Shelf upon shelf of plastic bottles wrapped in plastic sheeting, with (according to recent research) tiny flecks of near-invisible plastic floating around the water too, just for good measure.

My trip to the superstore made me realise two things. First, that manufacturers, suppliers and retailers are, overall, not yet committed in any real way to making significant and well-meaning change in terms of tackling the widescale use of single-use plastics. Secondly, it really hit home just how difficult it is for the average person to reduce their dependence on single-use plastics. I was nearing the end of week one for the Marine Conservation Society’s Plastic Challenge.

The brief was simple – try and go a month without using any single-use plastic. The worry is that single-use plastic i.e. the stuff used for just one occasion before being thrown away, is a bigger problem now than ever before, that it may only be used for a few minutes or even seconds before being thrown away, will last for maybe 500 years or more before breaking down, and will eventually lead to the point where there is more plastic than fish within our oceans and seas. It’s convenient, there’s no doubt, but it’s not good news.

I have to admit that I thought I was onto a winner … as a biologist and conservationist, I was already pretty tuned into what was good and bad. I shop locally, have the time and finances to visit several shops and maybe even pay a little more to ensure I get locally-sourced, free-from-plastic produce wherever possible and I’m even veggie … going plastic free for a few weeks would be a doddle. It wasn’t a doddle at all. It’s bloody difficult and it’s only been two weeks.

As with many things like this, the more you know, the harder it is to get it right. I already used paper bags to buy my fruit and veg, I take a reusable canvas bag to the shops, I don’t buy food swathed in layer after layer of plastic. I realised very quickly that even the basics such as rice and pasta come in plastic. Even the stuff in cardboard is then usually either sealed within little plastic bags, or the inner lining is plastic, or there’s a little plastic window in the packaging, presumably to check on the welfare of your basmati herd or something. Most of the salad is wrapped in plastic too, to help keep it fresher for longer.

This plastic-free July was fast turning into a self-enforced diet that I definitely hadn’t signed up to. Then I remembered a new shop in the part of Bristol where I live. Having only opened a couple of months back, Smaller Footprints is part of a new generation of ethical stores which have done away with single-use plastics and are making a real effort to provide more ethical alternatives for many of our daily consumer needs. I headed over and filled up a few bags. It’s even possible to take in jars, bottles and containers from home and fill up with anything from pasta and pulses to shampoo and toothpaste. I don’t know if this is the future of ethical shopping, but it does make me a far more considerate consumer. Admittedly there isn’t the same broad range of options in little shops such as this but then again, we’ll have even less choice when the bees are gone, the fish stocks crash and desertification makes it hard to grow the plants and raise the livestock we are so familiar with. Seems a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things.

I’ve realised that it’s going to be a tough month, that I’m probably going to end up making new holes on my belt and that even with the best will in the world, removing single-use plastic from our lives is not easy. Have I used any so far? Yes, just one piece that I’m aware of. I grabbed a small jar of mayonnaise when I was out with my parents. I ran to the aisle, avoided the squeezy plastic bottle and proudly grabbed the small glass jar next to it, completely missing the little sleeve of plastic hugging the jar.