The Plastic Challenge – why is it not getting easier?

Two days ago, the MCS Head of Conservation in Wales finished her fifth Plastic Challenge. Gill Bell hasn’t bought anything wrapped in plastic for a whole month. After five years of being a ‘Challenger’ she was hoping her choices would have been wider and being plastic free much easier. They weren’t and it wasn’t.

For a whole month I don’t buy anything wrapped in plastic. I’m strict, for me it’s not just single use plastic, it’s all plastic, the only exceptions are medical stuff.

I’ve been doing this for five years – and not just during the Plastic Challenge Month. I try to reduce my plastic usage all year round and buy very little single use plastic at all, so going completely plastic free should be relatively easy for me. I was hoping to be able to report back that, five years on, things are getting better, especially after all the plastic publicity in the last eighteen months or so –Blue Planet II, various consultations and voluntary bans on straws by high street big hitters. Unfortunately, the practicalities of living plastic free have not really improved at all, the only thing that has, is that I don’t get as many funny looks as I say “no plastic please.” when I buy stuff.

What is so frustrating to me, is that it appears to be so much easier elsewhere. Last year, I was on holiday in France and although I speak only a little French, I thought it would be really hard but actually it was much easier than here. Every village still has a market and a bakery, selling fresh local produce in paper bags. The only slip up I had, was getting a plastic straw in a drink.

Yoghurt in glass jar

This year I was in Freiburg, which claims to be Germanys greenest city. I’m not sure if it was easier to be plastic free here than anywhere else in Germany as I’ve nothing to compare it with. I visited a plastic free shop, local organic cooperative farms, even an organic supermarket with more choice of plastic-free than anywhere here in the UK. Plastic free shopping is hard at home but thankfully there are some havens for us plastic free nerds to head to, like the wonderful Natural Weigh, in Crickhowell, which really got me through my challenge.

Glass jars without plastic

In ‘normal’ shops, even when I eventually find something in a glass jar with a metal lid, there was often a cellophane seal around it to prevent any tampering with the contents, so I couldn’t buy it anyway. What’s wrong with a paper seal each side of the lid, so you can tell if it’s been opened? From my research I’ve been unable to find UK legislation which requires a cellophane seal but I’d be interested to know if anyone can tell me what is legally required?

Deposit Return Systems (DRS) in action in Germany

DRS - paying a deposit for your drinks container then getting the money back when you return it. You’ll have been living under a rock not to know there’s talk of this happening in the UK. Bring it on I say! Well, whilst on holiday in Germany, I looked into their DRS system I know it’s a bit sad spending your annual leave doing this but I am passionate about the need for DRS in the UK. In Germany, it includes glass bottles, plastic bottles and cans, which is what I want to see here.

DRS screen

The German system isn’t perfect as not all bottles etc. have a deposit and the labelling isn’t standardised, but they do have reverse vending machine at the supermarkets and a crate system to bring back empties. When out and about, if people don’t want to be bothered to take their deposited bottle back, they leave them on the top of bins so that homeless or people on very low incomes can collect them and get the money back for themselves. I know the critics will say their recycling is less than ours but I also take issue with some of the recycling figures, as some of it appears to be down-cycling to me. Most people would not think that burning something, making ash which was then turned into concrete is what they imagined ‘recycling’ to be.

DRS return label

I’m thrilled that the larger companies are thinking of reducing their plastic but if you’ve not done our Plastic Challenge, next time you visit your supermarket look at your basket or trolley and see what needless plastic is in there. You’ll be truly shocked…you may even be ‘plastic blind’ not actually seeing the single use plastic because it’s the norm.

Did you know you’re paying for the ‘privilege’ of disposing of and recycling of, all this packaging even if you didn’t want it in the first place? Producers are supposed to have an obligation for what happens to their product after it’s been used. However, it’s been estimated that in the UK they currently only pay 10% of these costs and, yes you’ve guessed it, we pay the other 90%! Bringing in Extended Producer Responsibility legislationto the UK would ensure that producers are responsible for the full life cycle costs of the items they produce.

So, let’s get this straight. I can’t buy the things I want, because they insist on wrapping it in plastic that I don’t want. And when I’m forced to buy essentials in plastic, I’m then charged for their collection and disposal, even if they are ‘recycled’. Thanks very much! For nothing basically – especially if you want to try and live single-use plastic free, even if only a little bit! Things have to improve before the 2019 Plastic Challenge.

Enough is enough, lets end this plastic madness.