Bury St Edmunds recycling champion Karen Cannard does the maths on plastic
While researching the history of plastics recently, I was curious to discover the amount of plastic that had been produced during my birth year was 27 million tonnes.
If like me, you were born in 1968, you would have already been a ‘plastic customer’ in some form or other. I was, with my baby bottles, teething rings and soothers – all of which are most likely now buried deep in a landfill site in South Wales beneath the rest of my plastic rubbish that followed.
By the time I was 10, in 1978, annual global production of plastic had increased to 64 million tonnes. A decade later, 1998 – 110 million tonnes. The year I turned 30 in 1998, the annual production was almost three times as much as the year I was born. My home had become its home – not all 188 million tonnes of course – but plastic was now in every corner.
The latest statistics published by Geyer et al reveal that in 2015 alone, global production totalled an incredible 381 million tonnes! With figures dating back to 1950, the cumulative production by 2015 had reached 7.82 billion tonnes. Only 30 per cent of that was still in use. Of the 5.8 billion tonnes of plastic no longer in use, less than 9 per cent had been recycled.
If you have been watching Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s latest series, War on Plastic on BBC1, these figures might not surprise you.
Together with Anita Rani, Hugh F-W has been investigating our global plastic crisis and tasking plastic producers and householders to reduce our nation’s consumption.
Challenging supermarkets, disposable wipe manufacturers and even the plastic industry, the team has been questioning how much plastic we really need. Not all plastic is bad but with such levels of growth in a world that does not have the system to handle it, these questions are long overdue. Burger King and McDonald’s also came under fire, highlighting a petition by young campaigners Ella and Caitlin, aged nine and seven, asking the fast food giants to stop giving away plastic toys with kids’ meals. This has been a ‘beef’ of mine for a long time (excuse the pun). If there were a Room 101 for pointless plastic, these freebies would be in it together with plastic tat from children’s comics.
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Following in the footsteps of the street challenge in Hugh’s War on Waste series in 2015, for this new series Hugh and Anita tasked a street of 22 households in Bristol to reduce their dependency on single-use plastic, in particular packaging. Over the course of the three episodes, the programme-makers followed participants adopting a multitude of new shopping strategies, such as switching to refill shops, swapping out disposable wipes for reusable alternatives and making their own cleaning products. Where possible they also bought loose fruit and veg and if it cost the customer more, it certainly didn’t go unnoticed.
At the end of the experiment, the Bristol street had reduced its single use plastic from 15,774 pieces to 8,610 – a whopping reduction of 45 per cent. Hugh added that if every street in the country followed this example, that would see a reduction of 8.8 billion pieces of single use plastic.
To reach this, there is still much to do and in true Hugh style he left the audience with its own challenge, to further ignite dialogue and action with retailers by returning unwanted plastic packaging, labelling it #OurPlasticFeedBack and sharing photos and videos of action on social media.
But there’s even more that can be done. July sees the return of the Marine Conservation Society’s (MSC) #GoPlasticFree campaign, inviting people to join forces to proactively reduce single use plastic usage. With the number of zero waste shops popping up in our region, such as Clear to Sea in Bury St Edmunds, this should be easier than ever. To sign up for the challenge visit www.mcsuk.org.
And if you missed the War on Plastic series, please do track it down on the BBC’s iPlayer. Whether you are new to this or not, it’s certainly an eye-opener.