My husband and I are very average people. We shop at supermarkets, eat meat, drink alcohol and munch cheese. Giving up is not in our nature.
But we have a philosophy on life. We want to do everything, just without creating a huge pile of non-biodegradable, possibly carcinogenic, wildlife-killing, everlasting rubbish that future generations will have to clean up.
That’s why we live a plastic-free existence.
Why? Well, it started with a plastic bag tangled in a tree outside my house. Too high to reach, it was still there months later.
Next year, when the leaves fell, there it was! Looking ragged, tatty and even more unpleasant. It was then I realised that plastic rubbish, unlike an apple core, doesn’t biodegrade.
Obvious, perhaps, but I’d never considered it before.
After that I started seeing plastic litter everywhere. Which is not surprising when you discover that the world’s annual consumption of plastic has increased to nearly 100 million tonnes. Or that the UK alone generates about 5 million tonnes of plastic rubbish each year.
And because plastic doesn’t biodegrade, every bit of that rubbish has to be collected and disposed of in a special way.
Inevitably some ends up as litter. But because it doesn’t rot, once out there it is out there forever. This can have some dreadful consequences. Not only does it look ugly, it is damaging the environment and maiming, or even killing, animals.
Just to set the record straight, I’m not anti-plastic. I think it’s a great product that has changed the world for the better.
But using a material that lasts forever to make disposable, throwaway products? There seems to be a huge flaw in there.
A new approach to plastic
After the plastic bag incident, I got to wondering how much plastic rubbish we created, (that’s me and the husband). So I monitored it. In October 2006 I started saving our throwaway plastic. By the end of seven days I was running out of space.
Yes, my plastic rubbish goes in the bin but that isn’t the end of the problem. Disposing of plastic is not easy. Put it in landfill and it just sits there, recycling is often not cost effective, incineration at best adds to global warming, at worst releases lethal dioxins.
Then there are the hormone disruptors leaching into plastic-wrapped food, the powerful carcinogens created during the manufacture and the unknown additives whose toxicity has yet to be assessed.
So we decided to cut unnecessary plastics. But studying my mighty pile of trash, I soon realised that would have unpleasant results; dirty teeth, body odour and greasy hair followed by scurvy, rickets and ultimate starvation.
Plastic had become so much part of our lives, it was hard to imagine how we would manage without.
Then I made a plan. Each month I would cut a few plastic things and source non-plastic substitutes to replace them.
So far, it’s been an interesting journey, with some unexpected turns.
For example, did you know that tea bags are part plastic? Or that some toothpastes contain tiny plastic beads to give colour?! Rubbers are often not rubber but plastic (that’s both the stationery item and the contraceptive).
Paper cups are plastic lined, as is the foil on your butter. Tin cans, too. Chewing gum? Almost completely plastic. Possibly no surprise there!
So plastic really is everywhere. Not just wrapping the products you buy but in your food, clothes, furniture, even your tampons. That’s a very close relationship with a product we don’t know too much about. One for which there is a low-grade, but constant, stream of bad press including reports on toxic chemicals and links with cancer.
Some clever substitutes…
Luckily, I’ve managed to find a lot of plastic-free alternatives. I’ve got a milkman with glass bottles and take my own carrier bags to the shops (natch!).
I take reusable, produce bags for loose veggies, biobags for unwrapped meat and compostable deli tubs for free-range olives.
I make my own cleaning and cosmetic products, including fake tan and sunblock. I thought you needed a degree in the ‘sciency bit’ to make face cream. Not so! You can buy everything on the internet, it takes minutes and the end product is far nicer.
I don’t use plastic products when there’s a viable natural alternative and have swapped my plastic broom for a coconut fibre sweeping brush. Thankfully you don’t need to be a Suzy Homemaker to make decent ketchup and Ecover do excellent cleaning liquid refills.
Reducing our plastic consumption, (especially of one-use disposables), has to be good for the environment, but there are other benefits. Because I compost, (no plastic bin liners for me), my landfill bin is almost empty.
I don’t use plastic-lined tins or metal lids, so there’s not much in the recycle bin either. Consequently, I am almost zero waste. Buying unpackaged foods means you tend to eat seasonally and shop locally. And no hormones leaching into your food is nice.
Of course I realise that a total ban on all plastics is not a realistic – or even a desirable – goal. I am keeping my computer and Dyson for sure.
But we need to consider how we use plastic and what for. Like me, you’d probably be surprised how much plastic you accumulate in a short space of time. There are alternatives out there to so many things, it’s time we started using them a little more often…