There is no ‘away’

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This post was first produced as an opinion piece for the Oxford Times and Oxford Mail, and was originally published there on 24 January 2018 with the online headline ‘Why tackling plastic is crucial for our future’ and ‘Why tackling plastic has become vital for future’ in print. It is posted here with some minor updates, and different images.


It’s commonly said that we have a throw-away culture, and I’d have to agree. For example, people in the UK throw away 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups every year, and almost none of these are recycled (only around 0.25%). But what most people haven’t considered is that there is no ‘away’. Everything you throw ‘away’ end ups somewhere – especially plastic. As a substance produced by humans, plastic can’t be digested by plants and animals and therefore builds up over time. The same qualities that make plastic very useful (strength, flexibility and durability) also mean that it never really breaks down. Recycling plastic is useful, but our priority should be to avoid producing it in the first place.


Thankfully, the recent splash caused by Blue Planet 2 has already sent ripples as far as Downing Street, spurring a national conversation about plastics. The tide is turning on the scourge of plastic pollution, with everyone from Surfers Against Sewage, to the European Commission, to The Daily Mail agreeing we need change. Local action and campaigning have been critical in starting this conversation and showing that we can easily cut out wasteful plastic use, preventing pollution of our parks, hedgerows, rivers, and seas.   


Everyone has their part to play in tackling plastic pollution, and we’ll all share the benefits. Oxford City Council are debating removing all using single-use plastics from their offices. The supermarket Iceland has pledged to phase out all plastic packaging on its own-brand products in five years. Impressive Oxford social enterprise SESI have been working for 12 years now to prevent plastic packaging waste, by offering refills on a huge range of foods as well as refills on liquid soaps, laundry detergent and shampoo. To do this they’ve partnered with a range of different community groups, many of them part of the Community Action Group network (which I work to support). SESI calculate they’ve saved well over 50,000 bottles from waste or wasteful industrial recycling. Visiting SESI or your local market can be a refreshing reminder that food needn’t come with a plastic wrapper, and can taste great without unnecessary packaging.


SESI refill station
Some liquid refill dispensers used by SESI

So what can you do?

Everyone can be part of stopping plastic pollution. The easiest place to start is to stop using single-use plastics, which may be used for a matter of seconds or minutes before being discarded (with many not recycled). These single-use plastics include items such as plastic cups, bottles, straws, disposable coffee cups, and plastic packaging. Could you make a simple change like saying no to plastic straws in your drink, carrying a water bottle, or using your own personal reusable coffee cup? Start by thinking about the easiest ways for you to use less plastic in your life and go from there. Better still, work with the people around you to make a change. Whether it’s at home, with colleagues at work, in your favourite shop or cafe, or with your sports team, why not start a conversation about how you can waste less plastic together? If you’re looking for ideas for actions to take, loads are available online from blogs like The Rubbish Diet, charities like Friends of the Earth, and instagrammers like zerowastenerd and plasticfreetuesday.


If you’re inspired by the current swell of action on plastic there are some ways to get involved locally, such as with your local Community Action Group. You can help shape waste strategy across the county by taking part in Oxfordshire County Council’s waste strategy consultation at Plus Oxford Friends of the Earth are having an open meeting on tackling plastic pollution on 29 January – see their Facebook group for details or find some information about the event here.


Oxford Mail 24.1.18