Plastic-Free July: A Call for Sanity

Many of us in the UK were disappointed by the recent vote in Parliament to allow a third runway to be built at Heathrow, which is expected to contribute to a 4.9 million tonne increase in co2 emissions by 2030. In the same week, the Committee on Climate Change warned that the country is likely to miss it’s greenhouse gas reduction targets, mainly because emissions from transport and home energy use have not been addressed. You might wonder why politicians seem so unconcerned by all this.

Some recent research offers some insights. A study interviewed 14 MPs from the 3 major parties, and found that most reported that people rarely speak to them about climate change. One said ‘If……the public are not flagging it up consistently as one of their top concerns or priorities, that is the issue.’ The study concluded that ‘politicians feel little pressure from those they represent to act on climate change.’

So why is this? Is it because the public doesn’t care about the environment? This seems unlikely. These days it seems everywhere you turn, people are talking about how we can all do our bit for the environment.

However, a closer glance at the national conversation reveals some clues. The BBC offers tips on avoiding cling film, straws and dental floss, while sustainable lifestyle bloggers repeatedly promise that using reusable cups and bags will make a ‘huge difference’ to our impact. Now I’m all for reducing waste – I haven’t used cling film, single use cups and the rest for years. But the current focus on small details is wildly disproportionate to the threat that any of these things pose to the environment. How might things be different, say, if the half a million people who recently signed a petition about plastic straws emailed their MPs about the impending climate catastrophe?

I have already written about the importance of keeping a sense of perspective when it comes to taking action to protect our environment. Please, everyone, we are facing the sixth mass extinction of wildlife, and if we do not get a grip on climate change, our cities will end up underwater and there will be huge famines. Meanwhile if we do not start seriously reducing the amount of food we waste and animal products we consume, we will not be able to feed the world.

Here is the zero waster guide to keeping things in perspective. The following actions should tick all the boxes – climate change, biodiversity, water use, resource depletion and pollution.

Dubious benefit: sourcing toothpaste in a jar.

Big benefit: letting your local MP/council know how you feel about the environment. Let your MP know that you were pleased/disappointed with the way they voted over Heathrow. Ask them whether they have signed up to Divest Parliament/the council from fossil fuels. Ask them what actions they are taking to facilitate low carbon transport in your area. Ask them what they are doing about any issue that concerns you.

Dubious benefit: worrying about/researching every single thing you buy.

Big benefit: consuming and wasting less.

Questionable benefit: eliminating plastic from your life.

Bigger benefit: litter picking and beach clean ups. Many people aim to go plastic-free due to fears that the stuff all ends up in the sea, but plastic pollution in the UK comes from litter – if you dispose of it properly, it’s unlikely to end up in the ocean. I have already written about some of the problems with alternatives to plastic, while green groups have expressed alarm that the war on plastic could increase food waste and contribute to global warming. Others have expressed concern that the campaigning energy directed at the small stuff, like plastic straws (a tiny fraction of ocean plastics) diverts attention from action on fishing waste (which makes up most ocean plastics).

Reducing consumption and waste is one of the best things that you can do for the environment, but targeting a specific material in isolation, and without factoring in the side effects, could end up causing more problems than it solves.

If you are concerned about the state of the oceans, concentrate on a) avoiding unsustainably sourced seafood (b) reducing your carbon footprint – global warming and ocean acidification is disastrous for marine life and c) avoiding unsustainable tourism.

Microscopic benefit: avoiding cling film, plastic straws and dental floss.

Huge benefit: Avoiding animal products. Actually, it’s THE best thing you can do, according to a massive study.

Small benefit: investing in special kit to preserve tomato halves.

Big benefit: taking advantage of schemes that rescue surplus food. If you have the time, consider volunteering for some of them. Many of these projects also have social goals such as tackling food poverty and encouraging a sense of community. You can also keep an eye out for yellow label food in the shops – ie goods that would be thrown out if they are not sold that day. The tomato should be ok if you put it in an old jam jar in the fridge.

Dubious benefit: driving to the next town to get to a shop that does washing up liquid refills.

Big benefit: minimising car use. This is the single area where the UK’s co2 emissions are actually increasing.  Cars are also major contributors to local air pollution, which was recently linked to the death of a child. We need to wake up about car use.

To save making a special trip, you can get refills of concentrate cleaning products posted to you. Research finds that using concentrate is better for the environment than buying liquids anyway.

Small benefit: taking your zero waste travel kit with you on holiday.

Big benefit: not flying.

No real benefit: sourcing biodegradable bin bags.

Big benefit: sorting out your home energy. Most energy use in UK homes (around 80%) is for heating, and this is contributing to the UK’s lack of progress on meeting it’s carbon reduction targets. So anything you can do to reduce the amount of energy you use for heat is worthwhile. For electricity, switch to a clean energy supplier – many renewable energy companies turn out to be cheaper and/or have better customer service than dirty energy companies anyway.

Also, if your general waste is sent to landfill, try to do what you can to keep anything biodegradable out of it, otherwise it will still be releasing greenhouse gases in several decades’ time. And if if your council sends the waste to be incinerated, there isn’t much to be gained from buying special bags.

So-small, are-you-sure-you-want-to-bother?: giving up chewing gum.

Big benefit: Getting involved in activism or volunteering. Apart from the suggestions above, there’s creative forms of activism, campaign groups, conservation projects, food growing groups…..not only do these things make a difference, but they sound distinctly more fun than searching around trying to to find groceries in paper packaging.


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