S & S In Review: Turning The Tide On Plastic by Lucy Siegle

Musings of S & S: In Review look to survey and report on the latest in literature, media & cultural attractions. 

Plastic Preamble

Have you ever heard the expression, you can’t polish a turd? Well, sometimes, shit just can’t be sugar coated, and the polymer that we all know and are subconsciously are addicted to, polyethylene terephthalate (PET/plastic to you and me mortals), is one of those. Turning The Tide on Plastic by Lucy Siegle is a contemporary, comprehensive and extremely relevant publication on our problematic relationship with plastics and how humans can make our globe clean again. 

Lucy, an investigative environmental journalist, activist and protagonist in propelling the UK’s sustainability agenda forward has been writing for The Guardian and Observer on salient eco issues for over a decade. In addition to co-producing The True Cost, a crucial documentary on fast fashion, she has co-founded initiatives that include the Green Carpet Challenge with Eco Age’s Livia Firth, to promote ethical fashion on the red carpet. Her publications include To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing out the World, in 2007, which was ahead of the curve in its advocacy and extensive research on the environmental and societal impact mass market clothing retailers have. 

Fast forward a decade, in this new, concise and gripping read, she exercises her tenacity and ruthlessness in uncovering the facts found from her years of research behind our plastic fantastic mentality, the industry’s best secrets and the shortfalls of governments, politicians and irresponsible businesses. 

We’re all aware plastics are derived from fossil fuels, screened Blue Planet II, mobilised around plastic straws, seen a local beach clean and awoken to the fact that microplastics are unfortunately in far more crevices and orifices than we could care to imagine. Lucy however, adds some much-needed nuance, historical context, number crunching and statistical evidence which is about as unavoidable as Kanye West’s ego.  

To ease you in, at a glance, the audit reveals:

  • 15% of the globe’s plastic waste is recycled, of which 5% is turned into a recycled object or material
  • Humans purchase 1 million plastic bottles per minute, 91% of which are not recycled
  • Half a trillion plastic bottles are forecasted to be sold by 2020
  • At our current trajectory, by 2050, our oceans will contain more plastic (by weight) than fish where our annual plastic production will have increased by 500%
  • 12 billion metric tonnes of plastic will find a home in landfills by 2050
  • 1/3 fish caught in the UK contain microplastic
  • UK consumers plough through 35 million water bottles each day

Purchasers of this book should receive a complimentary packet of paracetamol and proceed with caution because the facts on occasion are hard to stomach and the sheer density of evidence on our current trajectory and toxic relationship with the waste of plastics may induce head spinning and a minor aneurysm. 

The focus of the narrative is not all doom and gloom plastic paralysis, but is enlightening in tracing the roadmap of how this material came to fruition since its invention. Our interrelationship with plastics, the UK’s policy history and the dissembling of the minefield that is the plethora of the plastic family are paramount within this edition. It is crucial to remember, we must acknowledge that not all forms of this polymer are created equal, some providing inextricable value, take heart valves for instance. 

Lessons Learnt

I have extracted the 10 key takeaways from Lucy’s writing that I believe to be at the crux of digesting the current status quo and moving forward in tackling our plastic paralysis in campaigning against the “avoidable, unwanted, useless, nuisance plastic that is unnecessarily forced upon us”.

1.Plastics have been systemically integrated into our lives as a principle material and symbol of modernity

A huge salute to those that have boycotted single use plastics as, it has been inextricably integrated into the on goings of our daily activities, the impact of which has had significant consequences for the environment and biodiversity.  

Environmentally, the damage of our dependence is visible through the it’s toll on the oceans. As the global recycling rate for plastic is less than 15%, the plastic debris in the sea is predicted to increase from 50 million metric tons in 2015 to 150 million metric tons by 2025. 

Lucy’s text elucidates on geographic terms, that when weaved into future conversations may help you come across as an ocean aficionado and all around beacon of knowledge. 

For instance, gyres. In essence, these are circular ocean currents formed by the Earth’s wind patterns and created by the rotation of planet. It has prompted giant garbage patches that have formed in the sea and are caused when airflows are transported from tropical to polar regions and create a clockwise rotating air mass. Subsequently, this drives oceanic surface currents in the same direction and contextualises the movement of the seismic lumps of plastic waste that reside at sea, forming mini islands of rubbish above surface level. 

There are five predominant gyres which are located in the North and South Pacific, the Indian Ocean and the North and South Atlantic. Out of these gyres, the North Pacific Gyre, is ostensibly the largest and is often referred to as the GPGP ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. 

In this explanation, Lucy reveals that the GPGP is 16 times more immense than had previously been estimated by experts. To contextualise the size of the GPGP, it’s the size of Texas and stretches across 60,000 square miles of ocean, weighs approximately 79,000 tonnes, containing an estimate 1.8 trillion pieces of rubbish of which 99.9% is plastic. Not quite the instagram idyllic swan/flamingo water float you had in mind eh?

You can track your hypothetical plastics journey on this website – Plastic A Drift.

A second nugget of useful terminology the book provides are nurdles, a more formal term for microplastics and consist of the raw materials and nano particles that consist of plastics from cling film to PVC and everything in between. 

Emphasis on the ecological debt and effect on our biodiversity in the oceans is an element I enjoy within the chapters of this report. The natural capital of our planet in the value created by nature’s ecosystems is not being sufficiently met by the market price for plastics in both production and consumption, thereby causing a negative externality and market failure. Whilst there is no need for me to recount the script of Blue Planet, as it stands 280 specifies of marine wildlife including puffins and fulmars have ingested microplastics. The Frontiers in Marine Science Journal released results from an investigation in March 2018 exposing that three-quarters of deep-sea fish have plastic in their stomachs. 

The tumultuous relationship existing between plastics, our waters and wildlife is also discussed on my brief summary of ‘A Plastic Ocean’ found here. 

2.Britain has a plastic bottle binging addiction

Where has our reliance on plastic bottles manifested from? Our attachment to this vessel of hydration in particular sees UK consumers purchase approximately 35 million bottles per day, almost half of which are not recycled and 16 million of these end up in landfill. The numbers don’t look so pretty with Lucy’s evidence that on average UK households get through 13 billion plastic bottles a year, 7.7 billion of which are water bottles. The research reveals the average UK individual ploughs through 150 plastic water bottles a year and this conundrum is heightened by Londoners who average an increased 175…most of which are probably consumed on the Central line between the months of May- August. 

On a personal note, I use my sturdy refillable bottle during the days but throw up my hands and confess when I run to the gym/need a lighter option, I take a plastic one that I reuse multiple times as I don’t want to clunk around. This is aptly perfectly aligned to Lucy’s statistic from a report commissioned by Brita UK and Keep Britain Tidy revealed that 29% said they don’t use refillable water bottles because they find them ‘too heavy’. Oops? 

3. Microplastics are pervasive AF 

Nurdles, microplastics and microbeads, you name it, they are creeping inescapably into our lives encouraged by various industries especially fashion and food. 

A prime example correlating with the boom of the health/wellness industry and surging appeal of activewear has the replacement of natural fibres such as cotton, wool and silk for synthetic man-made materials. Our beloved svelt like shape enhancing sportswear contains microfibres which when put through a washing machine have the ability to shed up to 700,000 microfibres which are then rinsed and drained entering our water supplies. 

In lieu of this, there are rumours that retailers will face by law, the obligation to carry a warning label for any garments sold that contain over 50% synthetic fibres. 

Not so fun fact: Cheap synthetic fibres emit nitrogen monoxide gas which is 300 times more damaging than carbon dioxide (Forbes, 2015)

Raising awareness on this topic is crucial to lobby policy makers to enforce such legislation, as businesses will cater to our wants as consumers and thus we have the power to shape, just like a snug pair of Gym Shark leggings, their actions accordingly! 

Congruently, the pervasive nature of this polymer are readily identified by what’s happening on our plate. 

Did you know that the average European seafood eater is thought to ingest 11,000 pieces of microplastic a year?! 

Lucy’s inquiry also found that on average, 83% of drinking water samples are contaminated with them but also have been identified in essentials including, salt, honey and, I’m afraid to announce, the sweet nectar of life this is, beer. Plastics in your pint is a no-no. 

4. Our plastic performance pales in comparison to other EU member states 

When benchmarked against our (current) companions of the EU, the UK ranks 5th in the European Union’s single-use plastic consumption chart of shame. Our rate of consumption for items including straws, cotton buds and sanitary towels is higher than any other European nation. The severity of results in Lucy’s research comes to fruition here and I will lay them out for you, as of when Turning the Tide on Plastic was published in July the UK consumed: 

  • Drinks cups and lids – 4.1 billion single-use ‘paper’ cups (part plastic; polymer-coated)
  • Plastic straws –  42 billion per year 
  • Wet wipes – 10.8 billion 
  • Cotton buds – 13.2 billion 
  • Disposable plastic cutlery – 16.5 billion pieces 
  • Sanitary towels – 4.1 billion 

*Sips wine* 

As it stands in the UK our plastic footprint weighs in at around 139–140 kg per person which is three times the amount of plastic per person that we consumed in 1980…

5. Britain’s supermarket economy is in need of urgent reconstruction

Supermarket’s affinity to plastic packaging have frequently made headlines in recent years and rightfully so, as it is often inexorable. Lucy refers to this as ‘plastic ecology’ whereby our beloved mainstream grocers are responsible for deploying over 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging a year. The encasing of our food in a web of cling film has seen the UK consume 1.2 billion metres a year, which is estimated to be sufficient to wrap around the world 30 times. If that doesn’t make you invest in some Beeswax Wrap for your home I don’t know what will! Food retailer’s affinity to agri plastics, the film that covers fruit and vegetables, is responsible for 1.9 million tonnes of plastic every year in the EU. Imagine if fruit and vegetables had their own natural protective layering…oh wait! 

It’s encouraging to see many of the nation mobilise on this dilemma, but perhaps there are more effective ways to lobby our local stores and government instead of conducting a ‘plastic attack’ as seen here. With the budget frozen food fanatics Iceland benchmarking the industry standard by announcing their goal to eliminate all plastic packaging across 1,400 lines within five years, hopefully this will catalyse modifications amongst all supermarkets. 

Supporting evidence of the possibilities are the practices of the Netherlands, who are opening plastic free aisles left right and centre, proving it is not an impossible feat or arduous task to convert.  This includes Ekoplaza, the world’s first plastic free pop up supermarket in Amsterdam which carries over 700 products, including milk in glass bottles, sausages wrapped in a compostable plant-based material and loose fruit and veg produce! Take a look at this mecca! 

Aisles are saturated with groceries encased in compostable biomaterial derived from trees and leaves. Photo Credit: Ekoplaza

Sweden is also making moves in this arena by replacing sticky labels with laser marking (full article via Guardian here), it’s really not rocket science. 

6. Lucy’s mantra of the 8R’s; Record Reduce Replace Refuse Reuse Refill Rethink Recycle

Facing into the future, integrating elements incrementally of the 8R’s is in my eyes, an optimum solution to combatting plastic. You don’t go from 5 times a week steak-eating Hawksmoor-visiting carnivore, to strict vegan overnight so weaning yourself off of items is still proactive and Lucy provides simple solutions to engage in this. 

Recommended remedies to tackle the UK’s sweet spot on plastic to name but a few include: 

  • •Buy less but buy better
  • Declutter, check yourself into hoarders anonymous, and I suggest watching Marie Kondo on Netflix, famed for her organisation, storing and decluttering methods
  • Purchase loose fruit & veg and fish/meat and baked goods from your local counters. For the more horticultural non-London dwellers consider growing your own, even if it’s a baby herb garden 
  • Cook from scratch (my reduction in food waste tips can be found here
  • Forward plan; buy thinks in bulk, rinse your parents Costco account, like cupboard food supplies/household items and turn your cupboard into a insta-worthy zero waste glass jar heaven
  • Opt out of plastic cutlery for your weekend Deliveroo/UberEats 

A stand out remark from Lucy for me was our need to embrace a wider refillable culture, to mitigate our insatiable appetite for coffee. Reconfiguring our collective thought processes on our favourite caffeine fix would see us alleviate the current situation whereby our annual coffee cup waste in the UK is sufficient to fill the Albert Hall. The pages reveal that 2.5 billion coffee cups are produced in the UK every year, and that only 1 in 400 disposable cups are recycled. Use this as an excuse to your line manager when you fancy an elongated break, adopt the Italian practices of savouring and enjoying a moment of coffee in an establishment as opposed to necking your flat white en route back to your desk. When they ask why you’ve been gone so long, simply smile sweetly and smugly announce you are ridding the country of its abohrent coffee cup obsession and were left with no other choice but to remain in the café with a drinking vessel that a lower net carbon impact. Simple! 

Hugh = HUN! Photo Credit: BBC

Breaking bad habits can be straightforward when you witness first-hand the impact of plastics on our surroundings. Take the prime example of wet wipes, which are the number one cause of emergency call out to plumbers due to their clogging and blocking talents. Saying sayonara to this staple should be driven by the recent discovery of conservationists in London. Congealed in a river bank along the Thames riverbed they found the amass of 5,500 wet wipes clogging a waterway. These are becoming increasingly common and such a fine specimen of plastic has now been named ‘fatbergs’

On the topic of bad habits, some of our actions we may not even know are damaging! The minefield that is separating plastics is arduous but a valuable instruction from Lucy is to avoid ‘Russian doll recycling’. This is where we stuff plastics inside other various plastic containers. However, as recycling is sifted by weight and air jets, it becomes confused when packaged materials are together and thus everything becomes rejected and contaminated. All that rinsing of your salad box for nothing! 

On some levels, I find Lucy’s suggestions a tad extreme for those looking to cut down on their plastics, her case study using a plastic keeping diary is not a commitment for the faint hearted. She also states her goal is to hand all the wheelie bins back to the council because she no longer needs them, I’m not sure how many of us can say this especially for London flat dwellers when we can often lack community dumpsters in the first place!

Whilst absolutely logical, her encouragement of a reduction in snacking may not sit well with treat obsessed Britain and Friday office cake day but we can buy our snacks in bulk and descale on the need for as much plastic waste per individual wrapping. Her thought process is underpinned by the notion that the wrappers of 600,000 tonnes of chocolate treats we get through annually in the UK contain polypropylene. NB* we won’t win the over the nation at the prospect of chocolate bar confiscation, but it was reported this year that over half of Christmas chocolates total weight was packaging, therefore prompting our need to call brands out on this.  The original confectionary analysis can be found here via Evening Standard. 

7. Businesses can be a force for good in crashing the plastic party 

The possibilities are infinite and so many organisations are embracing circularity and reusability within their strategies. 

Example 1:  Tea pigs, instantly recognisable as they have pyramid shaped bags to encase their delightful flavours made from a natural carbohydrate, cornstarch. The label is made from paper and even the ink on the label is vegetable-based. This means they are fully biodegradable. No plastic necessary. 

Example 2: Barclaycard British Summer Time Festival uses cups made of high-density polyethylene(HDPE) plastic. Benefits of this are due to its density, as it’s lightweight and strong thereby altering the volume of material needed and reducing the impact on the environment! The festival organisers collected, sorted and recycled into plastic hoardings and dispensers. By next year the aim is to turn the festival’s plastic waste back into cups, closing the loop and on the sesh all at the same time! 

8. Toys are the most intensive plastic industry

We often hear about consumer goods categories like agriculture, automobiles, and fashion industries related to plastic but the most intensive is actually the toy industry! Toy facts:

  • For each $1 million revenue a toy brand makes, it uses 40 tonnes of plastic
  • 80% of discarded toys end up in landfills, waste incinerators and oceans
  • 90% of children’s toys are composed from plastic and only have a consumer lifetime of 6 months
  • 1 medium sized plastic toy has the same value as 500 bottle caps

Infamous toy brands such as Lego are revising their collections, as last year it launched it’s botanical elements of box sets including leaves, bushes and trees will be composed of plastic sourced from sugarcane. At least the level 10 excruciating pain when you step on those nobbly bobbly bits in the future will be offset by the fact it’s made from sustainable cradle to cradle materials.

Smaller companies are also framing best practice in the toy sector, for instance Ecobirdy, a children’s sustainable (and very chic) furniture brand that uses 100% recycled materials from Europe and crafted in Italy! Upcycling for toddlers? So 2019!  

9. The Government is underperforming on the plastic frontier 

Insightful revelations by Lucy’s investigation have found that The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) targets to combat plastic are woeful. Set targets exist for statutory plastic packaging recycling and these have in fact been reduced as opposed to scaled up. Our recycling target for plastic packaging in 2017 was 57% however research has found that we will struggle to reach that by 2020…*face palm*. As 90% of collecting, sorting, disposal and recycling is funded by our taxes, we really do have a large mandate to voice our opinions on this! The government’s pledge for ‘A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’ can be found here but by 2042, think about how many guzzillion tonnes of plastic will have been produced. It requires both short term and long term action and perhaps replacing Michael Gove with Caroline Lucas! 

10. The UK’s shameful shipping and exporting of plastic waste

So, as consumers we recycle this polymer if its structure permits us to do so and then what? The UK’s export of wasted plastic to third world countries may make you grimace. Despite the fact that the UK only has the capacity to recycle 7% of the plastic we expend, there has been no substantial or sufficient investment from the Government for domestic recycling infrastructure and therefore for some time, it has been shipped to other regions of the world to be dumped. 

For years, this has predominantly taken place in China and Hong Kong. Between 2012-2018, with enforced limits, the UK still succeeded in shipping over 2.7 million tonnes of plastic scrap to these two countries. Since China’s scrupulous crackdown in 2017, this has seen China’s imports of plastic from Britain drop by 97%. However, this is now falling to third world countries including Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam who simply lack the infrastructure. Lucy recounts that during her research in Colombo, a 90 metre mountain of plastic waste had collapsed killing 23 people in the process. If there is one motivation behind your re-evaluation of plastic, let it be this element of social responsibility and accountability for our own consumption and disposal!

My full piece on S & S Decoded: Waste – The UK’s Biggest Export & Britains Dirty Secret is coming extremely soon!

Where the UK’s ‘recycled’ waste really goes, Bantar Gebang landfill, Jakarta. Photo Credit: Financial Times

Pacifying our Plastic Problem – Final Thoughts

The unwavering sentiment and emblazoned passion that runs throughout the course of this book is the call to arms against plastics with a short life cycle and limited scope for reinvention. Lucy contends that a culture of reimagination and reuse is a culture of purpose and with this, I fully concur. Circularity is one element but adopting a shared plastic economy whereby stakeholders collaborate to tackle this challenge head on, may increase our chances of reaching the UK’s target to recycle at least 50% of household waste by 2020. Continuing to develop metrics and a framework to trace our efforts across the plastic sector will accelerate our ability to manage its trajectory and mitigate devastating consequences. Glass, stainless steel, wood, ceramics, earthen ware and china reap so much tangible value as do polymers and plastics that encompass cradle to cradle design philosophies. 

My final conviction is that we need to voice our objections to accepting mediocrity from leaders in order to reshape governmental policies/initiatives, urge businesses (small and large) to reform their strategies, whilst incorporating individual lifestyle changes to demonstrate that the market is there. 

Ironically, I did read this on my plastic moulded Made in China mass produced Amazon Kindle. You can purchase Turning the Tide On Plastic here

A X 

2 thoughts on “S & S In Review: Turning The Tide On Plastic by Lucy Siegle

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