Plastic not so fantastic

JUDGING by the trending social media, I wasn’t the only one aghast at the recent tactics of Extinction Rebellion protestors who deliberately disrupted UK train services, inconveniencing thousands of commuters, to raise awareness of their cause.

Plastic water bottles in the ocean. (Picture by chaiyapruek youprasert/Shutterstock)
Plastic water bottles in the ocean. (Picture by chaiyapruek youprasert/Shutterstock)

I can’t understand the logic of punishing and inconveniencing the very people who have heeded the climate change message and were doing the right thing. With this act, Extinction Rebellion has turned off many otherwise sympathetic supporters.

The other paradox is that the climate change protests are happening in alignment with the UK government tabling its ground-breaking and comprehensive Environment Bill, which sets out new powers and regulations to deal with air quality, nature, biodiversity, water, waste and resource efficiency. From what I can tell, the UK government is leading the way in facing into climate change challenges.

The Environment Bill sets out a range of measures aimed at minimising waste, promoting resource efficiency and moving the UK towards a circular economy.

An area of particular focus is plastic waste. To stimulate demand for recycled plastic the Bill proposes the introduction of a tax on plastic packaging made up of less than 30% recycled plastic.

Earlier this year the UK proposed the ban on plastic straws, drink stirrers and plastic cotton buds by 2020.

Since the airing of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, plastic has increasingly been demonised. The visual of plastic waste in the ocean, killing countless number of seabirds, fish and other marine creatures, warrants dramatic action.

When first invented some 150 years ago, plastic was seen as the wonder invention which had the potential to save the natural world by reducing demand for animal by-products such as elephant tusk ivory. We have grown up with the benefits of plastic without contemplating the unintended consequence of its use. The day of reckoning has arrived.

Plastic waste is one of the biggest challenges facing the natural world and solving this problem is very much in the hands of mankind. Global production of plastic is in the vicinity of 320 million tonnes per year. Just about everything that is manufactured or consumed is either made in part from plastic or packaged in plastic. Of the eight billion tonnes of plastic that has been produced since 1950, less than 10% has been recycled. Little wonder we have the plastic ocean crisis of today. The oceans of the world are literally suffocating with plastic waste. The thought is frightening.

Every effort must be made globally to reduce the use of plastic where possible and where it is used to compel its recycling to levels approaching 90%, as opposed to the current woeful levels of less than 10%. In this regard, the UK is trying to tackle the issue of plastic waste head on and should be commended.

So what is Guernsey doing and can we do more?

With this in mind, I arranged a meeting with the States of Guernsey’s waste management experts Richard Evans and Tina Norman-Ross to discuss Guernsey’s response to the plastic waste epidemic. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Guernsey is tackling the challenge in a myriad of ways. The most visible and obvious way is through its waste recycling and waste management system.

Guernsey households are now recycling upwards of 70% of their domestic waste, which is at world-leading levels. Approximately 85% of the Guernsey population is now engaged in recycling its domestic waste. An admirable aim is to get this to 100% and absolute world leadership. This is one way that households can play a direct role in reducing plastic waste entering landfill and the ocean. The act of separating domestic waste is encouraging better behaviour. The fact that total waste collected is decreasing indicates that households are becoming less wasteful and are making conscious decisions to reduce the amount of packaging they are disposing of. We can all do more.

Over one third of food produced is wasted. As a society we need to value food more. Richard explained that in an analysis of a typical sample of a household’s waste, some 40% is food waste, of which 50% is edible. This is a staggering statistic which is in the gift of every household to tackle. By reducing their food waste, households can help reduce waste and at the same time save upwards of £70 per month.

Other local initiatives include the provision of 49 water refill stations to promote the use of refillable water bottles in place of bottled plastic water. The location of these refill stations can be found via the downloadable app Refill, which shows the location of private and public buildings supporting the initiative. It is hoped that the number of refill stations will continue to increase. Again, it will take a change of human action away from disposable plastic water bottles to refillable bottles to make a difference.

Another thing I learned was that in Guernsey some 9,000 disposable nappies are thrown away every day. That is 63,000 per week, 756,000 per month or over nine million per annum. This is a huge contributor to landfill and CO2 and plastic pollution. To help address this significant waste issue, the States is offering a £35 subsidy to encourage families to purchase real nappies and to link in with the Guernsey Real Nappy Network. The GRNN is a not-for-profit network that promotes the benefits of real nappies and offers advice and support to encourage their use in place of single-use disposables. Again, human action is needed to make a difference.

Plastic causes pollution at every stage of its lifecycle, but it is not all bad and has a significant role to play in helping to create a cleaner and more sustainable future. What is needed is a combination of technological advancement in biodegradable plastic combined with policies and regulation to reduce plastic use and to encourage transition to a more circular plastic economy. Equally important is human action that is within the gift of all of us to be more mindful of our consumption habits and to reduce our waste footprint so in combination we can reduce the total amount of plastic waste we produce as a community.

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