Confession: my inexcusable plastic habit

Is legislation the answer?

I buy plastic bottles. Not just the odd one either. I buy supermarket multi-packs. It’s wasteful. It’s harmful to the environment. It’s inexcusable, really. But I like my water fizzy and I’m not alone.

Around 8 million metric tonnes of plastic waste a year end up in the ocean, reports Blue Planet

According to a 2017 House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee report, 13 billion plastic bottles are sold in the UK every year. That’s quite a habit. Worse, only 57% are recycled.

David Attenborough’s Blue Planet showed us where some of the rest end up. In the sea, damaging wildlife and our environment.

But photos of sea birds contorted by plastic are old-hat. Cliché. They're not enough to move the masses. Otherwise we’d change our plastic-loving ways, wouldn’t we?

A microplastic invasion

Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. Eventually it breaks down into nano-sized particles, which enter our food chain, our drinking water, and the air we breathe.

Synthetic plastics, popularised in the 1930s, haven’t been around long enough for us to fully understand how our bodies react to this invasion of microplastic. Some may be harmless, even in our bloodstream, our respiratory systems, our lung tissue. Others are suspected to be carcinogenic.

Even if you’re not concerned about the plight of sea birds, you’d think this threat to human health would encourage us to reduce plastic use. Or at least recycle more.  

Bleach bottle: bin or recycle?

New research for British Science Week 2018 revealed the top reason (30%) for not recycling is uncertainty about what can and can’t be recycled. Only 33% take the time to check before throwing their rubbish away and many of us get it wrong.

  • 66% don’t realise you can put kitchen foil in the recycling bin.
  • 58% don’t know empty deodorant and hairspray aerosols can be recycled.
  • 51% mistakenly chuck empty bleach bottles in the rubbish.

But, come on. We all know you can recycle plastic bottles. Yet nearly half of those 13 billion bottles we use each year never make it to the recycling plant.

Is legislation the answer?

UK Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, is calling for a deposit return scheme. Basically, you pay a deposit when you buy single-use drinks bottles. It increases the cost, but you get your deposit back if you return the bottle so it can be recycled.

They already have successful schemes like this in other countries, like Germany and Sweden. Yet a recent UK government petition to introduce a nationwide deposit return system for plastic bottles got only 796 signatures. It ran for six months.

A 300 million tonne problem

The truth is, our use of plastics is so widespread that tackling any one thing, like plastic bottles, simply isn’t enough. Plastic Oceans reports that we produce 300 million tonnes a year worldwide. Plastic is woven into the fabric of our lives – in our homes, our cars, our clothes.

Perhaps the enormity of the plastics problem contributes to some people’s apathy.

While others believe they can make a difference. Aviva is pledging to reduce its use of plastic internationally. This follows its previous commitment to:

  • Remove all disposable cups from vending machines, water coolers and cafés in its UK offices by the end of 2018.
  • Eliminate single-use plastic at UK sites, including cafes and events by the middle of 2019 where alternative options exist. 

When the news broke internally, it met an enthusiastic response from Aviva’s people:

The disposable age is coming to an end. Maybe now people’s belongings will be treasured instead of chucked out willy-nilly. Insulated cups and water bottles are freely available now for only a few pounds, let’s buy one folks.
Ivana Muir, customer service adviser
I have been nagging my team for months about using the vending machine cups, so it’s really good to see some action being taken. Maybe I can stop annoying everyone now.
Kerry Doherty, customer experience improvement manager

Have we reached tipping point? 

Waitrose have run their myWaitrose loyalty scheme since 2009. A popular benefit is a free cup of coffee, every single day, served in a single-use cup. They use about 52 million every 12 months. Recently, Waitrose shared news that it will remove all disposable cups from its shops later this year.

Coca-Cola's World without Waste plan pledges to recycle all packaging by 2030 and considers the whole life of the product, not just after it's been produced.

KPMG get through roughly six million plastic cups a year in their offices. After employees questioned the business' environmental approach, they've banned the use of these cups across their 22 offices.

Aviva colleagues pledge to reduce plastic use

Habits are hard to break. Plastic is cheap and convenient. Despite that, more and more of us – individuals and companies – are taking steps to reduce plastic use. And for good reason. 

I hate to say it, but maybe it’s time to give it up those little plastic bottles of fizzy water.


Gwen Warrilow: