The Belles have really championed the idea of single-use plastic reduction and have been taking action in support of the WI’s End Plastic Soup campaign for a couple of years now. We first met this month’s speaker at a British Library talk, Unwrapping the Plastic Problem, in May 2019 when four Belles went along as part of our very own Greener Economics Club. We thought Daniel Webb’s story would make a great WI meeting and finally succeeded in organising this for October via Zoom.
There were a couple of things that prompted Daniel to look into his own plastic consumption. He moved to Margate in 2016 and Thanet council provided no doorstep recycling in his area. There was also a super-handy Aldi close by full of plastic-packaged goods tempting him into consuming them. He’d started to pay attention to environmental issues and had stopped using plastic bottles but after one very plastic-strewn run he really started thinking about his own impact. How much plastic rubbish does one person produce? So in January 2017 he decided to keep every single piece of plastic waste he used for a whole year to see how much it amounted to and find out where it would normally end up.
22 bin bags of plastic stowed in his spare room 12-months later, Daniel had amassed 4,490 pieces of plastic and with 20 volunteers he sorted them on the spacious floor of a Margate music venue. The pieces were classified by their plastic code or texture and appearance and totalled 114 subsets. All the data from the experiment can be found in the report, ‘Everyday Plastic: What we throw away and where it goes’.
If you assumed Daniel was an average UK citizen and extrapolated his results that would mean the UK throws away 295 billion pieces of plastic every year. The team compared Daniel’s data with publicly available figures for the UK and Europe and in actuality his 29kg of plastic consumption came in nearly 16% lower than the average UK citizen at 34.4kg and 2kg less than the European average of 31kg. So if anything the 295 billion may well be an underestimation for the UK population!
93% of Daniel’s collection were single-use plastics
67% of the total was food packaging
47% of the collection was made from unrecyclable plastic film
4% of the total would be recycled in the UK
So amplified by the energy generated by Blue Planet II and an increase in public awareness of the plastic problem, Daniel’s initiative, Everyday Plastic, has gained momentum and coverage with his initial spare-room project now able to influence public environmental policy.
Over UK Coronavirus lockdown 1 Daniel has been conducting week-long studies with volunteers called the Everyday Plastic Survey where households saved every piece of plastic consumed in a week and then analysed it as a group online via Zoom. This was to see both if habits had changed during so much time spent at home and to help educate and promote making positive changes to reduce plastic consumption. Three Belles took part in this project in July to obtain our own plastic footprint and I can attest that seeing all your plastic waste laid out is pretty shocking. We asked Daniel if he could run us a mini survey for the meeting and so Belles saved their plastic waste for 4 days and we did a sort-lite together on the meeting night. Even with a few days plastic waste collected our informal experiment reflected the results of the main Plastic Survey with single-use food and drink soft plastics hugely outweighing all other types.
Recycling is never going to be the solution – 90% of Daniel’s collection wouldn’t even be collected for recycling in the UK and there’s madness in that so much food and drink is currently destined to be packaged in unrecyclable materials for just one use. During the Everyday Plastic Survey 179 households took part with an average of 128 pieces of plastic collected in a week per household. This was an increase from the pre-lockdown average of 99 pieces. If all UK households behaved in a similar way that equates to 3.6 billion pieces of plastic thrown out in a year period. We are also a nation of snack lovers and the majority of those crisps, chocolates and sweets that we’ve been consoling ourselves with recently are also packaged in single-use unrecyclable plastic.
So if recycling isn’t the answer then what can we do to help? Looking at producers of the things we buy and the choices of consumers making everyday purchasing decisions are a couple of areas to work on instead – stop the plastic waste being designed in and reduce consumption. We asked Daniel to help us focus on practical tips to help us make our own everyday changes to help with the problem and he shared with us some achievable goals to challenge us that if adopted by everyone would make a huge difference to the waste consumed:
Suggested realistic ways to reduce your plastic use:
100% of water bottles, shower gel bottles and carrier bags (use bar soaps and solid shampoos, take bags with you)
75% of milk bottles (have milk delivered to you in glass findmeamilkman.net or buy a big bottle and decant)
50% of wet wipes (use reusable cloths and alternatives to make-up and baby wipes)
25% fruit and veg/meat and fish packages (buy loose 1 in 4 times, take your own container to the meat and fish counters)
10% snacks (make 1 out of every 10 snacks yourself so not in packaging e.g. traybakes, popcorn etc.)
Plastic waste jumped 25-30% in lockdown 1 – more people were at home eating all their meals there alongside an increase in the use of PPE and cleaning products.
Yet if all households in the Plastic Challenge survey applied the above tips then every household would save 10 pieces of plastic per week. This doesn’t sound a lot but if scaled to all households in the UK that could prevent 14 billion pieces being thrown away per year!
Small changes make a big collective difference.
Throughout Daniel’s talk the Zoom chat box was on fire with comments and suggestions from Belles and since the meeting there has been some vigorous sharing of plastic reduction ideas including plastic-free laundry product and veg box recommendations and a yoghurt-making Whatsapp support group seems imminent!
If you’re interested in this topic do check out Everyday Plastic on various platforms: