It’s unlikely you need us to tell you about the manifest evil of single-use plastics. Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last eighteen months – one of the few remaining caves not littered with plastic – you’ve probably already got the message.
David Attenborough told you about it in Blue Planet. Countless people, famous and non-famous, inside and outside the surfing world, told you about it in self-satisfied tones on Instagram. Earlier this year, at the wonderful Vans Duct Tape Invitational, we got told about it by a very helpful information board, situated about twenty yards from the pop-up barbecue serving steaks on disposable plastic plates.
And that’s partly the problem: single-use plastics are so ubiquitous that avoiding their use is very difficult.
Take hummus, for instance: absolutely delicious, put it on your toast, dip your carrots in it, I can’t get enough of the stuff. But it comes in little plastic tubs that you can only use once.
What are your other options? You find a deli that makes its own hummus, and get them to serve it to you in your own tupperware box. Or you buy your own chickpeas (preferably in bulk from a zero-waste grocers), olive oil (ditto), etc. and make it yourself. Or you give up hummus. None of these alternatives is impossible, but each is problematic for fairly obvious reasons, requiring a sacrifice of time, money, and/or hummus.
There are simpler (and more effective) things you can do, however, to reduce your plastic footprint. You could stop eating fish, for instance. Plastic bags and bottles grab the headlines, but the generally accepted figure for marine debris attributable to fishing sources is 20%.
The real figure could well be even higher than this; earlier this year, scientists were shocked to find that fishing nets accounted for 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is estimated to be about three times the size of France. Other sorts of fishing gear – ropes, oyster spacers, eel traps, crates, baskets – accounted for most of the rest of it. They’re not single-use, as such, but they’re still plastics and they still end up in the sea, and it all results from the demand for fish.
So not eating fish is a double reprieve for marine ecosystems, which face what is arguably an even more serious (but much less publicised) threat in the form of overfishing. The striking disconnect between heartbroken concern for marine wildlife, on the one hand, and eager consumption of marine wildlife, on the other, has been one of the hallmarks of the recent anti-plastic hype.
Avoiding plastic bottles is an even easier fix, of course (it just won’t fix quite as much).
In the UK alone we use 38.5 million plastic bottles a day. Around the world, a million are bought every minute, and bottled water now accounts for most of these. In America they drink more bottled water than beer. There’s something fundamentally not right there.
Admittedly most plastic bottles consumed in the West won’t end up in the ocean – the real problem is in poorer countries, where waste disposal is so much worse – but there’s no guarantee. And even if a plastic bottle does end up safely in landfill, or better still, recycled, it’s still a massive waste; the carbon emissions involved in making, transporting and recycling it are considerable.
It’s been said that bottled water is a tax on the stupid. True, but not the whole story – it’s also a tax on the unprepared.
In places where perfectly good tap water is available for free, few sensible people think that buying bottled water is a good idea. There may be (though isn’t necessarily) a higher concentration of minerals in mineral water, but a balanced diet contains plenty of these minerals already. In any case, tap water in the UK is generally tested to higher standards than bottled water.
“There’s certainly a greater chance you could find something harmful in bottled water than from your taps,” Professor Paul Younger, a water expert at Glasgow University, told the Telegraph a few years ago. And yet still the UK spends an estimated £2 billion annually on the bottled variety.
“In America they drink more bottled water than beer. There’s something fundamentally not right there.”
But why? What generally happens is you leave the house – you get on a train, say, or go to the shops, or go for a surf – and you get thirsty. You didn’t set out with the intention of buying a bottle of water, but you forgot to bring any water with you, and left yourself with little choice. We’ve all been there.
The solution is obvious, it just requires a little forethought. Get a reusable water bottle. Then take it everywhere you go. Then tell everyone about it in a self-satisfied Instagram post (optional).