Lucy Siegle: How anger inspired me to take on the plastic threat

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Welcome to the age of plastic.

Over the last few months new research and data has unveiled some frightening facts about this everyday material. Since plastic was commercialised and brought to market (in the 1950s) 8.3 billion tonnes has been created. This is the weight of one billion elephants. According to a ground-breaking study published last year, authored by Professor Roland Geyer, just nine per cent has been recycled, 12 per cent incinerated and 79 per cent has accumulated in landfills or the wider environment. In short, almost all the plastic that’s ever been created is still with us.

Meanwhile we are pumping out an increased amount of new plastic; between 320 and 350 million tonnes of virgin plastic, almost all from oil, will be created this year. Most of it will enter our lives in the form of single use ““disposable” plastic packaging. The question is, where will it go?

The truth is that familiar, everyday plastics — toothbrushes, water bottles and crisp bags — have a tendency to evade capture and become fugitive. Our plastic cast-offs roll and slide and are blown by the wind until they often end up in water. Here they degrade painfully slowly becoming microplastics shown to act as vectors for dangerous toxins and ingested by animals, at which point they enter the food chain.

At this point, everywhere scientists have looked for plastic they have found it. Earlier this year, The Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) made their database of images from over 5,000 dives by individuals and submersibles publicly accessible. An intact plastic bag could be clearly seen on the floor of the Mariana Trench, the world’s deepest ocean trench. It is estimated that there are 51 trillion fragments of plastic in the ocean. By 2050 if we do not act now and decisively, there will be more pieces of plastic in the ocean than fish. This is what we call the plastic pandemic.

I feel like I’ve known the plastic pandemic was coming since I was a kid playing with my acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) building blocks and lovingly brushing my doll’s vinylidene chloride polymer hair. The reason for this polymer precocity? My granddad. Unusually in 1980s suburbia, my grandad was an anti-plastic activist who left plastic wrapping at the supermarket cash till and loudly refused single use carrier bags (he would have loved the plastic bag levy). Even more unusually, he used to work for an oil company.

His point was that plastic was precious, because it was derived from oil which he regarded as a finite resource, and should only be used for important things. In some ways I am thankful that he didn’t live to witness the rise of everyday plastics like the lunchable spork – the fork/spoon hybrid designed to pierce the plastic wrap of a salad but with no plan for life after lunch.

When I grew up and became an environmental journalist and broadcaster, I remained vigilant to dumb uses of plastic. In fact you could say I became a bit obsessed, and took to rummaging around in household bins, for me a never ending treasure trove of evidence. An early breakthrough came when I persuaded four families to collect their packaging waste, and worked with academics to sort and weigh it. What struck me was how much was pushed on to us by retailers and manufacturers. Nobody buys products for the plastic wrap, and yet they get lumbered with it. I also noticed how flummoxed the families I wrote about were by local authority recycling systems, and the complexity of getting a variety of plastics in the right bin, box or bag.

My real awakening coincided with everyone else’s: that famous 2017 episode of Blue Planet II when Sir David Attenborough’s dulcet tones implored us to stop poisoning the sea and we witnessed the death of a whale, likely through the ingesting of plastic. That episode connected the emotion to the science and since that day I’ve super- charged my efforts to kick plastic not just out of my life, but yours too.

It set me on a charge around the UK infiltrating recycling centres, haranguing retailers and celebrity chefs and tipping out family bins in order to write my book full of strategies. Oh, and I also declaimed recycling (which is full of holes, woefully under-invested in and plagued by puffed-up figures that make us think that we can recycle our way out of the plastic pandemic when we can’t). Then I upped and moved to the side of the Thames so that I could collect fugitive plastic in my kayak.

I’ll admit some of my motivation comes from anger; particularly over shrink-wrapped coconuts. Not only does the coconut come in its own famously robust and hairy shell supplied by mother nature, but the current shrink-wrapped coconut on sale in many London supermarkets contains a plastic ring pull and straw and is inexplicably stamped with the words “genuine coconut”. This raises the question, what is a non-genuine coconut? I’m not the only one who is responding. With a tsunami of plastic waste, we also have an abundance of energetic, committed activists in the capital. I can honestly tell you that I haven’t met one person who is not agitated or excited by the threat of plastic. From plastic-free office initiatives to weekend plastic picks and co-ordinated supermarket unwraps, Londoners are taking this on. The trick now is to turn awareness into action. For me the best thing that you can do right now is to get a grip on the plastic coming into your lives.

There are some who will tell you that this is to shout into the wind, or at least scream into the gyre. The plastic pandemic is global, sure, and the most dramatic concentrations of plastic pollution are thousands of miles from here. Currents conspire to bring the biggest concentration together between Hawaii and San Francisco. This vortex of swirling plastic has become known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), stretching 600,000 square miles out across the ocean and containing an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of trash. 99.9 per cent of which is plastic.

But we are absolutely implicated. Plastic is a global product in search of a market. We are a big market. We each have a giant plastic footprint, ploughing through upwards of 140kg of plastic per year, double the amount we used in the 1980s. Just a tiny proportion will be recycled in our flailing system that is struggling to recover since China shut its doors to low-grade plastic recycling in January. Londoners are among the heaviest consumers of stuff like plastic water bottles in the country and therefore on the planet. The average Londoner gets through 175 bottles a year (the average UK consumer gets through 150).

The impact of plastic goes deeper too. In April last year, volunteers working with clean water charity Thames21 focused their attention on wet wipes. A litter pick turned into an excavation, as it was found that 5,000 wet wipes (these are made from plastic, which still surprises some) had formed a new surface on the riverbed near Barnes, a surface that was actually altering the course of the river.

The injustice is not only to the planet. Ninety per cent of the cost of disposal of plastic is borne by citizens as we pay for disposal and recycling through our taxes, and just 10% by the manufacturers and retailers who impose it on us in the first place. They are still throwing plastic out on a daily basis without any real plan for collection and disposal.

In the meantime we are told that we need to be more like Norway. In fact I’ve lost count of the number of policy teams and officials who’ve gone on fact- finding missions to Oslo recently. The object of their fascination? The Norwegian Panteordning system, or bottle deposit scheme. This secures upwards of a 97% recycling rate for plastic bottles (ours is a lowly 43%). This summer a handful of reverse vending machines – the pit pony of the bottle deposit system – appeared in a few trial schemes in London. The first was in the Fulham branch of Iceland, the food retailer. These are welcome but there are other things that make Norwegians champions of recycling. A little-discussed factor is that they legislated against multiple types of complex plastic. Curb the manufacturers, and the solutions become more feasible.

Imagine if London’s ambition was not just to ape Norway, but to lead on turning the tide on plastic? I see no reason why that couldn’t happen. From innovation hubs working on melt in the mouth seaweed pods of water that can replace bottles in the London Marathon to smart plastics that are genuinely biodegradable, from water fountains and inventive refill and reuse schemes to entire communities taking on plastic, we have an abundance of committed activism with creative energy and vision. Line up the policy and process, and there is every chance that we can unwrap London life from plastic for good.

Lucy's book, Turning the Tide on Plastic: How Humanity (And You) Can Make Our Globe Clean Again is published by Trapeze in hardback. Lucy is an environmental journalist and campaigner. You can follow her latest updates on Twitter

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting