Saturday, 27 November 2010

Plastic Cars

"They're only plastic," the nice garage man said to me this morning.

Plastic? They can't be made of plastic! The part he's referring to is a crucial piece of my car. So crucial that in order for me to get home from work last night I was too terrified to drive any faster than 20 mph because if I had to brake hard, or accidentally hit an unruly pot-hole, my wheel could fall off. Which would be bad. Plastic? It's no wonder they broke!

The part in question is a 'lower suspension arm rear bush'. "Your car is poorly sick," I was told yesterday. "Very, very sick." And, "I've never seen one this bad," the mechanic said this morning. Yikes. Lucky I decided to get new tyres fitted for the winter or I probably wouldn't have known there was a problem until I found myself in a ditch.

My 'bushings' are made of polyurethane, which is supposed to be more durable and hard wearing than rubber. Perhaps the advent of plastic has meant that mechanics such as this can be produced easier and cheaper and be - theoretically, at least - longer lasting. But I still can't help thinking to make such a crucial part out of a brittle material like plastic is a bit scary.

Cars... Can't live 'em, can't live without 'em. Ok, technically I can live without a car, but not without completely changing my lifestyle, my work, my friends, my living and shopping arrangements. Which I would love to do... but is easier said than done. And of course there is a lot more plastic in my car than just the inner workings of the suspension system. But I'm just not ready to give it up yet.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Bags of Disappointment

The following 'clipping' is from the UK newspaper, The Times, yesterday (11th November), written by Ben Webster (environment editor):

Supermarkets have abandoned their commitment to halve the number of plastic bags they issue after a backlash from some shoppers.

Retailers are instead proposing merely to continue measuring the number of bags they give away and to reduve it over time, without setting any targets.

Shoppers used more than six billion single-use bags last year, an average of 100 for every member of the population. The bags take up to 1,000 years to decompose and millions litter parks and pollute rivers.

Seven of the biggest supermarket chains, Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda, the Co-operative Group, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, clsimed last year that they had "narrowly missed" their voluntary target to reduce the number of bags by 50 per cent between 2006 and spring last year.

Over the financial year, from April 2009 to March this year, bag use fell by 43 per cent compared with 2006. But there are signs that usage is rising, with 23 million more bags handed out in May than during the same month last year, a 5 per cent increase.

Bob Gordon, head of environment at the British Retail Consortium, said: "The 50 per cent target is history. We are seeking contiunul improvement, with no specific target."

Some supermarkets had dropped their commitment to remove single-use bags from view at checkouts, he said. "It was too much of a flashpoint at the till and customers were causing too much of a scene about it."

My thoughts
It's a pretty sad state of affairs, really. I can understand that a small percentage of customers might rant about the removal of bags from view, but has it really caused huge scenes in the supermarket? The number of complaints can't surely be more than one in ten customers, if that (i.e. 10 per cent).

The progress that has been made since the initial pledge by retailers may not be as great as I would like, but it is progress none-the-less, and it's terrible to throw that away. Does it mean that customers have stopped thinking about plastic bags? Was it just a fad? I'm genuinely surprised, especially since WHSmiths started charging for bag usage.

I feel some letter writing coming on. In one of the letters I recieved from Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), regarding the voluntary commitment made, David Hands says: "As this is a voluntary agreement it is up to each company to decide on their own strategy for the aims to be achieved. Whilst this is a voluntary agreement, the Government has reserved the right to take steps if the terms of the agreement are not met, though this will be subject to the Review."

So, are the goverment going to take steps seeing as the terms of the agreement have not been met - and seeing as the agreement has now been abandoned?

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Use Less Plastic

Use Less Plastic from TakePart on Vimeo.

A Christmas Resolution

How did it get to be November? Christmas is just around the corner again. I try not to think about it too early, but it’s hard when we’ve been planning the Christmas retail season at work since August. And now most shops on the high street are launching their Christmas campaigns, mine included, so it’s getting hard to ignore.

So, I’ve been thinking about Christmas. And I’ve been thinking about how worthless my Christmas was last year, how I essentially chickened out on my plastic challenge, and attached a whole raft of excuses as to why it worked out the way it did. And watching bits of yesterday’s TEDx Great Pacific Garbage Patch event has put me to shame. There’s no doubt in my mind that I use less plastic than I used to, but the truth of the matter is that I do still use quite a lot. That coffee that my manager treated me to the other day, the DVD I was craving, the pre-packaged sandwich I bought because I was too tired and hungry to be bothered with finding an alternative. I pledged to cut plastic from my lifestyle, but I fail continuously. I am a chicken.

Vote with your wallet
The speakers at the TEDx event were passionate and dedicated, and this has changed their lives. It’s truly inspiring, and it makes me want to be better, to be more serious. It is feasible cut out plastic; they do it every day. They “vote with their dollars,” as Andy Keller put it. And so, this Christmas I am determined to vote with my dollars – or, rather, my British pounds.

Hence my Christmas resolution: to buy gifts with no plastic. That’s no plastic packaging and not made of plastic. No DVDs or Xbox games, no calendars with their shrink-wrap. But what I really want to do is extend this resolution to my family and friends: any of you who happen to be reading this blog, can you avoid plastic in your purchases too? Or, at least, in any purchases you may choose to make for me?

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Plastic Symposium Today!

America's TEDx today hosts a day-long plastic extravaganza, including speakers such as Captain Moore, Fabian Cousteau, David De Rothschild, and Fake Plastic Fish's Beth Terry. I really wish I could be there. Luckily, though, it's going to streamed live through the TED website.

Watch the event or take a look at the day's agenda. For UK folks it runs from 3.30pm to 1.00 am (that's 8.30am to 6.00pm Pacific time).

Do I sacrifice the coursework that I'm supposed to be doing today to watch this? I really want to hear everything these people have to say, but I think I might have to cherry pick, as I'm not too keen on sitting in front of the computer until 1.00 am! Fingers crossed that the what I don't get to see today will still be there for me to watch another day.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Bron, meet Werner

Bron is a huge fan of weird German director Werner Herzog. He will watch anything and everything made by, involving, or about Herr Herzog.

But is this inspired short about the life of a plastic bag, voiced by Werner (directed by Ramin Bahrani) enough to inspire him?

Tragically, no. Whenever I suggest he stops using bottled shaving foam, shampoo, deodorant, or shower gel, he immediately turns into Mr. Negative. The transition is so fluid and immediate, it's kind of fascinating to witness. Well, it would be if it wasn't so darn frustrating. I've been using alternatives for over a year now, and I'm still here aren't I? Why is he so closed off to the idea of change?

I've tried the tack of, "Just try it to see, and if you don't like it, you don't have to use it again." He does occassionally, grudgingly, agree to this, but because he always starts off with the mindset that he won't like using the new product, the result is, of course, that he doesn't like it! He knows why I want him to try it, he knows and understands all the problems with plastic, but somehow, somewhere along the line, he fails to care about it. And if Werner can't make him care, I don't know what will.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Sail the high seas

One of the most exciting things about writing this blog is when people get in touch with me after reading it.

I started writing here simply because it was a requirement for my studies, but it quickly became something I could do for me - a way of putting thoughts into words and a handy tool for chronicling what has essentially become my plastic journey. But then people started reading it - and not just my mother, but people I don't know started reading it!

Play your part
This explains why I was very excited to recieve a lovely and encouraging email from Steve McPherson, whose artwork I mentioned a couple of posts ago (Making Lemonade). Even better: he told me how me, myself, and everyone else can contribute to plastic art and the plastic campaign.

Steve is creating a global depository of images of plastic items found washed up or discarded on the world's beaches. Next time I go to the beach I'll be taking along my camera so I can photograph what I find and help build up what will undoubtedly become a striking collection over the coming years. To take part, visit and email him your pictures, along with the date the object was found and latitude/longitude location of where it was found.

Expand your knowledge
And for anyone who wants to learn more about what's going on in the high seas, the book Flotsametrics (Ebbesmeyer and Scigliano) looks at the history of ocean flotsam and the story of modern flotsam: floating garbage patches and the legacy of plastic waste.

Get involved
As part of my own need to feel like I am doing more for the coastline and the environment, I recently joined the Cornish based charity Surfers Against Sewage. They don't just campaign against sewage and not just for surfers, but for any changes that help mend the damage being done to the world's oceans, from marine waste to climate change. And it's not just about Cornwall either: they're making a big splash around the whole of the U.K.

There are lots of other plastic campaigns going on out there too, vying for supporters: the Marine Conservation Society and Plastic Pollution Coalition are just two of them.

Teamwork, baby!
I'm a little mouse who is generally happiest hiding out in her own home with a good book, or sitting here tapping at the keyboard and it's always seemed like the only way I can make a difference would be by becoming someone I'm not: outspoken and daring. I'm working on that (gently), but in the mean time, that doesn't mean I can't help others make a difference. Teamwork, baby!

Friday, 1 October 2010

It's Still Not Easy Being Green

There are three reasons why most people residing in the UK know the name Dick Strawbridge. He is:
1. The man with the best moustache on British T.V. (and possibly the world)
2. The man behind BBC hit ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green’.
3. The man who was recently robbed of the winner’s crown on Celebrity Masterchef.

His eco house (complete with compost toilets, solar panels, windmill, chickens, and more) is based fairly near to my own home in Cornwall, so a few weeks ago when he popped into the bookshop where I work, my lovely colleague, L, lynched him and his son James (or, as he is widely known amongst the ladies working in our store, ‘Handsome James’) into doing a signing with us. And into judging our staff ‘bake-off’. And I lynched him into talking to me about plastic.

“We just take it for granted, it’s everywhere,” he tells me. “2010 and plastic’s all over the place.

“I’ve heard arguments where plastic can actually be described as being quite environmentally friendly. It doesn’t take a lot of resources to make something which is really quite capable – there’s not much plastic in a plastic bag, if you look at it as a single entity. Sum it up and we got a bit lazy.

“Nowadays,” Dick reminds me, “packaging is all. It’s the big P word; plastic and packaging come together. And it all comes together at a point where we’ve forgotten that is has an impact – and it’s got a detrimental impact, what we’re doing.”

In the Strawbridge household
The mission of Newhouse Farm, the Strawbridge smallholding, is ‘To live a 21st century lifestyle, but to produce little or no waste, and to remove our dependence upon fossil fuels’. With this in mind, I wondered how successfully he manages to avoid plastic creeping into the house.

“Do you know how it gets into our house?” he says. “The internet.” Yup, that sounds familiar.

“That’s a sort of stealth way of doing it. If I was in a shop and somebody tried to give me something, I’d say no; I just don’t even think about it. On the internet, you buy something, all of a sudden it turns up and you just wonder why the hell it came like that.”

I can definitely relate – I’m rapidly learning that, despite constant temptation, it is generally much safer packaging-wise to simply not buy from the internet – unless you contact the seller first and question their packaging policy, like I recently did with Natural Spa Supplies.

Curtailing the plastic mindset
“At the moment plastic is thought of as being cheap, when actually it’s a limited resource,” Dick comments.

Plastic manufacturers only pay for the resources that go into their product; they only consider this one cost of what they are making and sending out into the world, when the reality is that every given item costs the world – both people and the environment – a lot more than just the value of extraction, and manipulation, of resources. For instance, aside from the environmental costs of extraction, there are the costs for disposal of the product after its use: transportation, landfill or recycling, both in economic terms and environmental ones. Dick suggests that these costs be included in the original cost of the product.

“All the way through, these things have pennies and pennies and pennies added to them. Those costs, the person who doesn’t give a **** at the front end, the person who’s actually making it – charge them for the whole cost.

“There are alternatives, without a shadow of a doubt, to everything that we do, but at the moment it is the economics that are driving it. [Given current economic issues] can we afford to give businesses more limitations and make it more expensive?” he asks.

And: “I think actually we can,” he says.

This, essentially, is life cycle analysis. The producer should consider all the potential impacts of their product, and build the costs of those costs into the product. This may make everything a lot more expensive – but only because the monetary cost of what we’re consuming will more effectively reflect the real-world cost of that consumption. At the moment, what we pay for goods doesn’t reflect this. It makes so much sense the more I think about it. Perhaps by having to pay more for an item, it’ll make me question whether I really need it? More often than not, I don’t need it – I just want it, and that is something entirely different.

There’s no doubt that Dick Strawbridge has got a big personality. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of our small staff room, tasting the various cakes and bread that have been offered up by the booksellers for his scrutiny, he makes jokes, tells anecdotes, and discusses ideas; his thoughts seem to travel a mile a minute. But when it comes to issues of sustainability and being green, he’s extremely earnest.

“We need innovation,” he tells me.

“In October I’ll be launching at St Austell Asda the first paper two litre milk bottle. It’s got some plastic in it, but it’s mainly compressed paper, from the Green Bottle Company. I’m getting involved because I reckon that in four or five years the plastic milk bottle and plastic bottles could actually be on their way out. Because if this functions the way it should do, if it does the job properly, how do you justify using plastic? Very exciting sort of move. We need something like that; we need innovation.”

And finally… the three R’s
“The old mantra, ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’, it’s not very sexy anymore.”

Do they still teach this in schools, I wonder, or has it fallen by the wayside? Innovation is important, extremely important, finding new ways of making things, but perhaps more important than new technology is to change our habits.

“Reducing what we use in the first place is much better than saying, ‘Ah, I’ve got this compostable bag’. We have to get into the frame of mind where people are actually using less. We don’t need to come up with another technical solution, just don’t use as much. That’s the way forward.”

Learn more!
Dick and James Strawbridge's newest book, Practical Self Sufficiency, is out now. And if you want to learn hands on about making your own home more sustainable, the Strawbridges are running a selection of courses from Newhouse Farm, or have dinner cooked for you!

Friday, 24 September 2010

Making lemonade out of lemons

Richard Lang and Judith Selby
I recently came across a lovely new blog (well, new to me), Plastic Forever. The two authors, Lang and Selby, have spent the last eleven years collecting plastic from their local beach, Kehoe in California. Not just collecting it and storing it, but making art from it. The upshot of this is that (a) their blog is full of really beautiful and striking images, and (b) their art is now being used to promote plastic awareness, advertising the US Coastal Awareness day at the end of September.

Lemons and lemonade
A very cool project, but they are not alone. Plastic beach art is cropping up everywhere – which is almost certainly a reflection of the increasing problem of plastic waste on our beaches. More and more people are starting to notice it and be drawn to it. The images, sculptures, and displays that result are beautiful and bleak, simple and intricate, inspiring and worrying. Here are just a few examples.

Steve McPherson
My colleague, G, saw a postcard advertising an exhibition of Steve McPherson’s work whilst on holiday, very kindly thought of me, and brought it back for me to see. According to his website, he’s been collecting discarded plastic items and fragments from the Kent coast for over 15 years.

Georgina Maxwell
My mum is responsible for bringing Georgina’s work to my attention. Based close to my own home in Cornwall, she has, again, been collecting and creating for over a decade, and has plenty of colourful, striking, and attention grabbing ‘trash’ to show for it.

Tuula Narhinen
I met with marine scientist Richard Thompson in the spring to find out about his research into marine plastic, and he very kindly gave me an art magazine showcasing Tuula’s work, which varies from jewellery made from mermaid’s tears to strange animal-like sculptures, ‘Frutti di Mare’.

Diana Boulay
Diana is based in Canada which, along with Lang & Selby in California, Tuula in Finland, and the two British artists, just goes to show how widespread the problem is. And I’m sure there are plenty more artists out there making use of similar finds.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Jack Johnson Rocks!

I just found this brilliant little ditty, 'No need to be such a fancy pants', by Jack Johnson, care of Plastic Pollution Coalition.

Visit Johnson's social action network, All At Once, to learn more about his eco credentials and to get involved yourself.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Fine Plastic Line

I have been thinking for a while now about where or if a line can be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable plastics. But the more I think about it, the more vague and sticky the subject seems to become in my mind.

1. Is it ok to buy products or packaging that is made from recycled plastic?
2. Is it ok to buy products or packaging that is made from compostable or degradable plastic?

I talked a little about my concerns regarding degradable plastic in July’s post, ‘Degradable Bin Bags’. I was very impressed to receive a comment from the manufacturer I mentioned, Symphony UK, but I still have some doubts. They included within the comment a link to a YouTube video showing the degradation of their plastic bags, ‘Plastic Bag Degrading’, which was cool to see, but I need to read up more on the science and how exactly, to quote Symphony, once the bag reaches fragmentation stage, “it is no longer a plastic.” Maybe I could visit your factory, Symphony, and see it in action?

Again, I talked about this recently, in my post, 'Life's little luxuries'. For a plastic in the UK to be defined as compostable, it must adhere to the EN 13432 certification. But this means that the plastic will degrade within very specific composting conditions, which are often only present in highly controlled commercial composting operations, and not so likely to be found in my own little garden compost bin.

The burning question in my mind is whether buying products wrapped in degradable or compostable plastics is a genuinely safe alternative? It must better to buy these rather than regular plastic, but is it good or wise to support them, or better to try and find a completely plastic-free alternative?

Recycled plastics add a whole new dimension. I think it’s really good that more and more manufacturers are producing things made from recycled rather than virgin plastic, and I want to support them because I feel that it’s a really important step. Using recycled plastic to make new things makes it worthwhile for me to put what plastic I do use in my recycling bins – to not buy things that have been recycled negates at least one of the benefits of recycling stuff in the first place. And there has to be a market for for recycled materials - otherwise what's the point?

A benefit of buying recycled plastic is that no new (or very limited new) materials have gone into its production. That means reduced environmental impact on the earth and in the air. Of course, there are energy costs involved, from the collection of the original products, to the remodelling of those products, and their subsequent redistribution – I haven’t seen any specific figures on this for plastic, but as far as I’m aware, it’s generally regarded that these come out somewhere below the energy cost of quarrying for fresh resources and initial processing.

But: most plastics that can be recycled can only be recycled once (though there are companies out there working on closed loop systems), so most products made of recycled plastic have hit the end of their lifetimes. And then all the same disposal issues apply as with virgin plastic – as in, there is no way to get rid of it.

The Fine Line?
Where does the balance lie? I’m leaning toward this order of preference:

1. No plastic (duh!)
2. Recycled or easily recyclable plastic is better than compostable plastic
3. Compostable or easily recyclable plastic is better than degradable plastic
4. Degradable plastic is better than ‘regular’ non-recyclable plastic
5. Never buy any plastic that’s not either recycled or recyclable

Monday, 13 September 2010

Biodegradable - or not?

Seventh Generation has an interesting comment/perspective on the viability of biodegradable bags for the weekly rubbish vs. recycled bags...

"Ask Science Man"

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Life's little luxuries

Toilet roll. One of the nicest of modern conventions, yet in some ways another bane of my life. In my bid to be plastic-free, acquiring toilet roll is one of my ongoing problems.

Plastic-free toilet roll just doesn’t seem to exist. At least, not in the dark depths of Cornwall in which I live. Toilet roll is paper after all, surely it wouldn’t be that difficult to wrap it in a thin paper covering rather plastic? What do I do? Give up toilet roll?

The Moneyless Man
I have recently finished reading a new book by Mark Boyle, the founder of the Freeconomy community. Titled ‘The Moneyless Man’, it recounts a year spent – you guessed it – living without money. It’s a really interesting read which I highly recommend. Very inspiring in many ways, it forced me to consider my own views and wants in terms of the type of lifestyle I seek, though the ultimate conclusion I drew was that I couldn’t go as far as he has. Not without ditching Bron, anyway, as he’s made it very clear to me that that is well beyond what he deems acceptable.

So what does the moneyless man use for toilet roll? If I remember correctly, newspaper - for the most part. But more importantly are the issues he raises about the modern convenience that is the toilet. I won’t go into a lot of detail here as I’m getting off topic, suffice to say that using a resource as vital and valuable as water to defecate in is, frankly, a bit stupid. Compost toilets are the more sensible route.

Ecoleaf and Bioplast
So, newspaper. I have yet to suggest this idea to Bron, but I suspect I can already his reaction. ‘No way!’ would probably be the most polite way to sum up what I can imagine his answer would be.

Which leaves me rather limited options, given as I don’t think either he, our neighbours, or our landlady would go for the construction of a human compost area in our tiddly, heavily overlooked back garden either. For the time being, therefore, I have settled on Ecoleaf toilet rolls. The packaging on these, though plastic, says, ‘100% compostable wrap; 100% recycled paper; 100% commitment’.

100% compostable? This brings me right back to the degradable plastics debate started in my previous post, ‘Degradable Bin Bags?’ But, ‘Ecoleaf toilet tissue is wrapped in Bioplast, a plasticizer-free and fully compostable packaging. It will biodegrade TOTALLY under the influence of soil-based micro-organisms without the need for human intervention. Made from potato starch and natural co-polymers, it is both sustainable and renewable. This product has been designed to be fully compostable.’

This packaging sounds like a degradable plastic in the more real sense than the D2W bin bags. The packaging lists it’s manufacturer as ‘Bioplast’, but when I visit their website I find myself incredibly confused - the description of their manufacturing process is so badly written that I could barely make head nor tail of it - which leaves me clueless when it comes to the details behind this particular product. So I decided to email them, to which their response has left me even more confused. Their product isn’t yet on the market, they tell me, so I must be barking up the wrong tree. Humph. So I try emailing Suma, the company behind the Ecoleaf brand, but receive absolutely no response at all from them. Humph again.

EN 13432
The best I can do is extend from the quote on the packaging. Being made from potato starch is an excellent start – a truly natural and easily degraded material - although I’d like to know what exactly the natural co-polymers they refer to are. The packaging also states that the plastic certified EN 13432.

EN 13432 is an internationally agreed standard that defines a plastic’s ability to degrade under commercial composting conditions. The advertisement of this standard on a plastic product is a good sign. However, the key term in the standard’s definition is ‘commercial’. Commercial, or industrial, composting units are much more tightly controlled systems than what the average citizen is likely to have in their back garden, creating and maintaining the most ideal composting environment, from temperature to PH and oxygen flow. This means that the composting process will be much quicker and more thorough than if I use my own composting bin. The issue with this is that once I put my rubbish out for the bin men to collect it, I don’t know whether it’ll be added to landfill or thrown in a composter – and so, even though the process may not be as efficient in my own bin, that’s what I plan to use, because at least I can be sure it is at least being given the opportunity to compost. I’ll just have to view it as a personal experiment to find out what will actually happen.

Read more about EN13432 and the OK Compost standards.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Mmmm... Cupcakes

1. Go to Lakeland and purchase some of their amazing silicone re-useable cupcake moulds. Ok, so they do come in little plastic tubs, but keep this packaging to store the moulds in whenever they’re not in use, and hundreds of cupcakes can be made without ever creating any waste.

2. Visit the local farm shop and purchase three free range eggs (or six for twice as many cupcakes!)

3. Purchase 6oz of butter, but do be careful with the selection as the posher butters are invariably wrapped in mixed materials packaging rather than paper – stick to something like Sainsbury’s basics for simple paper wrapping.

4. 6oz of sugar – Tate & Lyle may not be organic or raw cane sugar, but it does come in a paper bag.

5. 6oz of self-raising flour – more opportunities for going organic here as pretty much all flour remains available in a traditional paper packet.

6. A vanilla pod (should come in its own skin, no packaging required; well, theoretically).

7. Drop in to Co-op for some of their lovely fairtrade dark chocolate. 100g should do the job.

8. 1 tsp of baking powder. Now this is the tricky part. I haven’t yet sourced baking powder without the plastic packaging, but there’s no law that says baking powder must be used – try it without and they’re still pretty good.

9. 1 tbsp milk (preferably delivered by the local milkman in a traditional glass bottle).

10. In a glass bowl, melt together half the butter and all of the chocolate. Put to one side.

11. Mix together the rest of the ingredients (just a few seeds from the vanilla pod, not the whole thing!). Ideally an electric whizzer would be used here, but to be completely plastic free it could be done by hand. Hard work and serious elbow grease required, but it is possible. However, as I already own some plastic whizzers, I admit to not being dedicated enough to complete this particular task by hand just yet.

12. Mix in the melted chocolate and butter.

13. Spread cupcake moulds out on baking tray and spoon mixture into them.

14. Bake at 180 degrees for approximately 20 minutes.

15. Guilt free eating pleasure.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

And back to deodorant again

One of the very first posts I wrote was about changing my deodorant from the standard plastic encased roll-on to a plastic-free one (read skincare and the new deodorant). After struggling with Lush’s solid deodorants I eventually settled for a deodorant stone that I found in a green supermarket while visiting some friends in Totnes.

The deodorant stone works a treat. The methodology behind it sounds completely implausible, but the fact is it works. Made of mineral salts, they look like a piece of crystal pulled straight from a rock in a dark, damp cave. Wetting the stone and rubbing it directly on the skin causes it to leave behind an invisible layer of salts that apparently prevents odour-causing bacteria from setting up home.

"What the hell is that?" asked my cousin H when I left it out on her bathroom shelf during a visit earlier this year.

"Umm, my deodorant..." I replied sheepishly. I love H to bits, but I don't think she's really all that into alternative concepts, so I generally don't share these particular sensibilities of mine with her.

"Well, I haven't noticed you smelling yet, so I suppose it must do something," was her closing comment.

And then Disaster Strikes
All was good for a year. And then a couple of months ago I had to lay my beloved deodorant stone to rest and go in a search of a new one (in other words, I dropped it on the floor and it shattered into about a million pieces). That was when things started to go wrong. First I thought I’d buy one direct from the company that made/sourced my original stone. No can do, they’re out of stock. As is every stockist I could find that stocks this particular brand.

Alright, so I’ll see if I can find one locally, I decided. Errm, no. None of my local health stores stock them in their completely packaging-free state. Do I drive to Totnes to buy one from the store I got the first one from? Seems a bit wrong, and somewhat hypocritical, to exude evil exhaust fumes for that purpose alone.

Ok, so there must be other companies that supply them, I thought. Internet here I come. And yes, after much deliberation, I settled on ‘Tawas Crystal’, pictured in a lovely little bamboo basket. Great, I thought, no plastic. Sorted.

Or not. When the crystal arrived a couple of days later it was in a jiffy bag. But not only in a jiffy bag. In a plastic box, wrapped in bubble wrap, in a jiffy bag. ‘Darn’ would be the polite way of phrasing my reaction. There was probably more plastic involved in this one package than if I had gone out and bought a typical roll-on deodorant from the shop down the road. I’ll use it for now obviously, but, I wondered, what am I going to do next time?

Hark the Herald Angels
Thank you Mrs Green over on My Zero Waste. You are my saviour.

“Not all crystal deodorants are the same,” she pointed out, and sent me off to read the details about them on Natural Spa Supplies. And this lovely company, Natural Spa Supplies, also sells the good kind. But what about their packaging I wonder? Although the fact that Mrs Green had already recommended them to me indicated that the packaging would be sustainable, having learnt my lesson from previous experiences, this time I thought I’d better check.

“I use padded envelopes which are filled with recycled paper," they tell me. "And corrugated cardboard and string to protect the contents. I do tend to use a strip of cellotape to make sure the envelope doesn’t fly open, but that is all.” A strip of cellotape? I can live with that.

Yippee! I think. There are other people out there who are trying to change the world. And so I have just placed my first order. As well as the alum deodorant, I’ve ordered some other things to try too – Rhassoul clay for washing, soapnuts for the washing machine, savon noir soap for Bron to shave with, and a clay water purifier to replace my plastic Brita filter. I suddenly feel very poor, but I feel confident it’ll be worth it! Besides, it's always fun to try something different.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

But what does 'Plastic' mean?

I have been thinking about what the word plastic has come to mean within our society. In the research I’ve been doing for the book I’m trying to write about plastic, I keep coming across one particular quote.

‘I want to say one word to you; just one word,’ says Mr. McGuire to Benjamin Braddock in the iconic 1967 movie, The Graduate.
‘Yes, sir,’ replies Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin.
‘Are you listening?’
‘Yes, I am.’
‘Plastics,’ says Mr McGuire.
‘Exactly how do you mean?’
‘There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?’

In the 1960’s plastic was just coming into its own. It was the way forward, the chosen material of the space age. Despite being mid-Cold War, the 50’s and 60’s are generally regarded as being optimistic and forward-looking decades, and – with the launch of post-war economy-boosting plans to get everyone buying, buying, buying – decades of material affluence. ‘The optimism of life in those decades was accompanied by a ‘throw-away’ approach to material goods, a short-term relationship between people and their possessions,’ writes Penny Sparke in The Genius of Design. And this is very much epitomised by the now famous article in Life magazine, ‘Throwaway Living: disposable items cut down household chores’. Plastic was the future, the ‘stuff of dreams’ (Penny Sparke).

So when did this change? I’ve started asking people what they think of when they hear the word ‘plastic’ – people who aren’t aware of my particular dislike of plastic, and people who I know aren’t particularly eco-warrior-esque, as I figured they wouldn’t have too many pre-existing ideas about the environmental connotations of plastic. Here are some of the responses I’ve had so far:

‘Barbie. Fragile, brittle.’
‘Lego, cheap, oil, chemicals, bags.’
‘Cheap and nasty!’
‘False. Cheap and nasty, cosmetic surgery etc…’

Hmmm, not too flattering, I must say. Cheap is true – after all, the cheapness of the material is one of the reasons why it’s become so ubiquitous. And nasty – perhaps nasty because plastic doesn’t age well, it flakes, it becomes brittle. And maybe nasty because it’s cheap. Even though many people seek to buy the cheaper things, being cheap is still an insult. As plastic products flooded the post-war market, quantity took over from quality as plastic was substituted for other longer-lasting and more expensive materials such as steel and ceramics. ‘Cheaper, lower quality plastic products had entered the civilian marketplace,’ writes Penny Sparke. ‘Doubts began to emerge about the materials’ relationship with good design; consumers began to be anxious that they were being sold ‘vulgar’ or tasteless goods, and disenchantment set in.’

But – and this is one of the most interesting things for me – this idea of plastic as cheap and nasty, and representative of bad taste, has led the word to take on a whole different meaning. ‘In the sixties, you could always insult a guy by calling him ‘plastic,’’ Elizabeth Royte tells her readers in Garbage Land. ‘The word became a kind of shorthand for a suburban life of conspicuous consumption and upward striving.’ Plastic people, plastic culture – it’s become synonymous with fleeting, throwaway ideas, with being shallow and worthless. Everybody understands this, and this concept has fully insinuated itself within society and language.

And yet the use of plastic has risen and risen, and is now the most produced material in the world, millions of tonnes of it every single year. If everybody hates it and looks down their noses at it, how did this happen? Five minutes after I asked a lady at work what she thought of plastic – to which her response was, ‘I don’t like it’ – she’s tucking into her plastic-sealed lunch. Is it because plastic as a material was just so innovative we couldn’t help but be tempted by it and what it could offer us? The more I think about it, the more I realise that humans are short-term thinkers. We look for easy solutions, the quick fix, the lazy option. Plastic has provided this for us in ways that were probably never even imagined a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago. How could we say no once it was there?

Let’s face it, plastic revolutionised the way I live. It made things affordable to people who could never have afforded such things if they weren’t made of plastic, and who am I to say they shouldn’t be allowed to have them if they want them? Who am I to tell someone they can’t strive for a better lifestyle? And as long as people were buying plastic – despite the increasingly negative thoughts being attached to it – companies continued to make it.

And so here we are.

Penny Sparke’s book, The Genius of Design, was produced to coincide with a recent BBC2 series of the same name. It was a five part series looking at all sorts of different aspects of design, including a whole episode dedicated to plastic (‘Better Living through Chemistry’), which was incredibly fascinating. Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t seem to be available to watch online at the moment, but the whole series can be bought on DVD – ironic, given as DVD’s are a typical example of how plastic has shaped modern living.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The Joys of Retail

I was sitting in on an interview at work for a new staff member the other day, when the manager all of a sudden threw the questioning over to me. Put on the spot, I found myself grasping to explain the complexities of being a Waterstone’s bookseller. Many people might ask how being a bookseller could possibly be complex, but bookselling is as political and money-driven as virtually every other profession out there. In this particular instance, the knot I was trying to unwind was the balance between being an individual whilst also toeing the company line.

Within every store we are strongly encouraged to promote the books we personally love, tailor the store to our own particular brand of customers, and strike up friendly conversations with customers left, right and centre in order to make them feel welcomed. However, in contrast to these freedoms, every member of staff is also expected to say a set of very specific lines to customers at the till point.

‘Do you have a Waterstone’s card? Would you like one of ours books of the week for only £4.49?’ And - my particular favourite - ‘Do you need a bag?’

Do you need a bag?
‘Do you need a bag?’ not, ‘Do you want a bag’ or ‘Would you like a bag?’ It’s an interesting choice of wording – the use of need rather than want is designed to make the customer think about their requirements rather than their wants. But does it work? Now that’s a loaded question. I get lots and lots of different responses to the bag question, but they can generally be grouped into the following categories:

Customers who want a bag even though they know they shouldn’t take one and feel like they should at least feel some fleeting guilt about taking one. ‘Normally I wouldn’t, but I’ve left mine in the car today.’

Mr and Mrs Average
Customers who genuinely consider the question and provide a direct answer – either yes or no. It’s probably about 50/50 either way, though this is often dependant on external factors – whether it’s raining, say, or the amount that they’re purchasing.

Those who jump in and tell you they don’t need a bag before you’ve even had a chance to ask the question (sounds like me).

Customers who have no concept of the environment at all, responding with something along the lines of, ‘Of course I need a bag! Do you think I’m going to carry these around under my arm?!’ This is irritating because they talk to me as if I’m stupid. I’m not stupid – at the simplest end of the spectrum, I am simply doing my job as I have been trained to do by my company, never mind the environmental aspects.

Customers who are carrying their own canvas bags, but seem to be doing so only as a fashion accessory. They take a plastic bag from each store they visit and then put each one inside the bigger canvas one – heaven forbid that their various purchases should all have to roll around together, touching each other. For me, these are some of the most irritating customers, because they’re pretending they’re eco-friendly by carrying their own bags, which often shout some anti-plastic message, yet they’re still using as much plastic as they would if they hadn’t brought their own bags.

Downright Annoying
‘Yes, if you don’t mind’ is one of the most annoying answers I get. I want to shout at them, ‘Yes, I do mind! You’re helping to destroy the world!’ But, meek as I am, I can’t help but do my job, smile politely and, simply, do as I’m told. ‘The customer is always right’ is the old saying after all. But what would happen if, one day, I rebelled? The company’s emphasis on customer service is so strong, that even contemplating the risk of alienating a customer over such an issue is enough to bring me out in a cold sweat.

The Waterstone’s Way
Carrier bags do seem to be a rather contentious subject at the moment, as I’m sure is the case among most high street retailers today. I attended a regional forum today, where the representatives from around ten stores gather together to share ideas and bring forward concerns or problems for later discussion at a higher level within the company.

‘Don’t talk to me about bags!’ our regional manager said toward the start of the meeting. Not because she didn’t want to discuss it, but because it’s already very much on the company’s agenda and griping about them at a regional level wasn’t going to achieve anything.

Whenever I want to talk about plastic bags, the discussion usually includes the word ‘ban’, and so my first assumption when other staff in the meeting brought up the subject was that this was what was on their minds as well. But, disappointingly for me, from the few comments that were made, I don’t think this was actually the case. Until about two years ago, the store used what could be described as classy bags. Good quality, strong, glossy, black bags. Today’s bags are much flimsier and they are white, but – and all credit to the company here – they are made from recycled plastic. I think this is fantastic. I believe that buying goods made of recycled plastic (actually, of recycled anything) is important because it helps to support the recycling industry. However, it seems that not everyone agrees with me.

‘They don’t look as nice,’ is a frequent comment. Or, ‘Can you double bag it because my boyfriend’ll be able to see what I’ve bought him,’ is another. Grumble, grumble is my general, internal, response. I can see their points, but nobody seems to respect the sound environmental decision that the company’s made to produce their bags from recycled plastic. Although I’d ultimately like to see them phasing out plastic bags altogether, I do think that until they do, their current policy is about as strong as it can be.

Carrier bags are on the agenda for the company’s upcoming Corporate Social Responsibility meeting. In what context, I don’t know, though obviously I’m eager to know whether or not the possibility of removing them altogether is under consideration – or charging for them, as WHSmiths currently does. I think probably not. Charging for bags can be viewed as being negative – it puts the customer in a bit of a bind, and those who don’t understand why the charge is in place (and my experiences tells me there will be plenty that fall into this category) are likely to view the company in a negative way as a result, which means that they’re less likely to come back and spend their money there in the future. And so Waterstone’s has gone for the carrot rather than the stick method. Instead of charging, they reward customers with extra loyalty card points for not taking a bag. Another idea that makes sound business sense. But does it work? Not every customer has (or wants) a loyalty card and of those that do, despite advertising the ‘eco-points’ scheme, most don’t realise it exists. I always try to make a point of telling customers who don’t take bags that I’m giving them extra points because of it, and nine times out of ten their response is surprise or mild bewilderment.

Plastic bags: valid issue or a distraction?
At today’s meeting, our regional manager did tell us that ‘bag costs are down by about half of what they were two years ago.’ She didn’t expand on the comment, but I assume this is a result of a combination of the change in bag production from glossy to recycled as well as the company-wide introduction of the ‘Do you need a bag?’ question. I wonder what the reduction in bags in terms of number are? Probably not as much as half, but I’m sure bag usage has gone down as it becomes a bigger and more widely acknowledged issue within our society. This, however, leaves me with two thoughts.

Firstly, when shopping in other stores on the high street I continue to be surprised by the number of companies who don’t appear to have a bag reduction policy in place – which, although I feel they could take the issue further, makes me feel proud to work for a company that is thinking about it.

And secondly I am reminded of an article written last year by The Guardian’s environmental commentator, Leo Hickman, on the subject of plastic bags. Is the ever increasing focus on them as an environmental concern detracting us from more serious environmental issues? Despite this being a subject that is close to my heart, I fear he is right. It’s easy to get wrapped up in one issue and forget about everything else. It’s also easy to forget that there’s a lot more to the issue of plastic itself than plastic bags – plastic bags are, after all, a long long way from being the only plastic pollution created by modern everyday living and I think there are lots of people out there who, while they may reject a plastic bag from their local Waterstone’s store, probably wouldn’t think twice about the fact that they’re buying a plastic booklight encased in plastic packaging, or that the cool cover of their new hardback copy of ‘C’ by Tom McCarthy is also plastic.

Oh dear, I’m never happy, am I?

Extra reading: Waterstone's carrier bag policy

Sunday, 1 August 2010

All the King's horses

Another great, informative little talk from Captain Charles Moore:

"All the King's horses and all the King's men," he says, "will never gather up all the plastic and put the ocean back together again."

Solution 101: reduce the pollution at it's source - i.e. us.

Friday, 30 July 2010

On Banning Plastic Bags - Part 2

A couple of weeks ago, in 'On Banning Plastic Bags', I posted on here a letter I sent to UK Secretary of State for the environment, Caroline Spelman, asking for details on her waste and plastic bag policies, along with the somewhat disappointing reply I recieved from her department, DEFRA.

This is the letter that I sent back following DEFRA's response:

Dear Mr. Hands,

Thank you for taking the time to read my letter and for your reply. However, I do not feel that you read my letter fully, or that you have answered my questions.

1. I am aware of Ms Spelman's current review of waste policies and the aim of this to move England toward a zero waste society. The first question I asked in my letter was regarding more detail on how Ms Spelman and Defra plan to achieve the ideal of a zero waste society. What waste policies are under consideration in order to achieve this aim? And how are they going to be structured? For instance, are you investigating the policies of other countries (e.g. Germany) to see how they have achieved what they have?

2. You say that the government's aim is to end the "needless distribution" of the single-use carrier bag. Please could you define for me the term, "needless distribution"? Your use of this term implies that there are circumstances under which the distribution of single-use carrier bags is necessary, a statement with which I would have to strongly disagree.

3. You write, “We would like to see the single-use carrier bag, issued free at the point of sale, become a thing of the past.” Excellent. But how do you plan to achieve this? You provide some interesting statistics further on in your letter regarding the voluntary agreement of a number of supermarket chains to reduce their carrier usage. You explain that the supermarkets involved have agreed to a 50% reduction and that these supermarkets account for 85% of the grocery market. Taking these two numbers together, it accounts for only a 42.5% reduction in carrier bags within the grocery market.

Firstly, this is less than a 50% reduction of carriers bags within the grocery market alone – while, as you say, those who have made this agreement may represent a large portion of the UK’s carrier bag usage, and while a 42.5% reduction is a good start (everything has to start somewhere, after all), this is still an extremely long way from the making the single-use carrier bag “a thing of the past”. How do you plan to make up the 57.5% shortfall?

Secondly, it is important to note that this 50% target is a pledge and only a pledge. It is not written in stone that the signatories will meet this target, and if they don’t meet it, there won’t be any consequences because it is not a legal agreement – it is a ‘pledge’. Thirdly, this pledge does not take into consideration retail outside the grocery market – what about book shops, gift shops, music shops, chemists, etc etc?

4. You write, "The key to reducing the number of bags we use is reuse of bags of all varieties." I take this to mean that the manner in which you plan to end "needless distribution" of the single-use carrier bag is by making them multiple use? I take this to mean that the government’s main plan to reduce carrier bags is simply to encourage people to re-use them? Re-use is a good initiative, and I would agree that it would need to be an integral part of any policy, but re-use on its own does not a policy make. And how do you plan to encourage people to simply re-use all their carrier bags? A lot of people are likely to embrace this idea, but without a more solid injunction, you will never achieve a 100% reduction through this method alone.

5. You write, "The results of this earlier agreement were a 26% reduction in numbers of bags distributed by participating retailers, and a 40% reduction in the environmental impact of carrier bags." Please can you tell me how this figure of a “40% reduction in the environmental impact” was obtained?

6. The Defra website link included in your letter does not work. Using this link simply takes me to a page that informs me that the page I was looking for no longer exists (“error 404”). Please could you provide me with the correct link.

7. Lastly, the question which I felt to be the main gist of my letter was whether or not Defra has any plans (or has considered) introducing either a tax or an outright ban on plastic bags. I provided with my first letter an example of the success of a plastic bag tax, and a list of regions throughout the world where a ban is already in place (also attached here). In your reply, you have deftly avoided providing a direct answer to this question. I would be grateful if you could give me an answer please. And if you are not able to answer this or any of my other questions, I would appreciate you forwarding my letter to someone who can.

With thanks,
Isabel Popple

And here is the second reply I recieved:

Dear Ms Popple

Thank you for your reply of 1 July.

We intend to publish the detailed Terms of Reference for the Review shortly along with a Call for Evidence. As the Terms of Reference has not been finalised, I cannot answer as to which policies we will be looking at.

It is recognised that there will always be circumstances where it will be necessary to use a single use bag. For instance, if your own re-usable bags are full, then a single use bag may be appropriate. However, the Courtauld Commitment pledges that single use bags are kept to a minimum.

The 50% reduction in plastic bags only applies to signatories of the Courtauld Commitment. As this is a voluntary agreement it is up to each company to decide on their own strategy for the aims to be achieved. Whilst this is a voluntary agreement, the Government has reserved the right to take steps if the terms of the agreement are not met, though this will be subject to the Review.

The Courtauld Commitment covers 85% of the market. The Association of Convenience Stores (mainly small shops) has agreed to a ‘second tier’ agreement for smaller retailers and others who were not party to the main voluntary agreement. This ‘second tier’ did not bind signatories to specific targets but included a pledge to reduce the number of bags they give out via appropriate measures. This approach could be pursued, though any decision will be subject to the Review.

The first voluntary agreement on carrier bags (2006-2008) aimed to reduce the environmental impact of all carrier bags by 25%. The Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) collected and analysed data from the retailers' procurement statistics and monitored sector progress. Data submitted by retailers was reviewed by WRAP to check for any major anomalies and ongoing trends.

The target of ‘25% reduction in the environmental impact of carrier bags’ was measured by looking at a reduction in the number of carrier bags issued and the amount of virgin plastic used, which provided a simple way to measure environmental impact. The participants achieved a 26% reduction in the total number of carrier bags used and a 40% reduction in the amount of virgin polymer used. The total weight of bags was also recorded and reported separately.

Lastly, you asked whether or not there are any plans to introduce either a tax or an outright ban on plastic bags, this will also be subject to the Review.

Yours sincerely,
David Hands
Customer Contact Unit

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Degradable Bin Bags?

The biodegradability of biodegradable-classed plastics is a subject that I have a multitude of questions about. ‘100% degradable’ plastic products shout – but so often it turns out that this is not exactly true. For starters, they will often only degrade under very specific conditions and, secondly, ‘100%’ seems to be a description that is open to interpretation.

Take this photo (courtesy of Corbis), which shows how a biodegradable plastic fork disintegrates over a period of months. Cool huh? Ironically, though, the caption for the image on Corbis’ website reads ‘….. completely degrades’. Errr… Sorry to burst the photographer’s bubble, but there’s still quite a bit of visible material left in the final picture there, so I’m thinking it hasn’t ‘completely degraded’ at all. Maybe it’s no longer recognisable as a fork, but its basic materials are still pretty much in existence.

A biodegradable minefield
As far as I can tell, there are lots of different approaches that manufacturers of purportedly degradable plastics can take – some of them, I believe, are genuine; some not so. It’s certainly a minefield, and one that I’m still trying to find a safe path through, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here today. But, there are bio plastics that are completely composed of natural materials (rather than oil-based, though oil is, technically, a natural material). And then there are plastics that are made up of a web of traditional plastic molecules which are held together by degradable materials – the strands holding them together degrade, leaving lots of teeny tiny pieces of non-degradable plastic still floating around in the environment. The difficulty for us as consumers is figuring out which are really degradable, and which are pseudo-degradable.

And so to bin bags
Which brings me to the initial point of this particular post: degradable bin bags.

To be honest, degradable bin bags are a bit of a misnomer. This is because in order for fully biological bioplastics to degrade properly, they really need some good composting conditions: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, heat and water. Without these, nothing will degrade – think of the permafrost men, frozen forever in virtually their original state. And in your average landfill, where most of our household bin bags wind up, these conditions are severely lacking. So even if you’re good and green and buy those special degradable bin bags, chances are they’ll never have the opportunity to degrade.

Unfortunately, Bron and I have yet to reduce our waste to a zero point – we’re not too bad, all told, but we still have our weekly deposit on the lawn for the bin men to collect, mostly thanks to the cat who, even in the summer weather, still steadfastly uses her litter tray. So when it came to deciding whether to use degradable bin bags or not, I really wasn’t sure whether there much point to it or not. Bron thought “no”, but I figured at least it’s slightly better than a completely non-degradable one. Off to Archie Browns I went, one of my local health stores, where they sell bags produced by Symphony Environmental.

The D2W additive
‘Fact,’ the packaging on these bin bags states. ‘This plastic really is 100% degradable. Fantastic!’

How? I wondered. ‘Our d2w® additive put into the plastic at the extrusion stage will make the finished product "oxo-biodegradable" so that it will degrade and disappear in a short timescale, leaving no fragments, no methane and no harmful residues,’ explains their website,

‘The degradation process is initiated at the time the polyethylene or polypropylene is extruded by the inclusion of a small amount of a special additive.’ So they still contain traditional polymers then? They’re not made from corn starch, or a similar alternative.

But wait, this is a good thing, they say, because it means the bags do ‘not need a biologically active environment to start degrading - this will happen even if the plastic is left in the open air! … For this reason in particular, d2w™ 'totally degradable' plastic is superior to 'bio-degradable' which requires the plastic to be in a biologically active environment (for example, by being buried in the ground) before the degradation process is initiated.’ Which gets us over the compostable-plastic-doesn’t-compost-in-the-landfill issue I suppose.

I’m really not sure what to think at this point. Is this stuff good or bad? Apparently the additive used speeds up the natural degradation of plastic that would otherwise take tens or hundreds of years, so that the bags quite quickly break down into flake-sized pieces. At this point, because the polymer chains have been reduced in length, oxygen is able to bond with the carbon in the chain, forming CO2. Is this just theory or does it actually happen in the environment? The next bit I don’t quite understand – the formation of CO2 further reduces the flakes in size which makes them ‘water wettable’. Water wettable? What does that mean? Despite my science degree, my biology and chemistry knowledge, I have never heard this term before. Apparently being water wettable means that micro-organisms can access the chemicals in the polymer chains.

Am I any the wiser? I still don’t know. It all sounds quite reasonable, yet I can’t help having my suspicions. Or am I just being negative? After everything I’ve read about how difficult it is for polymers to break down, this just sounds a bit too easy. I believe that the bags will break down into flakes, but I wonder how persistent those flakes ultimately are in the environment? Even if the bags don’t need composting conditions to get to this stage, thanks to the D2W additive, if the flakes then need micro-organisms to further degrade them, that does imply a composting situation – which, I mentioned earlier, won’t be found in a typical landfill situation.

The debate continues
Perhaps these bags aren’t the ultimate solution, but are they better than the standard bin bag? Is this ‘100% degrading’? What about the microscopic bits of plastic that wind up in the environment waiting for some happy micro-organism to munch on? When exposed to wider ecosystems, these are arguably more damaging to wildlife than more solid forms of the material are, as Professor Richard Thompson can attest. I am yet to be convinced by the eco-credentials of this particular brand of degradable plastic.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

On Banning Plastic Bags

On 19th June, I sent the following letter to Caroline Spelman, the UK's new Secretary of State for the Environment:

Dear Caroline,

This week you called for the UK to become a zero waste society, an issue which I whole heartedly support.

I am currently researching and writing a book about plastic. Loosely titled ‘A Life Less Plastic’, it will chart the story of plastic, from its manufacture, to the myriad plastic products we find in our homes, to its disposal, and all of the environmental concerns surrounding it. I was therefore particularly interested in your comments about encouraging manufacturers to reduce their packaging materials, which are often comprised of single use plastics, and was hoping that you would be able to tell me more about this proposal and how you will achieve it.

As Environment Secretary, please could you also tell me what plans, if any, you have regarding plastic bags. Although plastic now features strongly in every aspect of the average westerner’s daily lifestyle, from the packaging on the food we eat, to the technology we use, and even the activities we undertake in our leisure time, the plastic bag is probably the most widely recognised form of plastic pollution. Many countries have already taken steps to ban single use plastic bags, with often astounding results, or to introduce taxes on them. The Republic of Ireland, for instance, introduced a tax on plastic bags in 2002, which resulted in a 90% reduction in plastic bag usage as well acquiring significant extra revenue for the government. Are you considering a similar tax, or an outright ban, for the UK? For your interest, I attach a list of worldwide bans and taxes on plastic bags currently in place.

I understand that you are a person who is very much in demand and with a heavy workload, but I would very much like to enter a conversation with you on these subjects. As you are aware, zero waste and plastic waste are subjects very much in the public sphere at the moment, and they are obviously on the new government’s agenda as well, and it is in the public’s interest – and in the interest of the environment and our swiftly depleting resources – to tackle these issues openly and quickly.

I look forward to hearing from you and learning more about your own and the government’s plans and thoughts on this important issue.

Yours truly,
Isabel Popple

And here is the reply I have just recieved:

Dear Ms Popple

Thank you for your email of 19 June to the Secretary of State. I have been asked to reply.

It is encouraging to hear of your interest in this issue. You may have seen that the Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, has recently announced a full review of waste policies in England. The overarching purpose of the Review will be to ensure that the correct waste policies are in place to enable us to move towards a ‘zero waste society’.

In line with the European Union’s revised Waste Framework Directive, the Government's aim is to end the needless distribution of carrier and, over the longer term, we would like to see the single-use carrier bag, issued free at the point of sale, become a thing of the past. The key to reducing the number of bags we use is reuse of bags of all varieties. All bags have an environmental impact - reusing them as many times as possible and disposing of them in an appropriate way minimises this impact. This could include a final use as a bin liner – displacing the need for a new bag/liner to be used instead.

The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) monitor the number of bags given out by the main supermarkets, and will present their next full set of data this summer.

On 18 December 2008, Britain's leading supermarkets, represented by the British Retail Consortium (BRC), signed up to an agreement pledging a 50 per cent cut in the number of carrier bags given out by the end of May 2009, based on a 2006 baseline, and to aspire to a longer term reduction of 70 per cent. The agreement covered seven of Britain's major supermarket chains in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and targeted both paper and plastic single-use carrier bags provided by the supermarkets involved. The supermarkets committed to the agreement account for more than 85 per cent of the UK grocery market and, therefore, a significant proportion of the UK's carrier bag usage. Bags will still be available, but retailers will be introducing various measures to reduce the number they give out, and encourage consumers to reuse the bags they have - whatever sort of bags they are.

The voluntary agreement builds on an earlier agreement with 21 leading retailers to reduce the environmental impact of carrier bags by 25 per cent between May 2006 and December 2008. The results of this earlier agreement were a 26 per cent reduction in numbers of bags distributed by participating retailers, and a 40 per cent reduction in the environmental impact of carrier bags.

More information on WRAP’s work on reducing waste and increasing resource efficiency in businesses and public organisations can be found on its website at

For more information on Defra’s programme on reducing waste arising from carrier bags, please visit our website at

I hope this is helpful.

Yours sincerely,
David Hands
Customer Contact Unit

First reactions
My first response to the David Hands' reply is: did he actually read my letter?

"You may have seen that the Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, has recently announced a full review of waste policies in England," he writes. Err, well, had he read my letter properly, he may have seen that an acknowledgement of this forms the opening sentence of my letter, "This week [Caroline Spelman] called for the UK to become a zero waste society." Ok, so maybe my comment doesn't directly refer to an overview of waste management policy, but I do think it demonstrates that I'm aware of the review and the Secretary of State's movements on it.

Second reactions
"The Government's aim is to end the needless distribution of carrier and, over the longer term, we would like to see the single-use carrier bag, issued free at the point of sale, become a thing of the past." Ok, that's a start. But how does he define "needless distribution", and how does the government actually plan to end this needless distribution?

"The key to reducing the number of bags we use is reuse of bags of all varieties." I take this to mean that the manner in which the government plans to end "needless distribution" of the single-use carrier bag is by making them, errr, multiple use? So, no bans, no taxes, just encouraging people to re-use them? Doesn't sound like a very solid plan really does it? And how are they going to encourage people to re-use them?

"On 18 December 2008, Britain's leading supermarkets, represented by the British Retail Consortium (BRC), signed up to an agreement pledging a 50 per cent cut in the number of carrier bags given out by the end of May 2009, based on a 2006 baseline, and to aspire to a longer term reduction of 70 per cent..." Some nice figures here, that might be enough to satisfy a lot of people with similar queries. But it rather feels like he is simply quoting figures he's been told to brag about, rather than having properly read my letter and considered the issues I tried to raise within it.

Are you kidding me?
"The results of this earlier agreement were a 26 per cent reduction in numbers of bags distributed by participating retailers, and a 40 per cent reduction in the environmental impact of carrier bags." A 40% reduction in the environmental impact of carrier bags? How on earth can he quantify or prove this figure? Where does this figure come from and how was it obtained?

And finally...
The Defra website link doesn't work. At least, not today anyway. Which means I am unable to look at "more information on Defra’s programme on reducing waste arising from carrier bags."

Monday, 21 June 2010

It's a Compostable Life

Yippee! Finally, we have set up our composting bin. It’s only been sitting in the shed since last October. Bron and I live in an area that’s quite exposed to the elements and the bin being as lightweight as it is, I was afraid it would get blown away during the winter months before we had a chance to anchor it with all our veg scraps.

‘But it’s plastic!’ you might be saying. Yes, I know, it’s plastic. Before settling on this particular bin, I did actually do quite a bit of research into my composting options. It all seems like quite a while ago now, but it is easy to buy wooden composters, and I certainly would have done had I thought it appropriate to do so.

My reasons for not buying a wooden compost bin are:

1. Our house is a small two-up two-down semi-detached new build-type on a small, fairly enclosed estate with a very small garden. Wooden bins are generally open and with slatted sides, and the neighbours (never mind our landlady) really wouldn’t have been too happy about the sight or the smell of our rotting foodstuffs. One day, when I have my own little cottage in the countryside with a big garden full of trees and bushes and winding walkways, I will certainly go for a wooden bin, because then I can tuck it away at the bottom of the garden where it won’t upset anyone.

2. Apparently plastic composters also keep the heat in - because they are enclosed and, well, plastic - which speeds up the composting process. Although maybe that will also keep the worms and the bugs out, so it might be a bit of a catch 22.

In the meantime, until I have that garden with it’s winding pathways where I can plant a luscious vegetable patch, and while I love that I am reducing my landfill waste further, I am wondering what I am going to do with the compost itself. I don’t have any garden plants or vegetables, or anything growing per se, that I can put it on. I’m not particularly green-fingered - the one plant I was really proud of, a white cyclamen widely known within our household as ‘Plant’, was killed off for good in January when I forgot to bring it in from the snow.

And what if we have to move house – how on earth are we going to transport it? Plus we haven’t told our landlady about it, so I hope she won’t mind us temporarily destroying a small patch of her lawn.

But for now I am going to stop worrying, and start basking in the good that is composting. I am returning my waste to the earth’s system - now that’s what I call recycling.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Football Fever

I've been thinking about football the last couple of days. I'm not a football fan, but it's kind of hard to ignore at the moment. I don't have anything against football, it just doesn't interest me - despite the men in shorts, I'd rather read a book or watch an episode of Gilmore Girls. But, like I say, I've been thinking about football - or, more precisely, footballs.

Pig's bladders 'r' us
What are footballs made of, I wondered? The everyday balls being touted in all the shops look distinctly plastic.

'Inflated pig's bladder,' Bron declares when I ask him about footballs. That's what he reckons the first ever balls were made from.

'I wonder what would happen if in the final of the World Cup, the ref came out onto pitch with an inflated pig's bladder for them play with?' I suggest. Can you imagine? It would be great!

Despite this unlikely scenario, I thought I'd put my investigation head on and find out what footballs really are made of. And, according to Wikipedia, although early commercial footballs were constructed of vulcanised rubber, today's balls are more likely to be leather or - yes, of course - plastic.

Synthetic Leather?
As for the official 2010 World Cup football, Addidas is responsible. It even has it's own name, the Jabulani. SoccerWorld is a font of information - blimey, who ever would have thought I'd be reading SoccerWorld! Their balls, including the Jabulani, are constructed of synthetic leather. Synthetic leather? What's that? Synthetic leather may be made in a variety of ways, but is typically PVC and polyurethane. Hmmm - synthetic leather? Why don't they just call it what it is? Plastic!

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Packaging Psychology

Looking through some of my earlier posts on this blog, I found a comment in ‘Post’ that reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend a couple of weeks ago: is there a perception that better items are those that are wrapped in plastic?

Picture our friends’ small back garden, half paved, half gravel, predominantly taken up by a trampoline, several small children, and a barbecue. All the men are customarily gathered around the wild fires said barbecue, talking man talk, and gradually turning small hunks of meat into charcoaled burgers.

‘These are only cheap burgers,’ announces Bron’s best mate, P. ‘You can tell from the box,’ he says, nodding towards the discarded packaging at his feet.

Hmm, I think. Looks like a pretty good box to me. Paper, no plastic wrapping in sight, though I suppose that may have already made its way to the bin.

Despite my normal reticence when it comes to discussing plastic with friends, I can’t resist this particular opportunity.

‘What kind of packaging would you say expensive burgers come in then?’ I ask.

‘Well, the design of the box,’ he tells me. ‘The graphics, the colours. Plus the burgers would be in a plastic tray or something inside. These were just in the box as they are.’

So more packaging - and plastic packaging - equals better food? That is, assuming that more expensive also equals better. How did we come to have this mindset? Advertising, marketing; we’re right back to the debate about consumer society, how businesses manipulate us, and how we fall for it. Every day.

How can we break this vicious circle? I wonder. I see two possibilities:

1. The power of the individual. Those who are clued in, like you and me, try not to buy into it. If enough of us do it, eventually companies will notice demand for their products are falling. And teach our children the better path. The problem with this is that it’s a very long, very hard road, and I worry that any changes it effects will be too late to make a difference in terms of sustainable living – will resources hit crisis point first?

2. A change of heart by those who hold the top of the strings. In recent years, lots of companies have clued into the fact that consumers respond well to green credentials, so these are used more and more in advertising today. If these credentials are genuine, great. But how often do we get to see the whole picture? Of course, it is a start, but what I’d really like to see happen is for every business, and the government to boot, to stop telling us we need to buy their products in the first place, and why theirs is the best thing since sliced bread. Well, I can dream, can’t I?

Sunday, 30 May 2010

A Plastic Mystery

There’s a strange phenomenon sweeping my village.

I am sitting here at the computer looking out at the small estate I live in. It’s a cool day today, the clouds are piling over, I’ve had to bring the washing in for fear of rain, and the leaves of the trees are blowing in the wind. But across the way there is a house with a plastic bag hanging out of each open upstairs window.

Although it’s the first time I’ve noticed it myself, apparently it’s been going on for a while.

‘We went to your house first,’ C tells me as she arrives at a mutual friend’s who has organised a small gathering. She rolls her eyes towards her boyfriend D; clearly the blame for this little error lies with him. ‘Nice house,’ she says. ‘But why do all your neighbours hang plastic bags out their windows?’

This, at the time, was news to me. Obviously I’m incredibly unobservant, though Bron clearly isn’t.

‘I don’t know,’ he tells her. ‘It’s weird isn’t it?’

Weird indeed. One house flying bags on a solo basis would be unusual, but for a whole street to do it? Am I missing something? Why? The only possible explanation I’ve come up with so far is that it’s to deter flies from going in the open windows. Which actually is quite a good idea, but I think perhaps I’d rather have the flies than the unsightly and noisy bag flapping outside my window. Unless there is something particularly dangerous or nasty about Cornish flies that I’m not aware of… But then, another viewpoint would be that at least these houses are reusing their plastic bags for some (useful?) purpose rather than binning them.

And so the phenomenon continues, as I am now a witness. Does anyone have any alternative theories?

Friday, 28 May 2010

Girly Stuff

This is my exciting new purchase. Plastic-free, all natural panty pads. It even says plastic-free on the box. How cool is that?

I’ve been putting off the sanitary pad issue for a while now, partly out of denial, and partly because I thought I was going to have to go the re-useable route. I don’t have any issues with the re-useable route – I did some research into it a little while ago, and there are plenty of options out there, from the Mooncup for those who prefer tampon-type protection, to handmade pads by companies such as Minki and Imse Vimse. S, my eco-knowledgeable MA tutor, even hinted at the sew-your-own option.

There's chlorine in my panty pads?
Why use re-useable or natural pads? Clearly, re-useable means less waste, plastic or otherwise. But while this is obviously a big concern for me, there are other reasons too. Where the typical modern pad is concerned, it all comes down to the chemicals used to make them. And there’re a lot of chemicals.

The main function of sanitary pads is absorbency, and today this is typically achieved through the use of wood pulp. Not any old wood pulp, but chlorine bleached wood pulp.

There’s chlorine in my panty pads? I had no idea. But it gets worse… Think about all those adverts for Always or Bodyform that shout about how their pads are thinner yet more absorbent, so you can feel comfortable doing womanly things such as playing volleyball, or cycling in hot pants and a bikini. How do they make this so? By adding polyacrylate gels. Yes, there’s that word, ‘poly’ – a plastic. In addition to these gels, there’s a leak proof barrier of polyethylene, and even the main outer is composed of polypropylene.

This is a bit scary: I hadn’t realised the pad itself was full of plastic, I was only thinking of the packaging it comes wrapped in.

And the consequences? Other than the environmental concerns – from extraction and processing of the materials, 90% of which are petroleum products, to the problem of disposal – there are health ones. The high level of synthetic materials used causes many women thrush-like irritation, and the chlorine-bleaching of the core produces dioxin as a by-product, a chemical that is linked to cancer, endometriosis, and immune suppression. Yikes, and I’m putting this against one of the most sensitive areas of my body.

In the olden days
I’ve been thinking about what women used for their periods before the advent of the modern sanitary towel. And it is a modern thing, especially as far as the plastic content is concerned, which has only come into use in the last twenty-odd years, well within my lifetime. Rags seems to be the general answer, which basically brings me back to the suggestion of making my own pads.

I guess the modern pad is a reflection of modern life and, to an extent, the emancipation of women. Women have both the right and the ability to do everything men can do, and the tampon or panty pad helps us to see this through. Before they were around, women often had to remove themselves from society during their period, whether out of hygiene or because of their culture. And still do today in some parts of the world.

So panty pads are a good thing; they enable me to live an active life. But there’s no reason why they have to poison me or the environment in the meantime.

Me and mine
Why did I put off changing my sanitary towels for so long? Firstly, until I sat down to write this entry, I hadn’t realised how bad my ‘normal’ sanitary towels were. Secondly because – as always – I was put off by the cost of re-useable pads. I know it’s a one off cost so once you’ve got a set, that’s that, at least for a while, but to buy enough to get me through a period without having to wash them every single day is going to set me back in the region of £50. I know it makes more sense in the long-run to make this investment, but that half of my brain has trouble computing with the part that says, ‘But it’s £50!’

So, when I visited my eco-hippy friends C&D a couple of weeks ago, I had an epiphany:

‘D, what do you use for your period?’ I asked.

‘Natural pads,’ she said, rummaging in the corner of the room for a moment before reappearing with a box of Natracare. ‘It’s better if you don’t use tampons,’ she says. ‘And you should never use branded pads because of the blue stuff,’ referring to the colour the polyacrylate gels give the liners.

Well, that told me. And I think it’ll change my life. These new Natracare pads are so soft and comfortable I keep forgetting I’m even wearing them. Ironically, this makes them even more successful at female emancipation than the typical brands. Ultimately, my plan is still to go the re-useable route, but at least for now I’m not putting any plastic in the bin.