A plastic-free month in Croydon – are you up for the challenge?

By - Friday 28th September, 2018

Giant plastic bins are provided to help us use less… plastic. Could there be another way for Croydon?

Here in Croydon, we now have massive plastic wheelie bins to encourage us to recycle more plastic (and other items). The first thought that came into my mind on hearing of this change to our recycling collections was a phrase about leading a horse to water… but maybe I’m being too cynical. At least the giant bins should prevent our recycling from blowing down the street.

Croydon’s recycling rate of just over 45% before the council cutbacks has fallen to 38% currently. The new bins are intended to raise it again, to 50%. But I wonder (because I can’t find any statistics) how much of the plastic collected for recycling in our borough actually gets recycled? How much is discarded as ‘contaminated’?

What about living with plastic altogether? It was while searching for alternatives that I came across an Australian initiative called Plastic Free July, an annual ‘month’ campaign (rather like Stop-tober, the campaign month to encourage people to give up smoking, or Veganuary, the month to try to avoid eating animal products). It took its founders a short space of time before they realised that going plastic free is a huge task, so we are encouraged to try starting with a week of plastic-free living as a taster. In recent years, I’ve been giving it a go.

I was dismayed at the volume of plastic we put out for recycling

It’s a major challenge indeed. I imagine that there are few of us who are not aware to some degree or other of the vast quantities of plastic in our lives today. Recycling would seem to be a good and easy option, but in recent times there have been questions as to what exactly does happen to all that plastic we so carefully rinse out and put in the correct box/bin, to be reborn as a cup or a fleece jacket. What’s the alternative? Is there one?

After three years, although I have yet to hold out for a full month, a little something useful is learned every time. The first year the challenge, I did some forward planning and bought foods that would last or could be frozen the preceding week in order to reduce my plastic load during the week in question (cheating? Surely not!). It must be said that it’s quite a frustrating thing to do, to try to get the food that you want without the additional plastic, not to mention other items that come wrapped in it too – laundry liquid, shampoo, toilet rolls, a birthday card, a packet of underwear, hair grips, batteries, teabags… to say that I was dismayed at the volume of plastic that we put out for recycling each time is not an understatement. So bigger containers were next on my list – five litres of washing-up liquid at a time, and larger shampoo bottles. Luckily that’s cheaper too.

I’m delighted that plastic drinking straws are the new pariah

The second year, having done more research in the interim, I was armed with my reusable cup and remembered to bring it with me about 70% of the time. This percentage improved when I saw how embarrassing it was for my teenagers when I produced it from the depths of my bag – in public, too! Cotton buds from Simply Gentle raised my satisfaction level to a new high as they had cardboard stems. Cotton buds with plastic stems are are a blight on beaches everywhere.

You can imagine how delighted I am now that plastic drinking straws are the new pariah, and shops everywhere are falling over themselves to declare their use and provision of waxed paper or metal straws.

By the end of the second year though, I had found my nemesis – food storage. Specifically, the problem is with leftover food for the following day and not for freezing (oh no, that would be too easy). Plastic tubs are slowly being replaced with glass, although these are usually not as handy so this is not an ideal solution. Then I found two innovations that really helped – the first being reusable clingfilm. This is a waxed fabric which becomes more pliable with use – so you need to persevere in the beginning when it’s a bit too stiff to wrap around dishes properly, but it improves quickly with use. The second was a silicon circle (a large one for bowls, small one for cups/cans, etc), which was effective, as long as it doesn’t get nudged in the fridge and the seal broken.

New suggestions for how to go plastic free are coming forward all the time

Yes, you can definitely source most things without plastic containers or wrappers, as long as you have oodles of time and a full purse. Natural soaps, artisan bread, local cheese, washable nappies and sanitary products – there are plenty of options and the internet is hugely helpful in finding them. New ideas are coming forward all the time, and with initiatives such as not giving free plastic bags away in shops, our plastic footprint is finally being properly addressed. If supermarkets in Holland can produce a whole section of the shop with items wrapped in plastic alternatives, more will follow.

Recycling our plastic would seem to be a sensible option but this is made more difficult by the many items that are made from several different materials. Got a box of old video cassettes somewhere, never to be viewed again? There is a Bristol-based company that will accept up to 100 per household (in their cases) by prior arrangement. There is no charge, but you have to pay postage. I have dismantled video cassettes before, in order to recycle the plastic and metal parts, and I wish I’d known about this company then, as it would have saved a lot of time.

It may be that nature is evolving solutions

One thing that I do know – Croydon Council failed to take the opportunity to prevent hundreds of tons of plastic and chemical gels being sent to landfill (incineration soon) by supporting and promoting the use of washable nappies instead of disposable ones. Perhaps our councillors will reconsider; that’s an awful lot of excrement out there. Of course, the poo is fine – it’s the plastic that’s disgusting, and worst of all, the horrendous wet wipes.

Nature, however, is evolving, as it always does. Ideonella sakaiensisis is a bacterium capable of breaking down PET plastic (polyethylene terephthalate). Discovered in 2016 in a Japanese waste dump, the bacterium used an enzyme to degrade PET plastic, called PETase. Scientists undertaking further tests inadvertently made the PETase 20% better at degrading PET. The resulting mutant PETase now takes just a few days to break down PET, compared to the 450 years it takes to degrade naturally. Engineered enzymes that break PET down to its building blocks would enable full bottle-to-bottle recycling, which would hopefully help decrease oil-drilling demands for new plastic production.

The original ideonella sakaiensis bacterium is far from the first living species to possess plastic-eating proclivities. Waxworm caterpillars have been found to break down plastic in a matter of hours, and mealworms possess gut microbes that eat through polystyrene. Given how ubiquitous environmental pollution has become, it is likely that microbes are evolving faster and better strategies to break down man-made plastics, according to the last research. It seems that nature is evolving solutions.

Take a look at the Ethical Superstore, which has reusable items such as straws and clingfilm, large containers of washing-up (and other) liquid and many other products. Spirit Of Nature, Suma, Femininewear, Riverford – they used to be harder to find, but more eco-friendly options become available every day. Happy shopping!

I’m just relieved that wine comes in glass bottles… and for anyone in Croydon willing to take it on though, Plastic-free July is definitely a worthwhile challenge. How about giving it a go in 2019?

Grace Onions

Grace Onions

Grace is a known recyclopath who has lived in Croydon for 20 years. Her first foray into the voluntary sector was with Croydon Real Nappy Network, and from that developed a passion to promote any and all reusable products over single-use disposable items. It's nice to see the media finally catching up! The EcoCitizen awarded her the title of Recycler of the Year in 2008 and she made the national final shortlist for the World Wildlife Fund’s Hidden Heroes award in 2013. Current dream for Croydon would be to have the water fountains reinstalled in all our parks - reduce plastic bottle use.

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  • Frances Richardson Fearon

    I’m off to the Ethical Superstore!
    I am also horrified by the amount of plastic discarded in our parks & on our pavements. Come on Croydon, we CAN do better. How about starting with using reusable bags for your fruit & veg when you visit your local supermarket, let’s get the Supermarkets to ditch those dreadful plastic bags. It’s a start….

  • Anne Giles

    I only buy things in small containers, as I can’t lift the large ones, nor will they fit in my cupboards.