Plastic pollution: A catastrophic problem
Plastic is an amazing invention, and we are all reliant on it in one shape or form. But the versatility and durability that make it so important have also led to a downside starkly exposed in recent years. The scale of the plastic pollution problem is huge. Overpowering. But as consumers we can effect the change to begin to undo this environmental harm. And it’s already beginning to happen thanks to the growing strength and voice of the consumer.
The single use plastic culture is the real culprit. Global and national plastic reduction measures are being introduced; for example the UK Plastic Pact and the newly announced Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance that has seen member states join forces in the fight against plastic pollution. But locally in Cambridge, what’s our position?
Cambridge, consumers and change
With our global reputation as a progressive city, where does plastic reduction management sit in Cambridge? Since 2015, Bristol has seen over 200 water refill points across its city centre, and this scheme will roll out across all English towns and cities by 2021. The Cambridge Water Company told us “Cambridge Water is supporting Water UK’s refill campaign through funding. We have plans in place to put refill points in the Cambridge region. The first of these is going live next week in the West Midlands.” We would hope that Cambridge will not be long behind
The 5p carrier bag charge introduced in England in October 2015 saw single-use carrier bag use drop from seven billion to just over half a billion within six months. Sticks can be useful. And corporations are beginning to develop their own initiatives to reduce “avoidable” plastic. As the biggest offenders perhaps this is only right. How is our independent sector doing? Hot Numbers, Arjuna, and many market stalls promote sensible plastic reduction practices; but they are the minority. Fortunately Cambridge Eco Living Festival will launch 22 September in Cambridge to help indie businesses on their less-plastic journey. A GoFreePlasticDay workshop event is on 17 July 5.30 – 7.30pm at St Barnabus Church.
Many of the Independent cafes, food vans and restaurants in Cambridge continue to serve hot food on styrofoam, use plastic cutlery and straws and rely on plastic bags. Many of our local greengrocers beautifully display fruit and vegetables without packaging, but let us down with single use plastic bags to serve them.
And don’t be fooled by these so called degradable plastic bags so frequently on offer: these simply disintegrate into tiny pieces to become microplastic. Even the genuinely biodegradable bags nearly always rely on the right conditions, including warmth, sunlight and bacteria, to biodegrade.
100% degradable? Questionable!
Paper bags should always be your preference, and shops that don’t make them available should be encouraged to do so. Better still, bring your own bag or container.
Old but wise
Ask anyone over the age of 60 about how they shopped. You will hear nostalgic reflections of a time when people shopped locally, seasonally and reused things. Waste was so much less: I remember the dustmen taking away a single 20 gallon (100 litre in new money) bin once a week that had everything in it. There is much we can learn and should copy to reduce a problem where it really was “better in my day”.
What you can do?
I hope our scuseme guide helps you on your journey to reduce plastic pollution.
Shop locally and seasonally
Local farmers’ markets provide a good template and Cambridge market is a great place to pick up fruit, vegetable and many other items from clothing to confectionary without hefty plastic packaging. There the traders get to know their customers, listen to them and adapt their offerings accordingly; for example, Angela the chicken lady in the Sunday market has listened and plastic is now banned from her stall. Markets can benefit because they can respond so promptly to customer demand.
Cambridge has a good selection of farm shops, farmers markets, greengrocers and produce shops. Try to buy what’s local and in season (and so can avoid the packaging required for storage and freight).
Cambridge market square
Only select unpackaged fruit and veg options where possible. Plastic is important in helping to maintain food shelf life. But if you are lucky enough to have good local shops, buy only what you need in the short term to avoid plastic, as well as avoiding food waste.
- Cambridge Market weekly and the Sunday Farmers Market
- Cambridge Farmers Outlet on Lensfield Road
- Host of greengrocers throughout the city including
Don’t cling to the film
Stop using cling film. Instead put leftover food in Tupperware or similar (plastic I know, but with a long life) or in a bowl in the fridge with a plate on top or use old jars, or reusable beeswax food wrap.
Try BeeBeeWraps handmade in Cambridge
Food on the go
For food on-the-go try reusable sandwich bags, bento boxes, a tiffin tin or sandwich box. Lunch in the office? Whilst it’s hard to plan for every opportunity, consider carrying a spoon or fork (or spork!) in your bag or keeping cutlery or chopsticks in your desk at work.
The Tiffin Truck on Regent Street offer the famous metal tiffin boxes – available to buy or can be borrowed if a deposit is left.
The Good Life: Are you a Barbara or a Margot?
The best approach to tackling the reduction of plastic and waste in general is to adopt the three R – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Or discover your creative side. Make clothes, make jams and preserves or grow your own fruit and veg. When something breaks, don’t just automatically throw it away; can it be repaired or reused, upcycled? Our throw-away culture is a big problem – Cam Home and Garden and MacKays offer great DIY solutions. If you can’t fix it and need help, call out a local handyperson.
Salad vegetables and herbs are really easy to grow in the garden, a hanging basket or on a windowsill. By doing so, you avoid buying produce that comes in plastic packaging. If you need help or advice planning and designing your garden to accommodate the good life get in touch with our local landscapers and gardeners.
Collect fruit when in season around Cambridge, find blackberries here or pick your own at Bury Farm in Melbourn. Fresh seasonal fruit can be bought in quantities suitable for jamming at Sun Close Fruit Farm in Milton and Chaplain’s Farm Shop in Fulbourn.
Bags for life
Always carry your own bag with you, whether it’s a carrier bag sturdy enough to be used again and again or a simple cloth bag for fruit and veg to replace the thin clear bags handed out for free in so many shops.
Swap disposable for reusable
Take a reusable cup or your own thermos for on-the-go coffee with you when you visit coffee shops.
Some independent cafes in Cambridge have their own keep cups and some like Hot Numbers offer a 10% discount to anyone buying coffee and using any keep cup.
Stop buying bottled water
Keep a refillable bottle handy. There’s a growing number of café, bars, shops and even public water fountains that now provide the opportunity for filling up. Remember, all restaurants in England that serve alcohol are legally required to give customers free tap water, so make the most of them.
Use refill stations
For products such as washing up liquid or fabric softener, find your local refill station where bottles can be reused. Some shops also offer unpackaged food products such as pulses, rice and even peanut butter. Just bring your own jars and fill them up. You can find out where your closest refill station is using the Zero Home Waste app.
Arjuna and Daily Bread promote this.
Get your milk delivered
Switch plastic milk bottles for glass ones delivered by your local dairy. Plumbs Dairy have no minimum order and deliver milk, orange juice and a wide selection of other items.
Make your tea the loose-leaf way
Plastic is used to seal teabags shut during manufacturing and therefore Friends of the Earth is urging people to “fall back in love with loose-leaf tea.” Some brands are making teabags that don’t have plastic in but they can be hard to find so the easiest thing to do is go teabag-free altogether, or check the labels carefully. .
Tea can be bought in The High Tea Club, Arjuna, the Market
Freeze out frozen
Avoid frozen foods because their packaging is mostly plastic. Even those that appear to be cardboard are coated in a thin layer of plastic. Plus you’ll be eating fewer processed foods.
Try ‘naked’ toiletries
I have tried to find more independent shops that stock a wide range of toiletries and the Hemp Store in the market has a lovely range of soaps (including a soap on a rope) that provide a great alternative to shower gels.
Lush, although not a local shop, has a wide-spanning range of ‘naked’ toiletries that come in solid bar form and don’t require plastic packaging thanks to their self-preserving composition. Local indie Arjuna will soon follow, and add a solid, package free deodorant to its range.
At work at play
Use metal cutlery and washable crockery. Get free glass loan with places such as Cambridge Wine Merchants and insist that caterers use real or at least wooden disposable cutlery and real crockery. Do not order the plastic cups for water dispensers, instead get staff to use their own glasses.
The next time you’re doing your supermarket shop, take some of the plastic packaging you don’t want off the products you do want, and leave it at the checkout. That way you’ll deliver a strong message to the supermarket.
Mindful of microfibers and microbeads
It’s good news that the UK government has a ban on microbeads! But there are still products on the shelves that contain them, so keep checking those labels before you buy on this useful app and avoid products containing any of the following: polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and nylon.
A lot of our plastic pollution that goes into the sea comes from microfibres – the small fibres that wash out of our clothes. Julian Kirby, a campaigner of Friends of the Earth recommends buying products to counter-act this, such as the GuppyFriend, which goes into your washing machine and traps microfibres to prevent them from getting into seawater.
Know your symbols
Lastly, learn how to correctly recycle plastic. Get familiar with the different waste direction symbols and common plastic classifications:
- Most recycling centres will collect Nos. 1, 2 and 5
- Nos. 3, 4 and 6 are moderately recyclable
- No. 7 is nearly impossible to recycle because it’s made of a combination of all types of plastics
Learn more about how Cambridge manages its wastes here
Dawn Giesler is the founder of scuseme, a recommendation service that provides an essential and honest resource to help your family run smoothly. Scuseme supports the use of local tradespeople and services in a bid to help reduce environmental impacts related to travel pollution. Dawn has lived in Cambridge for over 20 years and offers advice based on her own experiences. Contact Dawn if you want to have a question about our services or visit scuseme for more information.