by Steve Andrews
Photo courtesy of Brian Yurasits
Plastic-free Whitstable is one step nearer to a plastic-free world
Plastic pollution is everywhere, from the tops of the highest mountains to the depths of the deepest oceans, but many people worldwide are taking action to reverse this. From individuals to community groups, people are taking power into their own hands. Plastic Free Whitstable (PFW) was set up by concerned local residents in 2018, and by the end of the year, the group was so highly commended by Surfers Against Sewage that the status of “plastic-free” was bestowed on them: a first for any town or organisation in Kent.
PFW members work in many ways to combat the threat of plastic that pollutes the environment both inland and at sea. The group raises awareness of the problem and what can be done about it by spreading the word via local schools and community organisations. PFW wants to work with Canterbury City Council, looking at ways single-use plastic can be eliminated from council-run venues and events. PFW has been organising beach clean-ups in which volunteers gather as much plastic and other litter as they can find discarded or washed up on the shores and tidelines. The group also shares news on its informative website.
PFW is a shining example of what can be done. The more people and community groups that take action like this the better. We all need to think hard about how we are using plastic and what we can do to reduce this. What began life many years ago as the miracle material that would be very long-lasting has now become a problem the world is faced with. Estimates of how long items plastic are going to be here range from 500 to 1,000 years or even longer. Plastic’s longevity is its curse, especially when you consider that, unlike other commonly used materials, plastic cannot be recycled or broken down by nature. It can be broken apart by time, sunlight, wave action in the oceans and wear and tear, but plastic only becomes smaller and smaller… plastic. It doesn’t break down into another harmless substance, it simply becomes smaller. Micro-plastic particles outnumber plankton in many parts of the sea and micro-plastic has entered the food chain all the way up to what we are eating and drinking. For example, fish swallow plastic, either by mistake or as micro-plastic in the water they swallow, and then these fish can end up served in a restaurant or on your dinner plate. Nobody knows the longterm effects that consumption of plastic is going to have. Plastic also accumulates other toxins in it, making it a double threat to our health and that of any animal that has eaten it. According to a report by the US Environmental Protection Agency entitled Toxicological Threats of Plastic: “Plastics are like magnets for PBTs [persistent bioaccumulative and toxic substances]”.
Today nearly everyone is using plastic in some way or another. Go to any supermarket and just think for a minute about the amount of plastic that is there – either as packaging or as the material so many items are made from. Are you wearing a Covid-19 precautionary mask, and does it contain plastic fibres? Look around any room in your house and count the plastic items. Maybe, like me, you have a plastic mouse for use with your PC? You may well be wearing plastic, from plastic watch straps to plastic frames for your glasses, to plastic-based footwear and plastic-based clothing. I have a removable denture: no prizes for guessing what a large part of it is made from.
The 5 Rs
Perhaps like me you were brought up to learn the importance of the 3 Rs: Reading, Writing and (A)rithmetic? Well, today we have 5 Rs that can be applied to doing what you can to help stop plastic pollution. They are (in any order you like): Reduce, Reuse, Refuse, Recycle and Rethink. We need to think about how we can apply these ways of taking personal action against the problem of plastic. It is easy enough to reduce the amount of plastic goods you are buying and, at the same time, if you take your own reusable shopping bag then you won’t need a single-use plastic carrier bag from the store. Often we can come up with ways of reusing some plastic item we have, instead of throwing it away. If you are a gardener, perhaps you have plastic food containers that would make useful pots for growing seedlings in. To refuse plastic is easy enough too. In a shop you can politely say no to any additional plastic bags that may be offered and show the shop assistant that you have brought your own. Recycling can be complicated by what recycling facilities are offered where you live but, whatever they are, if we make use of them, it does something to potentially lessen the waste plastic that will end up in the environment somewhere. Lastly, rethinking our personal use of plastic can be applied to all the other Rs.
But, of course, it isn’t just individuals who should be looking at what they can do to reduce the amount of plastic they are using: on a much larger scale it is nations and their governments. Sweden is a country that has done a lot of thinking about how to dispose of plastic waste and is a land that is leading the way when it comes to using the material to generate heat and fuel. This is achieved by incinerating the plastic. As Craig Reucassel explains in “Rubbish to energy as Sweden wages war on waste with incinerators,” a very impressive sounding amount of plastic gets disposed of this way: “Up to 86 per cent of all plastics in Sweden are being incinerated.” But although those people who are for this method of getting rid of plastic trash would like to assure us that toxins in the plastic are destroyed by the heat of the incinerators and filtered out of what goes out as emissions, this process is far from ideal because it also releases a lot of CO2, the greenhouse gas we have all been told needs to be reduced and rapidly. So even if Sweden is solving one problem, it is adding to another, that of the climate crisis.
But let us not lose hope. It is all about taking as much action as we can to get surplus plastic out of our lives and to get rid of plastic we no longer need in a responsible way. I am a singer-songwriter and some personal action I took was to write a song about plastic pollution. It is entitled Where Does All the Plastic Go? It has inspired a four-page chapter with the same title in the book SPAM: Stop Plastica A Mare by Italian radio host and author Filippo Solibello and made the front page of the Portugal News, where there was a photo of me “singing against pollution.” I also came up with the idea for an Ocean Aid concert, following Band Aid and Live Aid, but this time to raise awareness about threats to marine life and the oceans. It would be an internationally promoted concert with big-name rock and pop acts taking the stage to stop plastic pollution. I like to think big. Thinking big can mean getting governments and corporations to change through political action. As the late John Lennon used to sing: “Power to the people.” It is we, the people, who must help bring about the change we want and need to see! There are many ways we can take action, ranging from email- and letter-writing to signing petitions, attending demonstrations. And we mustn’t forget the power of the consumer: for instance we can buy environmentally packaged produce when possible.
Plastic pollution is a massive and mind-boggling problem but it begins with tiny steps by each of us to solve it. I admit I don’t personally have all the answers to the plastic-pollution crisis, but I do know that human beings are amazingly inventive. If we can send astronauts and rockets into space, surely we can come up with a solution to the problem of plastic?
Also known as The Green Bard, Bard of Ely, and Green Beard, Steve is an iconic figure who has featured in books, on radio and television, and also in film. He is, in his own right, a musician, a writer, a lifelong environmental activist, a sometime television presenter, a poet, a Britain’s Got Talent feature act, and a champion fighting against climate change, the destruction of trees, and plastic pollution. His power animal is the butterfly, several species of which Steve rears and nurtures in his spare time. Steve is based in the UK and Portugal, but has fans all over the world. https://www.bardofely.org/
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