We all know the marvellous material that’s called plastic. In fact, there are several different materials, each with different properties and we find them all through our lives in different forms and uses.
So why have some people some people been talking about the Marine Conservation Society’s (MSC) Plastic Challenge, to avoid single use plastics completely and why did I create this new petition to ban single use disposable plastics?
Plastics are chemical polymers, or chains made from hydrocarbons. They come from the petrochemical industry and due to their versatile properties and innumerable handy uses, we increasingly see them taking over from more traditional materials.
Where furniture, housewares, soft furnishings, clothes, machine parts, camping equipment, containers, and packaging used to be made from many other traditional materials, mostly grown or found in nature, now, a great many are made at least in part from plastics.
The different polymers have properties like strength, flexibility, light weight, or heat resistance depending on their chemical synthesis. This means they can then be used in different ways, for fabric, components, or whatever. It’s very appealing, as the products might be cheaper, lighter, less breakable, or easier to shape to different uses, like toys or bottles.
So what’s the problem? Well, there need not be one, if we were careful to steward these valuable petrochemical resources. They need to be conserved because the oil is limited and being frittered away at a frantic rate to power cars and other motors.
It’s taken millions of years to be created from animal remains, and yet most of the entire planetary resource has been consumed in the last century. It’s so valuable, and control of it is thought to be so much in the national interest that the output, price, and access to it are frequently in the news. Billions are spent on wars to get control of it, foreign policy and tolerance of dictators is shaped by the need for access to it.
And plastic is for most purposes ever lasting, so every molecule ever created still exists somewhere on earth or in the oceans (or in space), unless it has been burned and destroyed. Even the so-called degradable plastics, which break down in light or contact with water and air, are really just designed to fall to bits, creating plastic crumbs.
And these plastic fragments are a big part of the problem. It’s now very well established that oceans are filling up with waste plastic, and marine life is choking on it, literally. Hence campaigns like our own City to Sea which has already got several major retailers to switch from plastic ear bud sticks. Micro fibres from washing synthetic clothes are appearing in our food and bodies. So what’s to be done?
Recycling is not the answer, as there are many different kinds, not all are collected (film or bags are not included in the refuse service), and when mixed they are very low value. It’s just clearing up part of the mess. The industry used to lobby councils to incinerate the debris, despite this waste of resources and the concerns about pollution and toxins.
One step we can all take is to reduce or eliminate our consumption of disposable and single use plastics. These, frequently frivolous and unnecessary, uses can take seconds or minutes to turn a product into waste. Think of the straws used to mix, test and serve a cocktail, or the bag you didn’t ask for that’s wrapped around some pieces of fruit you were about to put in your bag. Consider the extra layers of wrapping around an already wrapped pack of goods. Sometimes product protection just fills our bins.
The streets are littered with plastic takeaway containers and wrappers that blow around, clog drains and choke wildlife. There’s no need for much of this. I’m impressed with friends who have lived through 40 days taking the Plastic Challenge, managing to live, shop, and get on with life using no single use plastics at all. It takes a bit of planning but can be done. Events are increasingly using drinking cups with deposits, so they get returned or saved as souvenirs. And there are lots of compostable containers if we don’t want to reuse lunch boxes but get takeaways.
There’s lots the council can do to help, and to regulate, require, and support this move to eliminate single use plastics from the city. We know there are some medical uses that are essential, but most disposable plastics can be replaced or done without.
That’s why we’ve created a petition to show the widespread support for getting Mayor Marvin Rees to take steps* to make Bristol a single use plastic free city as soon as possible.
This will bring educational, economic, and inter-generational advantages as Bristol sets the path for a future that stewards our resources and cleans up the mess that blights our streets. Whether in business or services or community roles, please play your part as it needs us all to work together to make a difference!
* Things the Mayor can do include:
· Specifying how the council’s own events and facilities are run – setting a better example!
· Changing events rules
· Procurement choices that specify alternatives
· Helping bulk buy compostable packaging for traders via Bristol Waste Company
· Better promotion of recycling and composting facilities and services where they are needed
· Licensing rules being amended for street traders and takeaways
· Better enforcement of littering sanctions
· Educational initiatives
· Using council media work to promote the ban
· Lobbying government for better powers to control waste
Martin Fodor is a Green Party councillor for the Redland ward. He worked in a community recycling business for several years and wrote Bristol’s first statutory recycling plan.
Read more: Can Bristol be a plastic-free city?