As Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic, did her mind wander beneath the waves? More than eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans each year, having a devastating impact on life aquatic.
The main culprit: plastic packaging. In the UK, 210g of plastic waste is produced per person per day. Of the roughly 350 million tonnes of plastic produced each year only 20 per cent is reused. The rest isn’t going anywhere fast, apart from the 32 per cent that leeches into land and slips into seas.
The environmental cost of our plastic addiction will soon be at a level we can’t afford to pay. Now we’re starting to do something about it.
Two years ago, the final episode of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II laid bare the brutal impact rubbish is having. Scenes of poisoned dolphins and choking whales made people wake up to the scandal. A survey from Waitrose found that one year later, 88 per cent of viewers had changed their behaviour as a result, and eager to follow consumer demand, the supermarket chain began trialling Waitrose Unpacked in June.
— Unpackaged (@Unpackaged) August 26, 2019
At their Oxford outlet, 200 products were made available in a dedicated refillable zone. Customers brought their own containers to fill from dispensers – everything from pasta, rice, grains, cereal and coffee to beer and wine, detergent, frozen fruit and flowers.
“We had a really positive reaction from customers,” says James Armstrong, a communications manager at Waitrose.
“We are asking our customers to make big changes to the ways they shop and this is a test to understand their appetite for these ideas. If we rolled these concepts out to all shops and every customer bought the Unpacked products featured rather than their packaged equivalent, whilst using reusable containers, it has the potential to save thousands of tonnes of plastic and packaging.”
The trial was a success, and Waitrose plans to extend it to more stores.
Plastic is a stubborn pollutant but it does serve an important purpose in preserving food that would otherwise spoil more quickly and add to a different kind of waste problem.
Helen White, Special Advisor – Household Food Waste Prevention at WRAP, says: “Preventing food waste is an important part of reducing our impact on the environment, and plastic packaging can help to keep our food fresher for longer – especially when coupled with good in-home behaviours such as correct storage.
“For example, WRAP research found that storing fresh produce in polyethylene (PE) bags in the fridge was beneficial in conserving water and maintaining freshness for most of the products tested. However, packaging is also used to protect a product on its journey from farm to fork, to collate items into a pre-determined number or weight and provides advice and instructions as well as important information.”
But there is a balance to be found and responsibility shared by manufacturers, retailers and the rest of us.
Catherine Conway is a packaging guru. She helped Waitrose with their trial after starting her first refillable grocery shop Unpackaged in 2007. It was a mouse loose about her house that kickstarted her journey.
The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
“I used to transfer all my muesli and everything into glass jars because I lived above a cafe and had mice,” she recalls. “I remember sitting there one day with all this packaging in my hands and I thought, why don’t I set up a shop where everything’s refillable?”
Conway sold goods at market stalls before opening a shop in Islington, selling 700 products without packaging. It becamea pioneer of the zero-waste shops that are popping up across the country, a movement that has grown exponentially since Blue Planet.
“It’s like the scales have fallen from your eyes. Once you see packaging for what it really is you see it everywhere and you can’t unsee it.”
The supermarkets too are finally taking steps to seriously cut their plastic waste. Last week Tesco announced it was planning to ban brands that use excessive and hard-to-recycle packaging. Many chains have been contacting Conway for help and advice.
“Our inbox would attest to the fact that they are all now getting their arses in gear very quickly because Waitrose has forced everyone’s hands,” she says. “The supermarkets have spent the last 30 years telling people that all they should care about is convenience and price. Now there is a very clear message from the consumers, even if it’s still not a given that customers care enough to sacrifice convenience.”
It is likely hoppers with dry goods will start to appear in supermarkets over the next little while, but she believes further steps need to be taken. Basically, changing the nature of all packaging so the same container can circle from factory to shop to home and around again. Almost like the process for glass milk bottles.
“At the moment the best you can do is take your own containers somewhere and try to get them filled up,” Conway says. “What we really need to get to is you being able to walk into a store and taking a prefilled piece of reusable packaging off the shelf, and you being incentivised to bring that pot back into the system, whether it’s dropping it back in the supermarket or having it picked up on a home delivery.
“It would be transported, washed, sanitised, refilled and go back on to your shelf. That is the big picture we need to get to but it’s five to 10 years off, I think.”
This would necessitate more expensive packaging to be produced, but Conway points out that the public is spending £700m per year through their council tax to pay for recycling infrastructure. This money would be better spent fixing the system.
There would be some increase in food bills though.
The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.
“The implications of turning things loose means different things to different people,” Conway explains. “If you are on a budget and you only have £20 to do your weekly shop then it’s much easier for you to walk around the store and go: right, four apples, that’s £1 a bag.
“Nobody knows what a portion of pasta is and if it’s sold at £2.99 per kilo it’s a real issue for people working out how much they need. When we start working with other brands that are less chi-chi than Waitrose then these thoughts will come more to the fore and we will have to create strategies that help people.
“Zero waste should not be a thing for rich people. Those who set up independent zero-waste stores tend to do organic and Fairtrade because they tend to be the people who really care about that. But there’s no reason you couldn’t have a budget range. I would love to see that happen.”
This is Zero Waste Week, which encourages us all to re-examine our own behaviour around recycling and sustainability. But apart from prompting us to remember to put our plastic bottle in the right bin – or maybe not buy a plastic bottle at all, Rachelle Strauss, who is behind the campaign, says we need to make a different but more profound shift in our mindset.
I’ve got a child and she needs to grow up on a safe, healthy, happy planet and it’s my responsibility to do my bit
“When we say I’m going to throw something away – ask yourself where is ‘away’? It’s somewhere else. It’s a landfill site, an incinerator, it’s an animal stomach. It’s always somewhere else.”
Strauss admits that the term zero waste is overwhelming. “I use it because it makes people curious. The week itself is about encouraging individuals and businesses to rethink rubbish as resources. I think of it like a boot camp for
Strauss and her family’s bin is in great shape. In 2009 they set themselves a target of filling only one wheelie bin of rubbish for the whole year.
“Now we probably need our bin emptied every three months,” she says. “It’s not a big effort any more, it’s just what comes naturally to us as a family.”
In 2004 Strauss was caught up in the flash floods that devastated Boscastle in Cornwall. “Wondering if I’d ever see my husband again, my three-year-old child in my arms, watching this tragedy unfold in front of me, I made a decision in that moment.
There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.
Everything I’d been reading about climate change that I was told was going to happen in 100 years was happening right now. Right or wrong, that was my conclusion. It made me feel I need to make changes. I’ve got a child and she needs to grow up on a safe, healthy, happy planet and it’s my responsibility to do my bit.”
But is it down to us, or retailers, or politicians, to make a difference?
“I’m very cautious of passing blame because then you assume it’s somebody else’s responsibility. Householders, manufacturers, retailers, local authorities, government – all of us – need to be working together towards a common goal. I know how that sounds but that the ultimate aim.”