The three R’s of plastic management
Plastic: a vital resource – or a taxing problem?
Like it or loathe it, plastic is here to stay. It was made to last, it’s relatively cheap to produce and it is plentiful. In fact, we now have such a vast amount of plastic that it’s a resource which needs to be carefully managed. So perhaps ‘the three R’s’ – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle – are ways in which we can achieve some sustainability with our plastic.
In this article our correspondent Astrid Nordfjell focuses on some of the main areas where these three R’s are being deployed: plastic bottles; coffee cups; and food packaging, to see what’s been happening as well as being planned here in the UK to address what has become a ‘plastic crisis’.
Since the Spring-Summer issue of The Plain Truth magazine, we’ve received several letters about plastic in general as well as the plastic wrapper in which our magazine is delivered. (And you can read more about this in the Letters to the Editor section.) Then some of our older readers will relate to a comment shared with us about how farmers used to collect food waste for their pigs, and that domestic rubbish used to be collected directly from aluminium dustbins. (Now we mostly use plastic bin bags – though you can get biodegradable ones.) And fresh produce didn’t always come in plastic packaging and many households had their milk delivered to their doorsteps in glass bottles, which incidentally is having a bit of a comeback all around the country right now.
But did you know that a staggering 38.5 million plastic bottles are used every day in the UK? And only around half of them are thought to be recycled. To address the situation, a bottle deposit scheme has been suggested.
When I was young and living in Sweden, most cans and bottles carried a deposit which could be reclaimed at the local shop. My friends and I used to collect them for extra pocket money. Today, Swedish supermarkets have dedicated machines into which you feed your cans and bottles in exchange for a receipt to spend in store – or make a donation to charity. The recycle rate is over 90% in some of the countries where deposit schemes are in place, and if implemented here in the UK we could see a 70% decrease in bottles and cans littering our streets, rivers and shores. A welcome prospect indeed!
Ironically, many of the single-use plastic bottles purchased in the UK contain life-sustaining water. With the aim of reducing plastic pollution a company called ‘Refill’ – a national, practical tap water campaign that aims to make refilling your plastic bottle easy – has been working with water companies and businesses all over the UK to map water refill points. Participating cafés and outlets display a sticker in their windows showing that you can fill up your reusable bottle with them for free. And, for smartphone users there is an ‘app’ for downloading to see where the closest water refilling point is and even add newly discovered ones.
In direct response to the plastic problem a team of three friends designed ‘CanO Water’, which is exactly that – water in a can, an aluminium can. The UK rate for recycling aluminium drink cans is a lot higher than plastic bottles at around 70%. And now, Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket chain has begun to stock them, providing a great alternative to plastic bottled water.
Every year 2.5 billion disposable cups are purchased and thrown away in the UK. Most of these are not recycled. The majority of them are made of paper on the outside, but waterproof plastic on the inside. The two materials are so tightly welded together that they need separating before recycling can begin – and currently only a few of the UK’s recycling sites are equipped to do this.
The UK’s largest coffee chain Costa Coffee, is convinced that the problem has more to do with non-collection of the cups, and is planning to carry out what they call a ‘cup recycling revolution’. They aim to recycle as many disposable cups as they sell by 2020 and encourage waste collection firms to collect the cups with a supplement of £70 a tonne. (Maybe there should be a ‘deposit scheme’ for disposable cups too?)
Several companies are working on new designs of disposable coffee cups, but in the meantime there are many incentives in place to encourage reusable cups, like a small discount if you bring your own. A ‘latte levy’ of 25p tax on disposable cups has been put forward to the Government. At Winchester University something like this has been tried and met with success. For years a 25p discount had been in place when students brought their own reusable cups, but this didn’t seem to make much of a difference and the university still got through 191,000 disposable cups a year. But by reducing the price on all hot drinks by 25p, then introducing a penalty of 25p for those who didn’t have a reusable cup with them, they saved 34,000 cups in the first year! That’s a whopping 18% decrease. An equivalent success nationwide would mean nearly half a billion fewer cups in a year!  The jury is still out on the ‘latte levy’ proposal.
In August this year, the Local Government Association reported that just over half a million tonnes of plastic pots, tubs and trays are used by households each year in the UK. Only one-third of these are recycled even though many more are washed and separated for recycling. Did you know that margarine and ice-cream tubs, yogurt pots and even fruit punnets are currently made up of several types of plastic making it very difficult for councils to recycle them? Food trays for microwave meals and meat can be recycled but they need to be scanned first. This is made impossible if the trays are black (to make the food look good!). So, off to landfill they go! But, on 26th April this year in a world first, all of Britain’s major supermarkets pledged, under the so-called ‘UK Plastics Pact’, to abolish unnecessary single-use plastics by 2025. That is only seven years away!
While the Government-backed waste charity WRAP monitors the UK Plastics Pact, one supermarket seems to be ahead of all the rest in reducing plastic packaging. Allow me to introduce the UK’s largest plastic-free and zero-waste supermarket: ‘The Clean Kilo’ in Birmingham, which opened in June this year. I went to do some shopping there a month after its opening and sincerely hope that stores like this will multiply. Customers are encouraged to bring along their own containers to fill with all sorts of foods such as rice, pasta, beans, dried fruits, coffee and tea, oils and honey, baking products and much more. I only paid for the content and I left with the satisfaction of not having bought additional plastic to add to the ever growing plastic mountains. The Clean Kilo also sell bamboo toothbrushes and cleaning products – all without having to buy the products in plastic packaging. Their aim is to stock up with as little plastic involved as possible by using local suppliers, and the prices really don’t differ that much from the main supermarkets. I was impressed by both their resourcefulness as well as being ‘good stewards’ of the environment.
Stewards of the Earth
At creation, the mandate that God gave to humanity in Genesis 2:15 was for mankind to reflect and mirror God’s stewardship over his creation.
We can also see through the four seasons how God has made our natural environment, to revolve  in a recycling pattern. From the moment of creation to birth, followed by growth, maturity and eventual death. Even our physical bodies are recycled when we die. By considering this, and perhaps getting back to some of the habits of pre-plastic times, we should have no problem contributing to reusing, reducing and recycling the man-made resource called plastic.
Stop Press: On her recent African tour, the Prime Minster, Theresa May, got six more countries to sign up to a Commonwealth drive to clean the oceans of plastic. At the same time, she announced her plans to double the charge on plastic bag tax in all retail outlets – including small corner shops. Since the tax was imposed, the seven largest retailers saw an 86% drop in the number of single-use plastic carrier bags.
An ‘application’, especially as downloaded by a user to a mobile device
Genesis 8:22 While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.
Genesis 3:19 …for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.