How to fix the plastics problem
06/06/2019 News | Blog
Planet Earth is drowning under the weight of the plastic that humans have created. But there are things all of us can do to make a difference and try to turn the tide before it’s too late
Words: Annabel Rose | Photography: Joby Sessions | Thanks to 1st Keynsham Chiltern Cub Pack
Since the first synthetic polymer was invented 150 years ago, it’s become almost impossible to imagine a world without plastic. From the wrappers on our cereal bars to colouring pens and lunchboxes, plastic is everywhere: in our homes, schools, workplaces and meeting places. It’s even hiding where you might not expect, in some tea bags, glitter and chewing gum.
But convenience comes with a price. Getting rid of plastic when we’ve finished with it is a major issue; some estimates suggest that up to half of our plastic is single-use. Landfill sites have limited capacity and can’t deal with the amount of rubbish we’re producing, while plastic waste is polluting our oceans.
As much as 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the sea every year – some blows from land, some is carried by rivers, and some is flushed down the toilet. Plastic endangers animals when they get tangled in it or mistake it for food. Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is that plastic never really goes away; it takes at least 400 years to break down, but even then it doesn’t truly degrade. Instead, it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, which end up in our water supplies, food chains, and ultimately our bodies.
Our plastics problem is more prominent than ever – but what should we be doing about it? We’ve all heard of the ‘three Rs’, and know that we should try to reduce, reuse and recycle, but other actions are also gaining pace. Scouts across the UK (and around the world) are going further still by taking action to refuse, repurpose, rethink, repair and reform. The Scouts have also worked alongside the Canal & River Trust, supported by DEFRA, to launch some new plastic pollution resources to support everyone to take action – in small ways and large.
‘Our oceans are facing environmental disaster. Plastic is choking, starving and poisoning our seas and the creatures that live in them,’ says Richard Harrington from the Marine Conservation Society. ‘But we can all make simple changes and choices in our lives that will start to turn the plastic tide.’
‘People don’t always believe it,’ says Amanda Keetley from Less Plastic UK, a family-run organisation based in Devon, which raises awareness of the issues caused by ocean plastic and suggests achievable ways people can cut their plastic usage. ‘But individuals can make a big difference to plastic pollution because of how our daily actions add up over time. Your daily habits add up to make a massive difference.’
The key to reducing your plastic use is something Scouts are already good at: being prepared. Whether it’s packing cutlery and cups for camp, or bringing a reusable water bottle or tote bag, being prepared is the first step to a plastic-free life. Instead of clingfilm, try using foil (clean aluminium foil can often be recycled), tubs or boxes, or investing in some natural eco-wraps.
As Scouts, woggles are an important part of our uniform – but with over half a million Scouts in the UK, they make up a lot of plastic. Getting rid of all our woggles isn’t always the most helpful thing to do. Instead, why not ask those moving on from your section if they’d like to pass their woggle down to a new Scout, or look into alternatives to phase in. You could encourage them to tie their necker using a friendship knot or use a plastic-free cord to tie a sailor knot.
Plenty of other small changes can also help in the fight against plastic pollution, like politely refusing non-essential or single-use plastic items, including plastic cutlery with a sandwich, or plastic straws (if you don’t need one).
Buying fruit or vegetables that aren’t wrapped in plastic, choosing biodegradable glitter, and avoiding individually wrapped snacks can quickly reduce the amount of plastic you throw away every day.
As people start to realise how important it is to refuse plastic use, exciting ideas are emerging. The Refill campaign is working with water companies and other businesses to install refill stations in public places, making it easier to fill your water bottle when you’re out and about. Other innovative solutions include Ooho! – edible packaging for liquid that’s made from seaweed extract.
Plastic bags (and bags for life) can, of course, be reused lots of times – you could even try repurposing a plastic wet wipe container to store them in. If you end up buying a plastic bottle of water, reuse this too – just make sure you wash bottles regularly, and recycle them if they become damaged.
Like many of the clothes we wear, Scout uniforms contain plastic. This means they shed tiny pieces of plastic (microplastics) when they’re washed – and newer clothes shed more than older ones. Plastic and energy are also used in the production and transportation of our clothes, so try to avoid wasting these resources.
Reusing clothes is a great way to help – and save some money. When young people move on to a new section (or grow out of their uniforms), suggest they give their old uniforms to younger siblings or friends, or ask if there’s already a system in place for passing on pre-loved uniforms.
But what if things are broken and can’t be reused? Scouts have plenty of the skills needed to fix things, from practical skills using a hammer or glue, to the patience, teamwork and determination to get the project done.
Thanks to developments in technology, we also have inventions that make mending things easier – like Sugru, a mouldable glue that sets into silicone rubber. You can use Sugru to mend a range of different things – from shoes to phone chargers to fridge drawers.
‘Sugru was invented to get people fixing and making things again,’ says Jane ní Dhulchaointigh, Sugru’s inventor, founder and fixer-in-chief. ‘Sugru can save items from landfill by prolonging their lifespan, as well as allowing customisation to reflect the specific needs of individuals.’ It’s often possible to mend clothes and uniforms with basic sewing skills – ones many Scouts already have from sewing on their badges. With some basic DIY skills, you could even fix items like furniture – this could be part of a DIY Activity Badge.
Sometimes, we don’t have the skills to repair items – we need an expert. In 2009, Martine Postma started Repair Café, where people share their skills and fix items together. Now with over 1,600 Repair Cafés in over 30 countries, they’re a worldwide phenomenon. Whether you’ve got a broken chair in Ghana, a broken printer in South Korea or a broken radio in Azerbaijan, you can find a Repair Café to save your item being thrown away.
Crucially, the volunteers at a Repair Café don’t just fix things you leave behind. While they mend, you sit and talk, getting to know them, explaining your item, and providing an extra hand to hold screws or tools. We’re fortunate to have many Repair Cafés in the UK, so the next time something breaks, why not ask for help fixing it, while helping to fix our plastic problem at the same time? ‘Repair Café will open your eyes to the possibilities of repair,’ says Martine. ‘Come and give it a try!’
When items are too broken or worn out to be reused, repaired or repurposed, recycling is the last resort. The town of Kamikatsu, in Japan, is an inspiring example of a community striving to live a zero-waste lifestyle. Their goal is to be waste-free by 2020. As well as kuru kurushops, where you can leave unwanted items and take others for free, and a factory that upcycles old clothes into teddy bears, bags and clothes, everyone recycles as much as they can.
Over 80% of Kamikatsu’s waste is recycled, because residents carefully wash their rubbish and separate it into 45 categories. It hasn’t always been easy to get everyone on board. When the idea was first introduced 15 years ago people were opposed to it, but gradually adapted their behaviour. When recycling becomes normal, it turns into a habit. We don’t have to separate our recycling very much – and very few of us have to separate it into 45 categories. If you live in England or Wales, you can use the government website to find out exactly what you can and can’t recycle at home; recycle for Scotland and recyclenow will tell you what to recycle if you live in Scotland or Northern Ireland. While you should always check the rules for where you live, following these three tips will take your recycling efforts to the next level.
- Have a dedicated place to store recycling, and make sure that everyone in your meeting place, home or office knows where it is. Keeping it next to your bin reminds everyone to think before they throw.
- Always wash your recycling. Even if you put the correct items in your recycling, contamination (like food waste) could potentially ruin a whole load of recycling, condemning it to landfill. To save water, wash your recycling at the end of doing the washing up.
- Squash your recycling. By breaking down bulky items like cardboard boxes as much as possible, and carefully crushing cans and bottles, you can fit more into your recycling bins – and make it more energy-efficient for the vehicles that collect it.
If your plastic items can’t be reused or repaired, upcycling could still save them from the bin. By adapting the item to use it for a different purpose, you’re reducing waste and reducing the environmental impact of replacing it with new things. You might even find that you create something better than the item you started with.
Many companies are starting to upcycle unusual items, making bags out of bouncy castles, deckchairs from boat sails, and dog collars out of tyres. These can make really fun gifts, but there’s also plenty you can do at home or as part of an activity to repurpose and upcycle – without collecting bouncy castles.
Encourage your section to try turning a plastic bottle into a piggy bank, a plant pot, or a bird feeder. You could weave worn out plastic bags into a mat, plait them into bracelets, or use an iron to fuse them into coasters. With your creative skills (and the help of some research online or at a library), there’s no limits to the treasures you could create with things that might otherwise have been thrown away.
There’s a lot we can do in our homes, classrooms, meeting places and offices to help solve the plastics problem. At the same time, we can use our voices to bring about change on a wider scale. We can encourage people close to us to rethink their attitude towards plastic by starting a conversation and sharing useful articles or tips that have helped you. The plastics problem is big, so the solution will involve more than individuals taking action. We need companies and governments to take action, too.
Every time we buy something, we tell big companies what we think about plastic. If we can choose to buy our vegetables without plastic, or if we can pay more for plastic-free toiletries, we send companies the message that we care about the environment.
Companies realise that if they don’t change, we’ll buy from companies that do. It’s important to remember that not everyone is in a position to make these kinds of choices – all anyone can do is their best.
We can also use our voices to raise awareness directly – by campaigning on a bigger scale. There are some great resources on the Scouts website, as well as on websites for other charities such as WWF, Kids Against Plastic and Greenpeace, which can help your section plan what they can do to encourage others to make a change.
‘Before starting Kids Against Plastic, we’d never really appreciated what an impact we, as the younger generation, can have,’ say Amy, 15, and Ella, 13, who founded the organisation. ‘Kids can actually have a very powerful voice, because we say things as they are and have the motive and drive to get things done (something that’s sometimes lacked by our elders!). This unique voice also means that we get listened to… Not only does finding your voice help to get a message you’re passionate about out there, it also gives you more confidence and helps with your everyday life.’
There are lots of ways to make your voice heard – you can choose to do something that plays to your strengths, or take on a new challenge to develop new skills for life. You can also take inspiration from some fellow Scouts, like 1st Ottery St Mary Scouts, who went to a town council meeting to encourage initiatives and events.
Amelie, 12, who took part, says: ‘We stood up and spoke about the importance of reducing plastic waste within our town. Speaking in front of people in power was a great experience.’ The 1st Johnston Scouts used their creative skills to write and exhibit an award-winning article. They say, ‘It was great working together learning about the problems… interviewing people and writing the article. We really enjoyed it and learnt so much – from the skills needed to be a good journalist through to the distance marine litter travels and how big the problem is across the world. So many local people had no idea until they saw our exhibition in the library, so we know we’re already making a difference by raising awareness.’
The new Scout plastic pollution resources are a great way to encourage young people to take a stand against plastic. The resources were created alongside the Canal & River Trust, and supported by DEFRA, so have the expert information young people need to make a difference.
Check out amillionhands.org.uk/resources, where you can download resources for leaders and activity packs for young people, to help deliver the Community Impact Staged Activity Badge and tackle our plastics problem.