We are drowning in a sea of plastic – Christine Jardine

I didn’t actually think it would be this difficult. Just a week into avoiding single-use plastics for Lent, I’ve discovered it’s almost impossible.

Plastic waste  seen floating in Leith Docks  will pollute the natural world for hundreds of years (Picture: Greenpeace)
Plastic waste  seen floating in Leith Docks  will pollute the natural world for hundreds of years (Picture: Greenpeace)

Today was the last straw. A single-use plastic straw that I don’t want or use, but arrives already plonked in the drink.

Of course, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy when I signed up to the Teardrop Fund’s challenge to go single-use plastic free. What I didn’t expect was that there would be hidden traps everywhere.

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I now carry a keep-cup with me most places but even when I ordered a tea to sit-in yesterday I didn’t expect them to bring it in a throw-away cup with a single-use plastic top. Or that when I bought the sandwiches in a paper bag that there would be a plastic container hidden inside.

And even in the bakery, where I checked the breakfast roll was going to be in a paper bag, the tomato ketchup which was offered with it, came in a plastic sachet.

I think you get the point. I hope we are all getting the point. I certainly am. Somewhere between my childhood of glass bottles, paper bags and reusable jars, we have begun to drown in a sea of disposable plastic bags, bottles and polystyrene cups. Literally.

Turns out the word ‘disposable’ is about the most misleading in modern usage. According to PlasticsEurope, 381 million tonnes of plastic were produced in 2015 – that’s only just above the average annual figure – and half of it went into products that will be used only once.

For the average plastic bag that single use can last for as little as 15 minutes. Then it will take several hundred years for that bag to break down. By now, most of us will have seen the pictures of wildlife struggling to cope with the deluge of human plastic detritus that has invaded their environment.

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Birds being almost strangled by those awful plastic rings that hold together some of the packs of soft drink cans in the supermarket.

Dolphins, whales and other creatures of the oceans who have swallowed plastic bags. Or shorelines that are no longer visible for the layers of ‘disposable’ sandwich wrappers, cotton buds, face wipes, cups, bottles, lids. The list goes on and on.

And while those images are frightening, and have perhaps begun to awaken an understanding of what we are doing to our environment, have we thought about what we are doing to ourselves?

It’s estimated that the average European – that’s you and I – uses 100kg of plastic every year. That’s roughly the same weight as one of the pandas in Edinburgh zoo, or a northern light pilot dolphin.

And that is each. Each of us is using a panda’s weight in disposable plastic every year. So in Scotland we are producing more than the equivalent of 5 million panda-sized dollops of plastic waste every year.

But, I hear you protest, we recycle. Yes we do. But only approximate nine per cent of the plastic that has been produced since 1950 has been recycled.

The other 91 per cent is still out there. And, increasingly, it’s in our food supply. Increasingly we are seeing wildlife being put down because of the number of plastic bags and amount of packaging they are ingesting.

One in every three fish caught for human consumption now contains plastic. More often than not that will be some of the approximately 51 trillion microscopic pieces of plastic that are in the oceans right now. And if we can’t see them, that means we could be eating them too.

Tearfund says that most of this waste in our seas comes from developing countries where more than two billion people don’t have their waste collected. And what is already there will be there now for centuries. For example a plastic bottle is estimated to be able to last for 450 years in the marine environment. Yes it will slowly break up into smaller pieces. But it will never completely go away.

That leaves us with the very real prospect that it will now be impossible to reverse completely the damage that’s been done, and to have plastic-free seas again. All we can do now is try to stop it getting worse. We in the developed countries cannot just stand by and watch the explosion of product availability in the developing world go unmatched by a growth in attacking the problem. Individually we might think we can do very little. But we would be wrong.

We can all take part in the litter collections along our shore lines and in our parks that take a small, but important first step. Other, larger ones will follow.

After all, for many of us it only seems like yesterday that widespread renewable energy was little more than a pipe dream. As a young reporter, I remember doing stories about ideas for wind farms and solar energy that might be appearing soon in the UK. It’s not that long ago you had to go looking for organic vegetables. For my lunch in those days, if I went to a fast-food place I probably got it in a cardboard box, or more likely had a sandwich in a bag. If it was a bacon roll or a a fish supper (again wrapped in paper) you would get a skoosh of ketchup or some vinegar from the bottles on the counter.

Likewise it’s not that long since keep-cups became popular and we started recycling. So next time you’re at the shops why not buy that reusable water bottle and coffee cup. Then put them in a reusable shopping bag. When you are out tell the bar staff you don’t want that unnecessary plastic straw. Think ahead so that you won’t need disposable cutlery or plates and your food is not packed in what we mistakenly call disposable packaging.

Like me you might discover at first that it is more difficult than you thought. But it is also more important than we have previously realised. Things can change. This is one that has to.