This month has been designated Plastic Free July by the Plastic Free Foundation – an Australian not-for-profit charity with a vision of seeing a world free of plastic waste. (To digress for just a moment, I always wonder who gets to decide these things. Is there an authorised calendar somewhere to sign up to or do you just have to make an announcement?)
The Australian organisation may have called dibs on July, but similar work is being done here in the UK too. Last month, Buxton in Derbyshire was awarded the status of ‘Plastic Free Community’ by the activist group Surfers Against Sewage. It is the 165th community in the country to win the award while hundreds of others are well on the way. The award is in recognition of the work the town has done to reduce the impact of single-use plastics in the community.
Before you get too excited, this does not mean that Buxton is completely free of plastic.
As Surfers Against Sewage says: “It’s not about removing all plastic from our lives. It’s about kicking our addiction to throwaway plastic, and changing the system that produces it.”
One million bottles
For Buxton to win plastic free status, schools, businesses and the borough council all made a serious commitment to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the town. According to Transition Buxton which leads the project, more than 50 organisations pledged to eliminate at least three single-use plastics from their operations. Most managed more.
To take one example, Buxton Community School worked out that a million single-use bottles were used (and then thrown away) in the school each year. Work by pupils, staff and caterers – with the support of a small grant – means that the school now has water fountains throughout and has eliminated plastic bottles from the premises.
It is easy to be sceptical about the difference that this can really make to a town whose biggest claim to fame comes from Buxton Water – one of the most popular brands of bottled water in the UK and seen clutched in the sweaty hands of many a London Marathon runner.
But Buxton Water has a strong commitment to reducing plastic waste. Their bottles are, as they put it, entirely made from other bottles and their stated aim is for their packaging process to become fully circular so that no plastic bottle ends up in landfill or as waste.
Surfers Against Sewage call themselves ‘ocean activists’. They feel that for people to thrive, the ocean must also thrive. Their aim is to confront everything that threatens the health of our oceans which explains their involvement with Buxton, a town that is nearly as far away from the sea as it is possible to be in Britain.
Waste plastic ends up in the oceans. Some 50% of manufactured plastic is designed to be used just once and more than an estimated 12 million tonnes of it is dumped into the sea every single year. None of it disappears with time but it breaks down into progressively smaller and smaller bits that enter the food chain. Marine animals ingest the particles or get lethally entangled in discarded fishing gear across the world.
As well as these direct effects on wildlife and biodiversity, plastic production means oil extraction – more than 90% of it is made from fossil fuels. One in every ten barrels of oil is now used to make more plastic. In 2016, plastic-related emissions hit the equivalent of 1.0 gigatonnes of CO2 and could rise to 2.1 gigatonnes by 2040.
What can I do?
Plenty, both as an individual or in collaboration with others. Your community or organisation may already be signed up to Surfers Against Sewage’s Plastic Free programme – more than 900 are. If you don’t know how to find out, then your council website can provide you with contact details for the officer with responsibility for climate change and the environment. They’ll be able to tell you.
The Plastic Free website has loads of information and tool kits for individuals and businesses keen to make a difference. It’s a really good place to start.