THE plastic waste bag and the little plastic strip, and the plastic extraction tube, plastic nozzle and the plastic swab.
The twice-weekly lateral flow tests are a little plastic bomb going off in my living room, a reminder that the material is an environmental devil but also, in many cases, still an absolute necessity.
In the run up to the pandemic I had been trying to cut down on plastic. Not quite going plastic-free but certainly making as many swaps as possible.
And then coronavirus hit and the priority was not the planet but personal safety. Cafes stopped accepting reuseable cups. Shops started wrapping loose items – such as bakery goods – in cling wrap to avoid contamination. From bottles of hand sanitiser, plastic gloves and single use masks to acrylic screens and dividers – plastic was at the front of the fray.
Online shopping became the safest and most sensible option but the waste is profligate. Out of a complete lack of time recently I bought some clothes from a high street retailer: a dress, a sweatshirt and jogging bottoms. It was placed as one order but each came wrapped in a separate, large, clear plastic bag inside two more thicker plastic bags. Five when one was ample.
Folk seem to have gone head over heels for food boxes. I keep seeing Hello Fresh or Mindful Chef cardboard boxes propped beside general waste wheelie bins and feeling a sort of despondent rage, which I appreciate is an oxymoron but is the best way to describe it.
If you’ve watched the glorious TV series Back To Life then think of Miri’s dad and his despair at careless disregard for recycling. His anguish when people don’t rinse their cans. Or when Miri tosses an unwanted bouquet in the bin. “Garden waste,” he laments. It me.
So I had been trying, very hard, to cut down but good habits fade quickly, I found, and convenience, that lazy devil, took over. Back I slid into the easy options.
But I felt grubby and guilty with all this new plastic waste. COP26 is coming and the urgent talk of climate change has been impetus to rein back the non-reusables.
Most households throw away at least 40kg of plastic each year, which meant absolutely nothing until I Googled it in stone. That’s 6st 4lbs. Only about a stone less than I weighed at the age of 21, which is a very niche version of the tabloid obsession with measuring everything in football pitches or double decker buses.
Of all that plastic, only 9% has been recycled, much of it ending up in the sea. In my quest to find better alternatives to plastic, I learned that aluminium, so says the industry body The Aluminum Association, is a wonder of recycling. Some 75% of all aluminium ever produced since its discovery in 1825 is still in circulation today.
It’s like that thing about atoms being repurposed for infinity, so one might have a few bits of William Shakespeare in one’s foot or Jesus in a lung. I gaze at my aluminium shampoo tin in the shower and ponder its past lives.
There are some things you cannot avoid: credit cards are plastic, as is cash. There are, though, a surprising amount of things you can do. Cling wrap is banned in my household and instead I have wax wraps. They can be a beggar to keep in place and you have to wash them but – and I appreciate this is an upside that might not impress everyone – they are very good for keeping half an avocado fresh and they will do wonders for your cheese.
It’s do with the release of ammonia from the cheese but, as you’ll have guessed from my bit on atoms, science isn’t my thing. Just trust me – your avos will be green and your Cambozola delicious.
I don’t buy greetings cards if they come in a plastic sleeve. Fruit and vegetables in most supermarkets are a hellscape of plastic wrap but buy loose and bring small cotton bags to put them in.
I remember about 15 years ago reading a woman quoted in the New York Times saying she would “never, ever” take a reusable bag to the supermarket because she already had enough to remember. “What an idiot,” I thought.
And yet, a study by Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency found UK supermarkets sold 1.58bn so-called “bags for life” in 2019. That’s one a week per UK household so I clearly underestimated the popularity of sentiment from the woman in that New York Whole Foods.
On my local high street there’s a branch of the organic supermarket Locavore where you can shop with reuseable tubs. It feels doubly virtuous – shop local and shop greener. It’s not accessible for everyone, though.
Asda is branching out into selling unpackaged products and allowing customers to refill their tubs. It’s an excellent move, helping to bring this form of shopping mainstream.
Forward planning is key. Have an anti-plastic kit. A reusable coffee cup, a reusable water bottle and a cloth bag and you can survive a lot of things.
At the recent Playground Festival in East Renfrewshire it was galling to find we weren’t allowed to bring in a reusable water bottle to fill but had to buy a plastic cup or bottled water on the site. These sorts of set ups are unacceptable and feel so retro.
For toiletries I opt for brands that use glass bottles or sustainable packaging. Boots have a small but decent range of refills – you buy a metal bottle and then buy refill pouches to top them up.
One stumbling block is plastic bin bags. Ethical bin bags are expensive but the alternatives are… complicated. Some people recommend having a worm farm in your house to eat up your leftovers and cardboard. Some say just shove everything straight into the bin and wash it out.
I read one top tip for freezing food waste to stop it going mouldy and then putting it straight in your wheelie bin on collection day. I’m working on it.
One of my biggest switches has been to bottled milk. Upsides: it tastes infinitely better and is greener. Downsides: it’s labour intensive, the milk goes off quickly, and there’s only one place locally I can buy it. Plastic cartons of milk are available quickly and 24/7. Glass bottles need to be sterilised and milk machine access is between 8am and 8pm.
It’s a bummer, but it’s also a neat summary of the situation overall. We’ve come to expect convenience. We have crammed our lives to the point that speed and ease are king and queen ruling over all else.
To live sustainably requires inconvenience and that’s a difficult truth to market. It comes down to doing the right thing for its own sake, which, given the consequences of choosing not to, needs to be enough.