Reasons why plastic really isn’t fantastic

Helen McClements
Helen McClements

Is it just me, or is anyone else practically a-quiver with the reports that micro-plastics and micro-fibres are now everywhere? Scientists have discovered that they are in our riverbeds, in the oceans, in the fish and sea-creatures, which means that, they are most definitely building up in our intestines too, causing as yet unknown mayhem.

It was inevitable really. We are, as a nation, totally dependent on plastic because our supermarkets have made us so. But turn on the BBC and Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater won’t be carrying their leg of lamb out of the local artisan butcher’s sheathed in plastic. Oh no, it will be wrapped in greaseproof paper, tied in string. But we don’t live in the upper-class utopia that is South Kensington do we? No, we’re racing to Asda of an evening to buy our pound and a half of mince steak for our spag bol. And biodegradable wrapping isn’t an option there yet.

My own particular bug-bear, is our addiction to bottled water. ‘Stay hydrated!’ urge the advertisements. I’m so glad they told us. There’s me would have been dying of thirst if I didn’t have the flipping Coca-Cola company (who also own River Rock) telling me otherwise. How many thousands do we spend a year on bottled water when we have the same product at home, from our taps? It’s a racket! We’ve grown up with this notion so we just think that’s how it is.

Turn on Friends, and there they are, helping themselves to bottles out of the fridge. Go to a child’s party, and the place will be coming down with mini-bottles of water or worse still, Fruit Shoots.

We seem to have scored a nefarious own goal. By persuading consumers to shun tap water in favour of bottled, tons of single-use bottles have been produced. Even when these are recycled and broken down, microscopic pieces of plastic are leeched into the waterways, which filtration cannot completely remove. So our drinking water, which was formerly chemical free, now contains micro-fibres of plastic, that weren’t there before we started reaching for the bottles in the first place.

Why wait for Russians to poison us? Give it a few years and we’ll have done a good enough job of that ourselves, as microscopic particles accumulate in our colons.

Attempting to live a zero-waste, or at least zero-plastic life takes huge amounts of resourcefulness, energy and creativeness. Who has the time these days? Plastic is ubiquitous, but as consumers, if we care about the environment, and by dint of that, ourselves, we have to start kicking up a fuss.

Seventy years ago we didn’t appreciate the dangers of smoking, or the implications of asbestos on our lungs. The potential health problems caused by excessive plastics hasn’t seeped into the public’s consciousness yet. Meanwhile, it’s seeping into our bodies and those of our children.

Start small, but carry your reusable bottle. Remember your carrier bags, and pop a travel mug in your handbag. Buy a set of cutlery for eating on the move, and head to your local Swedish store by the airport and stock up on coloured cups for your child’s party. Ditch party bags and hand out books or a home-made bun. Ask your local coffee shop for a discount or an extra stamp if you bring your own cup.

Recycling alone isn’t the answer, it’s time to address the manufacture of plastics and only by making different choices as consumers will we accelerate this process.

l Helen McClements is a teacher, mother and blogger.