Plastic – Polluter and Protector by Heike O’Sullivan

Report by Heike O’Sullivan

Plastic Free July has come and gone. Did you notice? Were you even aware of the campaign? I was not. I only heard about it a few days ago, although I consider myself a rather passionate supporter of the fight against plastic waste. You will probably tell me that the world has currently more important problems to solve, battles to win. The world-wide pandemic and the resultant economic crisis have put many other issues on the back-burner, including the environment and Brexit. Both of them probably to our long-term detriment but hey, we can only deal with so much at the one time. Or can we?

And we were doing quite well. Ireland has long got rid of the plague that was single-use plastic shopping bags, waving at us from nearly every hedgerow. We have recycling centres and services, even if we did only get them long after most other EU countries. Lidl supermarkets now have customer recycling stations behind their tills. Their German customers have had them for years but at least now we, too, have them, though we’re still waiting for Aldi, SuperValu & Co to draw level. Supermarkets had started using less packaging, particularly on items such as fruit and veg, bakery goods and more. One of the first meat products now packaged in recyclable trays are SuperValu’s famous SuperQuinn sausages. Fair play! This will hopefully be copied by other brands.

Then came the pandemic. Suddenly, plastic was back big time. Our shiny protector against the virus; hopefully preventing Covid-19 from entering our lives and homes in our shopping bags. Understandably, few shoppers wanted to buy unwrapped broccoli or carrots. I, too, shied away from anything not sealed in plastic, with a terrible conscience when thinking of all those tragic sea turtles and poisoned fish, but with a newly discovered instinct of short-term self preservation.

Personally, I haven’t been out and about much since March, but I hear reports of reusable mugs being disallowed in coffee shops, takeaway restaurants reverting to single-use containers and cutlery, recycling operations being suspended and that diligently separated waste going straight to landfill. Obviously, there are tons of Personal Protective Equipment being discarded and I, too, have used dozens of pairs of latex gloves to avoid touching shopping trolleys and Chip & PIN machines. Covid-19 shut down industries all over the world, reduced traffic on our roads and planes in the air. Many people around the world noticed how much bluer the sky was, how much greener the countryside, how much louder the birds. Although Mother Nature is clearly benefitting from the Covid crisis on many fronts, I’m greatly afraid she will wake up to an even bigger waste problem than before.

Ironically, according to various medical studies, the Coronavirus survives on smooth surfaces such as plastic and stainless steel much longer than on paper and cardboard. It is difficult though to take in the deluge of different and often contradictory advice we have been subjected to from all directions for the past six months. Our instinctive embrace of plastic as our protector is a tragedy but entirely understandable on a human level. So, is there anything at all we can do to offset our increased use of plastic, to be environmentally friendly not only in these confusing times but long-term? As it turns out, there is loads!

The first thing I’m going to do is, replace my plastic toothbrush with a bamboo one. Yes, the bristles are still made of nylon but just think how much plastic is used in the (hopefully!) twelve or so conventional toothbrushes every member of your family uses each year. You can also swap your plastic hair brushes or combs for ones made of sustainable materials such as wood and natural bristles.

You can replace all the plastic bottles of liquid body and hair care products with their equivalent in bar form – soap, shampoo, the whole shebang. If only to get one over those pesky airport security scanners…

Not only can you use old newspapers as compostable liners for your kitchen compost bin, but you could also use the plastic bags your veg comes in as waste bin liners. I find the 1kg carrot ones particularly well sized for bathroom bins. Alternatively, you could at least buy biodegradable refuse bags and liners.

Many big-brand coffee machine manufacturers now offer compostable or recyclable capsules and pods. If the supermarket of your choice doesn’t stock them, ask management to get them in.

Talking about hot beverages, my tea addict of a husband was appalled to learn from the radio that tea bags are sealed with tiny amounts of plastic. Until tea companies come up with a more health and environmentally friendly solution, we will try to overcome our utter laziness and go back to loose tea leaves. Wish us luck.

Just like tea bags, most brands of face pads and make-up wipes also contain plastic in form of synthetic fibres that basically hold them together. Why not use a washable face cloth instead, made of cotton or bamboo fibre? Much cheaper in the long run and it won’t clog up your drains.

Also made of the dreaded plastic that, admittedly, we cannot entirely do without, are Tupperware-style food storage containers and reusable water bottles. However, you only buy them once and there’s a good chance that they will last you a lifetime. The containers will prevent you using roll after roll of cling film. The bottles you can fill from the endless supply of delicious water from your own well or, if you have the misfortune to live on the water mains, from your Brita filter jug. When your children return to school, it would be a pity to witness all those shopping trolleys filled with dozens of tiny plastic water bottles wheeled out of our supermarkets again.

So, what do you think? Could you make even just two or three changes to your buying habits to benefit our one and only planet and make up for your increased use of plastic during these strange Covid-times? Go on, go on, go on – and thank you!

Community, Issues