Lockdown during the Covid-19 crisis will be a time for many to reassess and focus on what is really important to them, in many ways. Family. Career. Our social circles. The activities, charities or sports teams we support. The DIY jobs such as at bathroom that still needs replacing.
It is a chance to reset. Strip back. Take stock. Give ourselves time to think, to redirect the radar.
As well as the immediacy of our own worlds, there is of course the bigger picture of the wider world. It is a chance to analyse and attack a more lasting crisis facing us – and I don’t mean Brexit. Don’t get me started on that.
No, I’m talking about that mountain we had started to climb: addressing climate change.
This isn’t something new for me. I might have been on Greta Thunberg-inspired marches, signed countless petitions and even donated money to campaigns, but many years ago I began writing to a national supermarket chain about their unnecessary plastic – especially the single-use.
Progress remains slow, but at least now they have a target to “halve the amount of plastic in our products by 2025”. It’s really not fast enough, especially when some of their internal market processes are going backwards.
Take egg boxes. Like the one I found on my litter pick the other day. It was plastic – and plastic ones are symptomatic of the problem.
It was the most basic range that went back to being in plastic. The cheapest. The ones that, therefore, will most appeal to the least well off, or anyone trying to save what they can on their weekly (or more regular) shopping trip.
Society does not need egg boxes made of plastic, which does not degrade. We have managed for decades with cardboard ones, which are quite robust enough if you treat them with due respect.
Sainsbury’s dedicate much space on their website to how they are reducing plastic and aiming to be carbon neutral by 2040. Only in January, Tesco enhanced its environment programme by taking plastic off multi-packs. For this is asked its supplier to act in a different way to the other places it supplied and promised not to sell them at a more expensive price as a result. But why didn’t the manufacture tell the other supermarkets that this was how it would now supply them?
Volunteers at Thames21, London’s leading environmental charity, found 27,000 single use plastic bottles in one month on the Thames, last October. I was one of the volunteers when the same charity counted 23,000 wet wipes at Hammersmith in one day of concerted efforts last March.
Yet, despite the Government launching a 25-year environment plan to reduce plastic and banning microbeads, plus promising to target single use plastic, the House of Commons bought600,000 plastic bottles, cups and coffee cups in a year.
Many – about half – of those single-use plastic bottles contain water. Freely available water that can be taken out of a tap and is perfectly safe to drink, even in major cities such as London.
The impact of the floods that hit the UK earlier this year had barely made further reports before the coronavirus started dominating every headline. The pollution of major cities has been reduced because less traffic, in particular, is causing it. Yet case and death rates are higher in worse polluted cities, because people’s organs are weaker.
Pollution, in all its forms, will kill more people than Covid-19. As will drought, flooding and other ecological effects of climate change.
Some say every piece of plastic that has been made still exists today. It can’t be true, of course, because some is incinerated, which admittedly just changes its form to, in part, a harmful gas. Some is recycled. Some can’t be. Some is even reused to make new plastic products.
But we do not need this substance for many items such as fruit and vegetables. As Tesco have eventually twigged, we don’t even need it around multi-packs of tinned beans or tomatoes.
Yet supermarkets – and other food stores – sell us items cheaper in forceably plasticised packaging. Four packs of fruit juices are substantially cheaper than their single times four equivalents. In films when I was growing up, mostly made in the United States of America, consumers shopped for groceries using paper bags.
Even now, however, the march to appease the “green brigade” is slow. Fruit and vegetables are cheaper when wrapped in plastic in supermarkets, yet in Redhill available for the most part unwrapped in plastic in the market, on Thursdays and Saturdays. The items wrapped in plastic in the nearby supermarket go off the shelves quicker than the plastic-wrapped items.
So take that chance, when you receive an update from your supermarket telling you how they are dealing with customers’ needs during Covid-19 2020, to tell them this is the perfect time to challenge their suppliers on their unnecessary use of plastic. Challenge those manufacturers who don’t say on their packaging how it can be recycled, to tell you exactly how that allows them to reach their “carbon neutral” target so prominently hailed on the very same packaging (that can’t be recycled). Ask your favourite yoghurt manufacturer why, if they have reduced their packaging, they have kept the bits that can’t be recycled but ditched the bits they can.
Furthermore, refuse that straw at the restaurant, start using that reusable stainless steel water bottle, buy a reusable coffee cup if you plan to return to the coffee chains on the way to work. Demand compostable packaging wherever possible.
The result will be a healthier, more sustainable planet even if people continue to drop litter and keep the local “litterati” busy. Oh, and by the way, I’ve discovered the term “litterati” has already been coined, by a group running an app where you can log the type of litter you find, to form a global picture. There’s a phrase, by a well known supermarket, that dominates the advertising memory bells. Something about every little bit helping.