How difficult is it to live without plastic? Our reporter tried it for herself

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I could sit here and type out all the ways that plastic is damaging our environment, from ending up in the bellies of our fish to contaminating the air we breathe.

I could tell you that eventually the layer of plastic which has been spreading around the world since the 1950s will form a noticeable line in the sedimentary rocks of the future.

It poisons our food chain and costs billions to abate, but even armed with all this knowledge, we continue to produce more.

The plastic bottles, bags and takeaway containers that we use just for a few minutes use a material that is designed to last forever, and their presence is going nowhere fast.

Although some plastics are incinerated, it is generally accepted that this process is not a viable solution to our overwhelming plastic waste problem.

Incineration facilities are hugely expensive to build and run, as well as emitting various toxic pollutants into the atmosphere.

There is also concern that incineration ultimately encourages more waste production, and that local authorities may opt for incineration over recycling and waste reduction programs.

So, from plastic straws wrapped in plastic covers to ready-peeled oranges in synthetic tubs, is disposable plastic now so ingrained in our throw-away culture that it’s impossible to live without?

That’s where I come in, ready to take on the challenge of living without plastic for a week, inspired by the YL Plastic Planet feature a few weeks ago (Saturday, January 20, 2018).

But before I did, I spoke to some individuals already well on their way to cutting plastic out of their lives entirely.

It was at the start of this year that environmentally-conscious Stonehaven resident Hazel Meehan decided to make a conscious effort to reduce her use of plastics.

The 34-year-old oil and gas manager already had a re-usable coffee cup and brought her own bags to the supermarket, but wanted to do more after reading up on myths surrounding recycling.

“It started like something of a new year’s resolution,” she said.

“I wanted to do one thing a day that would be good for the environment, and I wanted the changes to stick.

“I was always good at recycling, but then I discovered that actually recycling is the last thing we should be doing, and that to really make a difference we should be reducing our use of plastics in the first place.

“Most plastics can only be recycled once or maybe twice at most before they end up in landfill.

“One of the first steps I took was changing to loose leaf tea.

“I drink a lot of peppermint tea and it’s not widely publicised that tea bags are held together with plastic glue.

“I also focus on finding foods in other packaging, like ketchup in a glass bottle or porridge oats in cardboard boxes.

“It’s not easy though, particularly with meat and vegetables which are all highly packaged in supermarkets.

“Most butchers have 9-5 hours so it’s almost impossible to get to one during the week and buy my meat that way.

“I did manage to organise a new glass milk bottle delivery in my area though, which has had such a positive response from other residents.”

Living plastic-free isn’t just about food, however, and Hazel has also switched to using solid shampoo bars and cosmetics in re-usable containers.

Hazel pointed out that even though she is mindful of what she buys and is determined to reduce her personal plastic waste, sometimes it’s impossible to buy certain items without them coming wrapped in plastic.

MP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, Kate Forbes, believes that retailers and manufacturers need to take more responsibility when it comes to their plastic influence.

“Customers can only buy what is available,” she said.

“So until manufacturers change it will continue to be very difficult.

“This is where the government comes in, and right now there is an expert panel which exists and is looking at every item of single-use plastic in detail.

“They are trying to change how we use these disposable plastics, and there are three different possible responses.

“You can either entirely ban a product – like plastic cotton buds – impose a charge – like the 5p carrier bag levy – or implement a deposit return scheme where you get money back for returning the product correctly.

“The public can also mount pressure which can lead to change.

“For example, I organised the Final Straw campaign to urge public bodies and businesses to ditch single-use plastic straws.

“I represent a constituency where you can really see the impact of plastics on our seas.

“All along the coastline, plastics are choking our seas and risking the lives of seabirds and sea creatures, and one of the most common plastic items on the beach is plastic straws.”

The campaign saw thousands of people sign the petition and led to the Scottish Parliament’s decision to ban plastic straws in its buildings from February this year.

For Kate this is just the tip of the iceberg and she is keen for people to start seriously talking about how to reduce plastic usage in their daily lives.

“Straws are just one tiny thing, but it gets people thinking about whether they actually need a certain plastic item, or if they just want it momentarily,” she said.

Changing the packaging habits of millions of retailers across the globe isn’t going to happen overnight, but one Aberdeen cafe and shop is at the forefront of the war on plastic waste.

Thirty-three-year-old Sandy McKinnon opened the Foodstory Cafe in 2013 with his business partner Lara Bishop, 30.

Their ethos covered two main areas: people and the planet.

Primarily a cafe, Sandy and Lara wanted to offer healthy food suitable for all, but wanted to do so in an environmentally friendly way.

“Originally the plan was to be zero waste,” said Sandy.

“But it’s exceptionally difficult to run a busy cafe like that.

“Right now we are slowly expanding what we can do with the intention of reaching that point in the future, but there is still a long way to go.”

Recently the pair expanded their premises to include a speciality grocery shop, where their key values continue.

The shop attempts to minimise disposable packaging of all kinds – including plastics.

Gravity dispensers hold everything from muesli to farfalle pasta, with old jam jars sitting waiting to be filled.

A large sack of earthy potatoes sits near boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables, with no plastic bags or packaging in sight, while fresh loaves of bread are arranged neatly on the shelf sans plastic wrapping.

“As a nation we are over protective about what we eat,” said Sandy.

“Everything has to be sealed or wrapped in plastic else we think it’s ‘contaminated’.”

“Just recently we complained to our vegetables supplier as the aubergines were coming individually wrapped in plastic and it’s just not necessary.

“But a lot of bigger companies don’t see reducing waste as such a big priority.

“Now the aubergines do come without plastic but only because someone at their depot takes it off before it arrives here, not because the plastic has been eliminated.”

HARDEST PART?

If living with less plastic was easy, everyone would be doing it.

Finding alternatives was by far the most difficult part.

Along with my toothbrush, I happened to need new toothpaste during my challenge – and if someone could find me some Colgate in a glass jar I’d happily have parted with my cash for it.

As it was, I was forced to buy my regular tube in all its plastic glory. A fail in the plastic-free challenge.

Some internet research pointed out that you can make your own toothpaste from baking soda, salt and essential oils. But as all these items come in plastic packaging (or with plastic lids), so I decided to give it a miss.

EASIEST PART?

Feeling virtuous. I was making a positive impact on our planet right now, and making it better for future generations.

Sure, I wouldn’t say it was easy, but I was directly reducing the amount of waste heading to landfill and it felt good.

And okay, one person living without disposable plastic isn’t going to make a big impact.

But if that one person can inspire another person, who can then inspire another person, who then inspires another person… Well, you know the rest.

WILL I CONTINUE?

Well, yes and no.

We know on an intellectual level that plastic is harming the environment but it’s so prolific in our lives that replacing it can be tough.

Some swaps make sense, like my lovely bamboo toothbrush and not using small produce bags in the supermarket to collect my veggies.

But others – such as the toothpaste ordeal – well, I’ll stick to my Colgate thanks.

So overall, it seems that going without plastic is possible, but only with the luxury of time, money and an inordinate amount of planning.

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