The Plastic-Purging Plan of Action - how long before a zero-waste regime reaps rewards?

Arctic Ocean Harbour Tyres

In short, although it seems like an insurmountable task, major gains can be made in plastic reduction very quickly.

Out of curiosity, I thought I would try and calculate how much plastic someone would save in a year if they were to follow just the first 7 sessions of my step-by-step method. What kind of difference would a milk delivery, veg box delivery and ‘shopper’s mate’ etc. make?

I began with perhaps the easiest of the calculations, since milk consumption in the UK is fairly well documented. Our average annual quantity of milk quaffed in the UK in one year is 108.78 litres per person. This average, however, does not discount for all the vegans, under-ones, those with milk allergies and general milk avoiders within the population, so the chances are that if you are a milk drinker your personal consumption will be more than this. Nonetheless, because I like to be conservative with my back-of-an-envelope statistics I have erred on the side of caution with my calculations and worked with the average. Assuming these 108.78 litres were to be purchased in 1 litre HDPE ‘poly’ bottles, weighing 27 grams each and measuring 240mm tall, this is nearly 3kg of plastic, which would measure 26.1 metres end-to-end. Obviously 2 litre poly bottles would have slightly less plastic per litre and 1 pint or 500ml bottles would have slightly more, but since there are quite a few variables here, the 1 litre bottles seems like a natural middle ground.

Glass Milk Bottle

So, sign up to a milk delivery, and you will save 3 kg of plastic per year. Enough bottles to line up along three London buses!

Next, the commitment to get fruit and veg ‘unwrapped’. How much plastic is there surrounding your common garden supermarket sprout or bagged banana, and how much therefore do we avoid by getting a veg box? A 2013 Guardian report was helpfully bemoaning the statistic that adults aged 18-64 in the UK were only managing on average 4 helpings of fruit and veg per day. Since a portion, as measured up against the 5-a-day standard, is 80g, I headed to the nearest supermarket (a Sainsbury’s – other plastic-touting supermarkets are available) to try and work out how much plastic there is enveloping our most easily accessible veg. Armed with further statistics about the UK’s top-10 vegetables and top-5 fruit (editor's note: potatoes do not count towards your 5-a-day - add extra plastic for these), and aiming for the most generic offering of the above, I calculated that there are 17½ separate ‘bits’ of packaging for those top 15 fruit and veg, which account for 71 separate servings. Extrapolating over a year this would mean that your average adult would generate 359 separate items of fruit and veg packaging by meeting the 4-a-day average, and 77% of those pieces of packaging (by being films and cellophanes – with limited recycling end markets in the UK) would be destined for landfill or incineration. Yes, a veg box will likely deliver the odd bit of plastic, but then I have been – again – generous in assuming more bananas per bag etc. in my calcs.

Vegetables in Basket

So, sign up to a veg box, and you will save somewhere in the region of 360 separate pieces of plastic packaging, 77% of which are not commonly recycled.

Toilet roll. This one is slightly underwhelming plastic-wise but worth including, because there are so many more advantages to ethical toilet paper (preservation of vital virgin forest, building of toilets for those in need etc.) than just saving on packaging. Nonetheless, with the average person unravelling their way through 110 toilet rolls per annum, and assuming these toilet rolls are of average size and presented in packs of 9, this is 4.5 square metres of plastic film saved from the waste stream. Another happy number I noted was that the Who Gives a Crap box of 48 rolls, being double length, would last the average person for nearly 365 days of deposits at the bank of Armitage Shanks!

Toilet Roll

So, order an online toilet roll delivery and you will save 4.5 square metres of plastic film – enough to cover a super king size bed – and won’t be caught short for a whole year!

Next, the mail. I get particularly flustered when (despite my requests for paper-based mail packing) a package arrives in a polythene mail bag, because I had, until starting this blog post, not found a good outlet for this particularly frustrating piece of single use plastic, other than to hold on to them in the hope I could reuse them on an outgoing parcel, although this did feel somewhat like making them someone else’s problem. Ultimately, I felt, even if they could be reused once, even twice, they were soon for landfill. How many of these mail bags, and their equally hard-to-recycle cousin, the bubble bag, could be saved by requesting that mail be sent out in compostable, plant-based mail packing? Information on this subject was particularly hard to pin down. I found out that the UK spends 17.2% of all retail revenue online, that 77% of adults over 16 had bought goods or services online in the last 12 months and that in 2013 over 500 million internet orders required fulfilment in the UK. Initial Packaging Solutions Ltd, a UK company that manufacture polythene mail bags and bubble bags, as well as other polythene packaging, claim they supply over 50 million polythene products a month to UK businesses. Polybags, another UK manufacturer, claim they dispatch 80 tonnes of polythene bags from their factory warehouses every week, although this does include carrier bags and their other products. So, it is clear that the scale of plastic postal packaging is huge and increasing every year. Even if only a tenth of internet orders came in polythene mail packing, we are still talking about 50 million deliveries a year in the UK. So while I cannot say for sure what any one person may save by persuading their online sellers to send items out in paper-based packaging, and while for my own experience I know the frustrations when items still arrive in the dratted poly bags, or when the obliging seller has carefully wrapped the compostable brown paper in yards of unrecyclable parcel tape, it is still worth doing, and it still works:

Plastic-free Brown Paper Parcels

So, request your online purchases be delivered in plant-based, compostable packaging, and you go some way towards steering those half a billion UK deliveries servicing internet shopping towards a more sustainable future.

And I would conclude, from a defensive comment Initial Packaging Solutions Ltd have put on their website about plastic packaging being ‘an easy populist target’, that continued pressure in this respect is being heard far and wide. Repeatedly (politely) requesting non-plastic mail packing, avoiding single-use bottles and shunning polymer-enveloped produce has more impact than the saving of just a few pieces of polythene. Your opinions and behaviours are noted and assessed, joining those made by others to become a movement of increasing volume and pressure, encouraging technical innovation and company policy review, until eventually reaching for the packaging with zero environmental impact or even overall environmental gain (imagine that) is no longer a lifestyle choice. It is the only option offered.

Subnote: While researching this article I discovered a company, Polyprint, who invite polythene waste (including mail polybags) from the general public for recycling. Ironically, they are happy to accept the bags by post! While of course we would prefer not to receive these bags in the first place, if any do slip through the net, at least we can now steer them away from landfill, hoorah.