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News, Blogs & Press Releases » Earth Day 2024: Let’s tackle the plastic

Earth Day 2024: Let's tackle the plastic

With Earth Day coming up this Monday 22 April, our Chief Executive, Richard McIlwain, looks at this year’s theme of ‘Planet vs. Plastics’, and how it ties into the Vegetarian Society’s work.

Its Earth Day this coming Monday 22 April, and having previously worked for the charity Keep Britain Tidy, this year’s ‘Planet vs Plastics’ theme aroused my interest. I spent many years working to combat the plastic pollution crisis alongside colleagues from Greenpeace, the Marine Conservation Society, Surfers Against Sewage and many others. And we secured some significant victories: the carrier bag charge, a ban on plastic straws, and government agreement to introduce a deposit return scheme for drinks containers.

But as a team we had to reflect that it wasn’t nearly enough. There was no overarching strategy for tackling plastic pollution, no national targets, and a concerted pushback from industries reliant on plastic packaging. The government focused on recycling of plastics and increasing use of recycled plastic, rather than a strategy aimed at reducing overall use.

Why is this important? A good place to start is the Earth Day explainer on its own website. While focused on babies and harm from plastics, it is actually a good summary of the overall issues. Notably, these are the massive rise in plastic production since the 1950s, the contamination of our streets, rivers and oceans, the harm to wildlife, and the toxic risks to our own health associated with micro-plastics and now nano-plastics, which can pass through the blood/brain barrier, as evidence has shown.

None of this can be tackled by a bit more recycling – it needs a coordinated global response. The good news is that the UN is currently developing a legally binding agreement to tackle plastic pollution. The not-so-good news is that if long-running climate negotiations are any sort of benchmark for unified global action, then progress can be glacial. And the really bad news is outlined by the UN themselves where they state that plastic production is expected to triple by 2060, while global recycling rates hover below 10%. Furthermore, our demand for plastic will continue to drive oil production and all of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with it.

Some of the alternatives to oil-based plastics, such as plant-based plastics (called bioplastics), also worry me. They act just like plastics in the environment – presumably with all the associated problems – and also require plant-based cellulose, which surely would be better used as food for humans or animals.

As citizens and consumers, we can often feel powerless. Just a look in my own kitchen cupboard reveals food wrapped in an array of plastic packaging, never mind the various plastic gadgets that fill my own home. We’ve become dependent on plastic and yet, pre-1950, we survived without it. What has changed? Certainly, our demand for greater convenience and a throw away culture. When it comes to food, we demand products from all over the world now, and this requires packaging for transport and to extend shelf lives.

The inside of Richard McIlwain's kitchen cupboard. It is full of jars and bags of food, many of them wrapped in plastic.

The inside of Richard’s kitchen cupboard.

From a food perspective, how might this change? Shopping and eating locally and seasonally would make a difference. Buying items loose, in bulk, and in refillable and reusable non-plastic packaging would help. But this takes time, effort, and skill in food preparation – all things that far too many people don’t possess. Plus, the retail landscape is set up in opposition to these principles – supermarkets are awash with foods from all over the world, processed ready meals, and single use plastic packaging. It’s difficult to navigate a different path, when refill and bulk buy shops are few in number.

But we must reach for solutions and encourage people to feel empowered, make changes in their own lives and demand more of their governments.

We can all challenge ourselves to make small changes, like reducing our consumption of single-use plastics and plastic packaging, using refillable packaging where we can.

We can all buy more loose fruit, veg, pulses and cereals, and learn to cook, reducing dependence on packaged ready meals. Clearly, our own Vegetarian Society Cookery School has a key role to play here

And we can all lobby our councillors and MPs, demanding that they and their parties develop real-world strategic approaches to tackling plastic pollution at national and international levels.

I do believe that the individual citizen is rarely powerless if enough of us demand action.  But we must start by taking action in our own lives. As the one-time Vegetarian Society member Mahatma Ghandi said (or may not have said, but it’s still a good line): “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

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