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My Story: How I Quit the Plastic Habit

As part of the event I spoke at last week organised by Plastic Free July, I was asked to talk about my own journey in reducing my plastic consumption. One of my favourite topics! It was a great chance to reflect on how my life has changed in the 3+ years since I gave up plastic.

For those of you that couldn’t come along I thought I’d share my story with you here too.

Back-track to 2012, and I thought I was doing all the right things when it came to being environmentally friendly. I diligently recycled everything I could. I was a master recycler, sorting the plastic PET and HDPE bottles from the TetraPaks and the polypropylene plastic packaging, and disposing of it all responsibly. I religiously took my own bags to the shops.

Of course, every now and then I took a plastic bag at the checkout – after all, I needed them to line my rubbish bin…

I first heard of the Plastic Free July campaign when I saw a flyer at my local library. I’d been living in Australia for just 6 months, having moved from the UK, and I was still finding my way around my local community. The challenge was to give up plastic for the month of July. Give up plastic for a month? I thought. Easy!

As part of the pre-Plastic Free July launch, there was a movie screening of the plastic documentary Bag It! I went along. It changed my life.

It was literally a lightbulb moment. A realization that plastic was a problem. A waste problem, a health problem, a lifestyle problem, a political problem and an environmental problem. And a realization that it was a problem that I could do something about.

I realised that if I wanted to see things change, I had to start with me. I also realised that giving up plastic wasn’t something that I was only going to commit to for a month. I was in it for the long-haul. Plastic-free was going to be my new way of living.

Going home that night, I was aware for the first time that plastic was everywhere. How had I not realised?! Had I been walking around with my eyes shut?! Everything was packaged in plastic! My pantry was filled with plastic-packaged products and my bathroom shelves were lined with plastic bottles. Shrink-wrap, bubble-wrap, plastic-wrap, plastic-lined, plastic-coated, plastic-sealed – arghh!

And so my plastic-free living adventure began.

That first plastic-free shop at the supermarket, I took home bananas, bread, apple juice in a glass bottle, pasta packaged in cardboard, toilet paper wrapped in paper and chocolate. The only plastic-free things that I could find. I realised that if I was going to commit to this, I had to be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things.

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the first things I did to ease the transition:

  • Got hold of a reusable cup and reusable produce bags
  • Switched to bar soap and ditched the shower gel and hand wash
  • Looked up local veg box delivery schemes to avoid the supermarket packaging
  • Hunted around for bulk food stores – even places that sold a single item like olive oil
  • Headed to Farmers’ Markets to see what options were available
  • Dusted off the cookbooks and tried new recipes featuring ingredients that were easier to find in bulk
  • Learnt how to make my own yoghurt, bread, nut milk, dips, you name it!
  • Learnt how to make basic toiletries like deodorant and toothpaste
  • Talked to local producers / traders about selling items to me without packaging
  • Bought more things second hand and made use of the sharing economy – like using the library
  • Started using newspaper to line my bin rather than plastic bags!

In the beginning I made mistakes. Lots of mistakes! I bought plenty of things that I thought were packaged solely in paper or cardboard only to find sneaky plastic inside! I’d forget my reusable coffee cup, or my produce bags, or purchase random ingredients in silly quantities, like 3 kg of sesame seeds simply because I’d found them in bulk but without having the slightest idea what I was going to do with them! Like all things, you keep trying and slowly you get better. Habits form and it gets easier. Now it’s second nature, and I don’t really need to think about it.

The benefits have been enormous, and in plenty of ways that I hadn’t expected. The journey that giving up plastic has taken me on has been so much fun! I never though that giving something up would give me so much more, but it has.

Interestingly, I spend far less on food now than I did before I quit plastic. Partly because all the processed food comes packaged in plastic, all the junk food that adds up on your grocery bill but doesn’t actually fill you up. Plus I stopped buying into those deals that seem like great offers until you end up with packets of stuff you don’t really need.

My diet is a lot better. I shop locally so the fruit and veggies I buy are a lot fresher, I eat far more whole foods and a lot less sugar, and I have a lot more energy.

I learned so many new skills.

That was all in the first six months!

I began my plastic-free journey by looking at the actions I could take, the changes I could make so it was very much a personal journey. As my expertise grew, as I learned more and more about not only the problems of plastic but also the solutions, I was determined to spread the message and to inspire other people to use a little less plastic in their lives.

I started writing my blog, which has connected me to thousands of other people looking to live a similar lifestyle, has allowed me to share my knowledge and enthusiasm, and also learn so much more. I’ve also got involved in my local community, not just with Plastic Free July but also the Earth Carer network and Living Smart, and I also organized a Sustainability Festival called the Less is More Festival in 2013 and 2014.

What really gripped me right from the start about plastic-free living was that it was something that I could do. It’s something we can all do. Plastic is something that we’re faced with every single day. Multiple times a day. We can choose to use it, or we can choose to avoid it, and we make these choices every single day. We can make a difference. We just need to decide what kind of difference we want to make.

You’ve heard my story and now I really want to hear yours! How did you stumble onto the plastic-free path? What have you done to reduce your plastic consumption? What have you found easy? What’s been your biggest challenges? Whether you’ve been working on it for years or you’re new to the idea, please share your journey so far! Tell me your successes and your hopes in the comments below!

The Scandalous Plastic in Tea Bags – Who Knew?

Oh tea-bags, you innocent-looking things, you. Thinking that just by turning yourselves into a delicious cup of tea I wouldn’t question you. In fact, I didn’t question you. Luckily for me, others did, which led me to this revelation: teabags contain plastic.

Last July I decided to switch to loose leaf tea because I found it hard to find teabags that were plastic-free. By plastic-free, I mean teabags in boxes neither smothered in plastic on the outside, or teabags wrapped in plastic inside the box instead. I also got thinking about how wasteful teabags were compared to loose leaf tea, and how much better the latter tastes.

But not once did it occur to me that the majority of teabags are actually made with plastic.

The First Revelation: Teabags Contain Plastic

Browsing the Trashed website (read my review of this powerful documentary), I came upon the list “10 Small Things”. Nestled between “Use a wooden toothbrush” and “Shop at the Farmers’ Market” (both things I’ve discussed here many times!), I found this: “Have a nice (for the environment) cup of tea”. It turns out that teabags are actually only 70-80% biodegradable because they also contain polypropylene!

Not only that, but apparently 165 million cups of tea are drunk in the UK alone every day. So whilst the plastic in one teabag might seem negligible, all those cups of tea are actually contributing surprisingly to plastic waste.

Trashed Movie 10 Small Things

Sneaky screengrab from the Trashed film website: One of their ten tips for reducing waste is using loose leaf tea – because teabags contain plastic!

Revelation Two: Almost ALL Teabag Manufacturers Use Plastic in their Teabags

Feeling like an investigative journalist, I dug out the 2010 Which? article which found that the majority of teabags, including those by PG Tips and Teadirect, contained polypropylene (plastic #5). In fact, they only found one brand that didn’t: Jacksons of Picadilly. A Guardian article also published in 2010 stated that (according to the UK Tea Council) 96% of those 165 million cups of tea drunk in the UK every day were made with teabags. It also revealed that Twinings, Clipper, Tetley and Typhoo also make their teabags using plastic.

Twinings! I was so pleased last year when I thought I’d finally found a plastic-free brand of teabag. Now I find that they may not use plastic in their packaging but they’re using it in the actual teabag!

Something else caught my eye in the article, and it made me really mad. It’s a quote from Teadirect’s Whitney Kakos (who according to the internet, was the Sustainability Manager for Teadirect in 2010). She said: “Most consumers don’t notice [the polypropylene] and probably don’t care.”

Well I’ve noticed, and I care, and I don’t think I’m the only one!

Revelation Three: The Research is OLD but the findings are CURRENT

These articles were written in 2010, which was four years ago, so it’s possible that things have changed. Whilst I was busy researching all of this, by chance (or destiny?!) another plastic-free blogger @Westywrites was doing her own research into teabags, and contacting all the companies in question asking whether they still use plastic in their teabags.

Not writing letters and sitting patiently for a reply, she was straight onto Twitter to find out what was going on.

Here’s what she asked:

[Dear Tea Company] Can you please let me know if you use plasticisers, or a similar material, in your tea bags? Thank you.

Here are the answers (so far):

Plastic Teabags Twitter

(There’s since been a phone call to PG Tips, who confirmed that yes, their teabags contain plastic).

Revelation Five: The World’s gone Mad

This is the final revelation: something I discovered yesterday. You can now buy tea in individual plastic pods (like the coffee pods)!

Tea pods

Individual portions of tea in individual single-use plastic pods. What a waste. Photo borrowed from my friend Amy.

These aren’t teabags containing plastic, they’re worse! Individual plastic pods with single portions of tea! What’s wrong with the world? How hard is it to use a teabag? A plastic-free one, actually, might be fairly hard. Okay then, how about just using a teapot and strainer?!

 The Solution: Drink Loose Leaf Tea!

The best zero-waste option for tea drinkers everywhere is to make the switch from teabags to tea leaves. The tea is superior quality and tastes far better, and you’re helping keep plastic out of the environment.

Use a teapot, brew some proper tea leaves and enjoy a refreshing plastic-free cup of tea. Just remember to use a strainer!

Use a teapot, brew some proper tea leaves and enjoy a refreshing plastic-free cup of tea. Just remember to use a strainer!

Now I want to hear from you! Did you know that teabags contained plastic? Are you as mad as me about this?! Do you use teabags or are you already a loose leaf tea drinker? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Footnote – Because of the popularity of this post, I wrote another in 2018 with more details as to exactly what is in each type of teabag, and how you can tell if they contain plastic or not. More details here.

A Movie Review: Trashed

On Tuesday night I went to a movie night hosted by Transition Town Guildford for the documentary Trashed. Released in 2012 and featuring Jeremy Irons, Trashed explores the extent of the global waste problem, and the consequences – including pollution in beautiful and uninhabited environments, the health risks to animals, humans and children, and the contamination of the oceans.

When I say ‘explores’, this movie does not just skim the surface. It gets right in there. It’s a powerful film, and it gets the point across that we need to change the way we do things. If you’re not convinced before the film, you won’t be left with any doubt afterwards that waste is a serious problem – and it affects all of us.

Featuring farmers from France and Iceland, hospital works in Vietnam, and waste disposal sites in the UK, Lebanon and Indonesia, it is clear that this is a global issue.

Here’s the trailer:

I loved the message, the depth of the science and the exploration of the facts. It was hard-hitting and some people, particularly those who aren’t already aware of the issues surrounding waste may find it pretty confronting. They tried to end on a positive note, bringing the movie back from the feeling of impending doom, with just enough positivity for the audience to leave without feeling like it was all too hard and all too much. But only just.

My only real criticism was the lack of exploration of the issues surrounding recycling. Clearly there wasn’t space to cover everything, but I felt that plastic recycling in particular could have been further addressed. At the end of the film they show huge bales of plastic waiting to go to China (from San Fransisco) for recycling, but no mention is made of the issues of transporting huge amounts of plastic across the ocean, nor the hazardous processes involved with recycling the plastic in countries with less stringent safety regulations.

Particularly after they talked in length of the dangers of burning waste, I felt this was a glaring omission.

The other interesting point is that this segment of the film was recorded in 2009. Back then, China was a huge buyer of plastic waste, but the plastic shipments were often contaminated with non-recyclable plastic and other debris, and in February 2013 China has cracked down on this with Operation Green Fence, meaning all plastics must be washed and uncontaminated. All shipments are inspected on arrival, and if they are contaminated they are sent back, with the sender incurring the cost. In the first 3 months, 7600 tons of waste were rejected.

I’d definitely recommend watching it, but if you’re new to the issues of waste, you might find it gentler starting with the Clean Bin Project or my all-time favourite, Bag it!.

If you’re interested in hosting a screening of your own, you can find the details on the Trashed website.

Have you seen this movie? What did you think? Did you find it motivating, or did you think they stepped over the line into Doomsday-ville? If you haven’t seen it, what were your thoughts after watching the trailer? Leave me a comment; I’d love to hear what you think!

Recipe: Carrot Pulp Cracker Flatbreads

This super-simple recipe tackles two dilemmas I face when trying to live plastic-free and with zero waste – how to make your own plastic-free crackers, and what to do with leftover carrot pulp (from juicing carrots). I came up with this recipe after realising that if I wanted plastic-free snacks, I was going to have to make my own. I am yet to find crackers in plastic-free packaging.

I went through a phase of drinking carrot juice a couple of times a week, and decided to experiment with using the pulp to make my own crackers. After countless experiments, I am happy with this recipe, but I must point out that they are not crunchy. Making them crunchy just meant I had to drink a gallon of water every time I ate one, because they were so dry. This was my happy spot. They are still soft on the inside, which makes them more of a bread than a cracker – except they are nothing like bread either. I’ve called them cracker flatbreads because I have no idea what else to call them. Crackerbreads? Anyway, if you make them and think of a better name, please let me know!

If you don’t have carrot pulp, you can use grated carrot instead. The mixture will be a lot more watery, so will need longer to cook (still at the same temperatures), but will still work. You could try squeezing the juice out of the grated carrot, but then you’d be wasting delicious carrot juice!

Recipe: Carrot Pulp Cracker Flatbreads

This recipe is for a 33cm x 23cm tin.

Ingredients:

Approx 200g-250g carrot pulp
1/2 cup almonds, soaked overnight, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup oats (for gluten-free, use gluten-free oats; or replace with 1/2 cup almonds for completely grain-free)
2tbsp flaxseeds, ground
2 small tomatoes, chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
Optional: 1/2 tbsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped, or other herbs or spices depending on your taste

Method:

Preheat the oven to 170ºC.

Line a baking tin with greaseproof paper.

In a blender, grind the soaked and rinsed almonds until small pieces. Add the oats and grind to a coarse mixture. Add the carrot pulp and blitz to combine. Add the tomatoes, oil and flax seed and blend until combined. Add the salt, pepper and nay herbs or spices that you want to add and blitz again to ensure everything is mixed together.

Tip the mix into the lined baking tray. It will look sticky. Press into the tin with a spoon.

It may seem like there isn’t enough mixture for the tin, but you want a fairly thin layer. Push right up into the edges and corners, and press the edges down firmly. You can use your hand to firmly pack the mix into the tin once it’s all spread evenly.

Mark out the cracker shapes using a knife.

raw carrot pulp mix

Empty the carrot pulp cracker mix from the blender into a tin lined with baking parchment…

raw carrot pulp cracker mix with spoon

Use a spoon to press the raw carrot pulp cracker mix into the edges of the tin…

raw carrot pulp mix squished

Compact the carrot pulp cracker mix down using your hand, and use a spoon to make sure the edges are neat…

raw carrot pulp mix with squares cut

Use a knife to mark out the carrot pulp cracker squares before they go into the oven.

Place in the oven, and leave for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, see if you can lift the baking paper lining out of the tin without breaking the crackers. If they are still too soft, pop them back into the oven for another 5 minutes or so, and keep trying until they are firm enough to handle. Lift firmly and quickly.

Lower the oven to 100ºC and put the crackers (still on the baking paper) on a grill tray in for another 15 minutes (do not wait for the oven to drop to temperature; they will be fine).

Remove from the oven, and carefully separate the crackers. You may need to use a knife to cut them. Put each one upside down on a grill tray (to aid air circulation), and return to the oven for 15 minutes to cook the other side.

carrot pulp crackers in baking tin

Golden carrot pulp crackers out of the oven…

carrot pulp crackers baked once

The underside will still be moist, so separate the crackers carefully to avoid breaking them…

Carrot pulp crackers other batch

Pop back into the oven with the damp underside facing up. Use a grill pan or rack to enure the air can get between them and they don’t burn!

Once they are ready they will be a golden colour and be dry to touch.

Remove and enjoy!

carrot pulp crackers on a plate

Carrot pulp crackers and hummus

These carrot pulp cracker flatbreads are perfect with hummus!

Tips:

  • This recipe is extremely forgiving, so feel free to change quantities, cook for longer to make them crunchier or modify however you think best. Just let me know in the comments!
  • Feel free to miss out the middle step. Cook in the oven for 30+ minutes, then take out, separate straightaway and put back in the oven for the last 15 minutes. The crackers will be more moist and harder to separate, but if you’re patient enough it will work fine!
  • If you don’t want to make crackers immediately after juicing carrots, store the pulp in a sealed container in the fridge. It will last for a couple of days.
  • The tomatoes provide the moisture. If you don’t like tomatoes, you could swap with a small courgette.
  • Brazil nuts make a great alternative to almonds. They make a much crunchier cracker. Cashew nuts don’t work as well – the crackers tend to discolour and not look as appealing.

These crackers are delicious with hummus! Follow the link to find my super-simple plastic-free hummus recipe.

As seen on Ethical Superstore and Plastic Free July…

If you don’t follow me on Facebook or Twitter you may have missed some exciting news… I’m spreading my message and expanding my writing beyond this site! I’m currently writing a series of blog posts for the Ethical Superstore. So far three have been published, and there’s a few more in the pipeline.

If you want to read them, here are the links:

Treading My Own Path, Rethinking Waste and the Two New Kids

Not Just About the Chocolate…Can Electronics Be Fair Trade too?

Plastic Free July: Will You Accept the Challenge?

Whilst the messages are something you’ll probably recognise if you visit the site regularly, the content is completely new – no rehashing of old material from me!

In addition, I’m also writing a couple of posts for Plastic Free July’s 2014 campaign. They’re not ready for publishing yet, so keep your eye out!

Whilst I’m on the topic of Plastic Free July, I thought I’d mention the other exciting thing about this year’s 2014 campaign: the Bring One Get One Tree initiative which features my other half as poster boy extraordinaire! It is a local campaign to try to encourage more cafes to participate in reducing their packaging consumption.

You may remember I wrote a few weeks ago about him taking part in a photoshoot. Whilst I write away furiously about whatever hair-brained scheme I’ve concocted for the week ahead (zero-waste week anyone?), Glen is behind-the-scenes putting up with it all – and quietly taking his own bags, his own reusable coffee cup, his reusable cutlery set, and refusing straws and other plastic.

Plastic Free July asked him to feature as their “suited businessman” for the campaign, so now is his chance to shine! Bring1Get1tree posters-shopsI’m not sure he’ll thank me for sharing, but I am in a sharing mood this afternoon it seems!

If you get a chance to read any of my Ethical Superstore blog posts I’d love to hear what you think! You can comment on their site or comment here. Also, if you have any thoughts for future blog posts I could write for them I’d love to hear your ideas!

A Challenge: My (Upcoming) Zero Waste Week

I’m always talking about waste. I hate waste – it’s such a…well, a waste. Plastic-free and zero waste; these are two of the ideals that I aspire to at home. The plastic-free thing I’ve pretty much got sussed these days, excluding the occasional no-option-but-to-get-it-with-some-kind-of-plastic-included or the arghh-there’s-sneaky-plastic-underneath-the-cardboard purchases. But zero waste? How am I doing with that?

When I first started living without plastic two years ago, the first challenge was to find alternatives packaged in glass, paper, tin and cardboard. It was easy enough, but the amount of recycling I was producing went through the roof! This was because I hadn’t actually cut down on my packaging as such, I’d just changed the materials my goods were packaged in – and these were a lot bulkier and heavier than the plastic had been. I may have cut out the plastic – but I didn’t feel much more sustainable.

Then there’s my love of simple living and my interest in minimalism. I like living in a small space, but I have a tendency towards hoarding. I hate waste, remember?! This means I hate to get rid of things. Storing things that might be useful needs space though, and creates more housework, clutter and time spent complaining about the mess. My conclusion: if I can’t get rid of things easily, I realised I needed to prevent them entering the house in the first place! And yes, that includes packaging.

When I found out that only 20% of the glass that is put into recycling bins in Perth is actually recycled (as roadbase – the rest goes to landfill) – well that was the final straw. It made me realise I needed to rethink packaging altogether, and my zero waste dream began.

Zero Waste Dreaming

I’ve made some great progress since those days. I made a worm farm to deal with most of my food scraps; I shop at the bulk bin stores (bringing my own bags, jars and bottles) and I use returnable containers as much as possible (this post is all about my progress towards a zero waste kitchen). We finally got a junk mail sticker for our letterbox to stop receiving all of those unnecessary catalogues.

Despite our progress, however, our recycling bin seems perpetually full. We also still need a bin for the kitchen, because the worms just don’t eat all the food scraps we produce. Partly because we produce too many, but also because they don’t like onions, citrus peel and eggshells. Fusspots.

I thought an audit of our waste might be useful, to see what we’re actually chucking away and to see if there’s anything we can do about it. Sometimes it’s good to question our habits, and see if we can make changes. If I can reduce our waste permanently as a result, then that would be great.

So next week I’ve declared zero waste week.

Open Trash by DGriebeling via Flickr

The goal is to attempt to produce zero waste for the week. Waste is anything that leaves the flat. This means rubbish (landfill) and recycling. Recycling is still waste, and we should all be trying to recycle as little as possible! Food waste given to the worms in the worm farm does not count as waste. In the interests of hygiene I can’t just refuse to empty my bin should it need emptying, so every day, starting from Monday, I’m going to record what (if anything) gets discarded. By Sunday I’ll have compiled a Wall of Shame with a list of all the things that I couldn’t deal with myself and had to dispose of…and that will give me some new goals to work towards!

It’s always nice to have company, and I’d love it if you joined me! I’ll be updating my progress on Facebook and Twitter, and if you want to give it a go I’d love you to share your stories too! Of course you can comment here as well, and if you just want to sit back and watch I’ll write another blog post once it’s over. But that would be boring!

What do you say? Want to give it a go? C’mon, it’ll be fun! Who’s with me?!

You’ve made it: the last day of Plastic Free July!

Today is 31st July. If you’ve been taking part in Plastic Free July this year, you’ve probably been counting down this day as you’ve struggled with a month of buying no single use disposable plastic. Well here it is!

Congratulations – you made it! Read more

Plastic-Free Sweetcorn (How To Remove The Kernels + Freeze)

Some things seem so glaringly obvious with the benefit of hindsight. I would never have thought of processing my own sweetcorn cobs if it hadn’t been for giving up plastic last year. Until then, I had always purchased bags of sweetcorn from the freezer aisle in the supermarket. I didn’t use it often, but it was one of those staples I liked to have on hand, for when my fridge was empty and the shops were shut.

The freezer equivalent of the tins of tomatoes that I liked to have on hand in the pantry.

So Plastic Free July came along last year, and out went plastic food packaging, and so did frozen sweetcorn. I wasn’t about to buy the tinned stuff, because it’s filled with added sugar and salt, and the tins are lined with BPA plastic. Plus I always think it has a grey tinge that fresh and frozen corn just doesn’t have, which rather puts me off.

I resigned myself to only eating sweetcorn for the month of the year when it comes into season and I could buy fresh corn cobs. Along came the season, and with it more corn than I knew what to do with. And it occurred to me that I could process my own cobs and freeze the sweetcorn, plastic free! Why this epiphany took so long to come to me I have no idea. But at least it did, as I now have a supply of frozen sweetcorn in my freezer that should last me until next season.

It still makes me smile when I think about how obvious it was.

So if you’re like I was, and have no idea how to process corn, read on. If you were on that page years ago, I hope you feel a sense of satisfaction that I have finally caught up!

How to Freeze Sweetcorn

An average cob makes approximately 150g frozen sweetcorn.

corn1jpgRemove the green husks and as much of the silky stuff as you can.

Place the corn in a pan of unsalted boiling water (wait until it is boiling before adding the corn) and allow to boil for 5 minutes. This is called blanching.

Remove the corn with tongs and place immediately into a bowl of icy water. This will stop them from cooking. Let them sit for at least 5 minutes, until cool to touch.

To cut the kernels off, hold the cob upright and using a sharp knife, cut downwards in strips. The corn will fall off in chunks but is easily broken up with your fingers.

corn5jpg

corn10jpgcorn9jpg Break up any clumps with your fingers. Place in a suitable container. Try to pack the containers as tightly as possible to minimise freezer burn.

corn12jpgFreeze until you want to eat!

A month without.

Today is the 1st July. I quite like that it also happens to be a Monday. It feels like an even better day for the start of new things. Plastic Free July has started, so it’s a month without plastic. As we don’t buy anything much in plastic these days, it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge, but it’ll be good to keep us on our toes and keep track of anything that does come our way, which we will put in the dilemma bag. The dilemma bag is for all the plastic we just can’t do without, or the sneaky plastic that thwarts our attempts to buy plastic-free. When we first gave up plastic, we kept everything in a dilemma bag but we had nowhere to keep it so after a few months we decided to stop. But we’ll resume it for the month and see how much (hopefully none!) we accumulate. Read more

Plastic recycling: What Those Numbers Actually Mean

With Plastic Free July just around the corner, I thought it might be helpful to talk about plastic recycling, and why it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Recycling gives the impression that you can consume something, and then dispose of the packaging in a responsible manner, free of all guilt. But whilst recycling is a great last resort when the only other option is landfill, it should be remembered that it is the LAST resort. Have you ever heard the mantra ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’? There’s a reason that ‘recycle’ comes last! Now there’s a new mantra that is gaining popularity. This one goes ‘REFUSE, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle’. And that is what Plastic Free July is all about. Rather than worrying about disposing of plastic packaging responsibly, ask the question: do I actually need it in the first place?

If you’ve been happily consuming all that plastic because you know that you’ll recycle it responsibly when you’re done, maybe this post will change your mind. I used to be the same. But once I started to understand what plastic recycling actually meant, I began questioning everything I bought and I drastically reduced the plastic in my life.

So here is a guide to the different types of plastics, what they are used for and what they are recycled into – if they can actually even be recycled.

Let’s dispell a couple of myths!

Firstly, if you’re under the impression that your old plastic bottles can be recycled into shiny new plastic bottles, unfortunately you’re wrong! Plastic isn’t technically recycled, it’s downcycled, meaning it’s used to create a product of inferior quality and productivity. So whilst glass can (in theory) be recycled an infinite amount of times, plastic can only go through two or three cycles.

Secondly, just because you see the ‘recycling arrow’ on your plastic packaging it doesn’t mean that it’s actually recyclable. The arrow is meaningless. The number tells us what the plastic is made from, and so you can work out if it can be recycled. Just because plastic has the potential to be recycled, it doesn’t mean that your local council actually recycles it, either.

Plastic recycling – a guide to the numbers

If you don’t want to read this list (I’ll take no offence!) allow me to summarise it here. The majority of plastic products are not commonly recycled, and when they are, the major product is plastic ‘wood’ and garden furniture. Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen any attractive plastic recycled garden furniture, and I definitely have no desire for fake plastic wood products. Considering how much plastic gets recycled each year, that’s a LOT of plastic garden furniture. So rather than helping the environment by recycling your plastic, you’re actually adding more eyesores to public spaces everywhere!

If you do want to know more about what different types of plastics there are, whether they can be recycled and what they become, read on.

1. PET or PETE: polyethylene terephthalate

This is the plastic used to make clear bottles for soft drinks and water, plastic food jars for sauces and condiments.

Recycled into: bottles for cleaning products and non-food items; egg cartons; fibres/textiles (carpet, fleece, filling for winter coats).

2. HDPE: high-density polyethylene

This is the opaque plastic used to make milk bottles, oil/vinegar bottles, ice-cream tubs, bottles for toiletries and cleaning products.

Recycled into: recycling and compost bins; pipes; crates; flower pots; outdoor furniture.

3. PVC: polyvinyl chloride

This is the clear plastic used as food wrap, some squeezy bottles. Also used in flooring, plumbing pipes and hoses, children’s toys.

This is not commonly recycled, but can be used for: pipe, floor coverings.

4. LDPE: low-density polyethylene

This is used to make cling-film, most squeezy bottles, food bags and plastic carrier (shopping) bags.

This is not commonly recycled, but can be used for outdoor furniture; fence posts; tubing.

5. PP: polypropylene

This is the plastic used to make dairy food containers such as yoghurt pots and cheese containers, margarine containers, Tupperware and other plastic food storage boxes, and medicine bottles. Most plastic bottle tops are made out of this.

This is not commonly recycled, but can be used for outdoor furniture and planters.

6. PS: polystyrene

This includes colourless, transparent polystyrene and expanded polystyrene, which is more commonly known as styrofoam. This is used for takeaway food containers, hot beverage containers, food produce boxes and deli packaging.

This is not commonly recycled and predominantly makes two products, insulation and plastic ‘timber’. To recycle it has to be mixed in with new ‘virgin’ polystyrene.

7. Other

This includes polycarbonate, polylactide, bioplastics made from corn starch, acrylonitrile styrene, and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. Products made from these include high quality kitchen plastics, CDs, toys such as Lego, protective helmets, toothbrushes, the outer covers for electrical equipment such as printers, and medical storage containers.

These are not commonly recycled (and obviously depend on the material), but can be made into plastic ‘timber’ products.