The issue of single-use plastics has become a hot topic.
Some of the credit for that must go to Sky Television which launched an ‘Ocean Rescue’ campaign last year to highlight the impact plastic is having upon our seas globally.
They illustrated the need for such a campaign with the story of a dead whale that washed up in Norway with a stomach packed full of mistakenly consumed plastic items.
This campaign has helped to push the issue of plastic pollution to the forefront of public and political debate, with even the Conservative government talking recently about the need to tackle plastic waste.
It has also found expression locally as Derry City & Strabane District Councillors has unanimously voted to phase out single-use plastics from its operations.
Our society has been increasingly built around the availability and use of plastic - and for good reason. Plastics are multi-purpose materials that are cheap to produce, stable and lightweight, yet strong, and can be utilised in an extremely wide variety of roles.
The problems began, however, when that flexibility and low cost led to durable products - made previously from materials like wood, metal and glass - being replaced with single-use disposable plastic alternatives instead.
The plastics industry acknowledges that 40% of all plastic produced in Europe is used only once, which represents a huge waste of the energy, water and labour that goes into its production. The average family now uses 55kgs of plastics every year - enough to fill a bin lorry. And, as plastic takes between 100 and 1,000 years to break down in landfill, if the Vikings had been using it during their time in Ireland, we’d still be dealing with their waste even now.
Given the disposable nature of much of modern plastic and the fact that it takes an eternity to degrade, it’s no surprise that the world’s oceans have become inundated with debris that endangers wildlife.
And, closer to home, plastic waste is to be readily found littering many of Northern Ireland’s hedgerows, beaches, parks and town centres. So, whilst plastic may have had a positive and transformative impact upon modern life in general, its role in single-use items has been much less helpful – creating goods that are used only for minutes or hours but are then left as waste for the next millennium.
Three prominent examples of single-use plastics that have fallen under the spotlight in recent years are bottles, bags and drinking straws. Anyone over the age of forty will remember the experience of having to pay a deposit to purchase drinks in glass bottles when they were younger, before returning the empty container to the shops for a refund.
Deposit bottle schemes had disappeared here by the late 1980s, with flimsy plastic single-use alternatives taking their place. At the time, it probably felt like a positive step to no longer require people to return empty bottles. Until you consider that more than 13 billion single-use plastic bottles are now used in the UK every year - the equivalent of 200 per person.
With less than half of those bottles getting recycled, a huge amount of landfill waste is, therefore, being created just by disposable plastic drinks bottles - with ratepayers like you picking up the bill for doing so. Deposit-backed return schemes involving sturdy reusable plastic bottles have been the norm in many other European countries for decades and it is probably only a matter of time before Ireland or parts of the UK follow suit (with Scotland already considering it).
One single-use product where governments around the world have already taken action is the plastic bag. These items may feel like they’ve been around forever but were only invented in the 1970s – prior to which everyone used alternatives like paper or jute bags or those famous tartan-patterned trolleys which were once a common site.
Plastic bags were an incredibly useful alternative but became a victim of their own success – being given away needlessly with any and every purchase as if they carried no cost to people or society. But, as they started to turn up tangled in trees and swirling around city streets –and in landfill where, despite their minimal size, they constitute 2% of all waste – they became the poster child for needless single-use plastics and the subject of levies to reduce their proliferation. The Republic was a pioneer in this by introducing a 15c tax on plastic bags in 2002, with every part of the UK having followed suit by 2015.
That has led to six billion fewer plastic bags being handed out by major supermarkets in England alone every year, whilst Ireland experienced a 94% drop in the number of bags it was issuing almost overnight.
Plastic drinking straws are another single-use product very much under the spotlight these days. Whilst plastic bottles and bags serve a purpose which, at least helps to explain their existence, it is hard to make a credible argument that straws are anything other than a frivolity.
They are undoubtedly helpful for young children and others for whom sipping drinks presents a challenge - but for the vast majority they are an unnecessary plastic garnish added unthinkingly to the drinks we purchase in bars, restaurants and cafes, whether we wanted them or not.
The useful lifespan of these plastic drinking straws is measured in minutes, whilst the remainder of their existence is counted in centuries. Of all the needless single-use plastic products in abundance throughout modern society, drinking straws are surely the most difficult to justify.
Saturday (February 3) is ‘International Straw-Free Day’ in which people around the world are being encouraged to think twice about whether they really need a disposable piece of plastic in their drinks. Local environmental groups and students are combining to mark the event here in Derry with the launch of a ‘Say Naw to Straws’ campaign. The initiative is led by the Zero Waste North West group alongside the Eco-School Prefects at Thornhill College, and will see students approaching locally-owned cafes in the city centre to request their support in phasing out plastic straws. As well as doing their bit for the environment and saving their business a few quid, outlets that are willing to come onboard will be given posters and materials by the students to help explain the initiative to customers. Even before officially launching, the campaign has already signed up its first willing partner - with the Walled City Brewery in Ebrington agreeing to phase out its single-use plastic straws. It is hoped that more and more outlets will also ‘say naw to straws’.
The Derry Journal is also putting its support behind the ‘Say Naw To Straws’ campaign and will be covering its progress over the coming weeks. If you run a business locally which currently offers disposable plastic straws to your staff or customers, let us know if you’re willing to phase them out. And, if you’re an ordinary customer, the next time you find yourself in a bar or a cafe, make a point of telling the staff there that you don’t need a straw in your drink. Say naw to straws and let’s all help to make it the last straw for Derry. Steve Bradley is a commentator and Regeneration Consultant from Derry. He can be followed on Twitter at @Bradley_Steve