plastic

Habits of compassion at university and beyond

Heading off to university can be exciting and nerve-wracking in equal measure. There are lots of changes to get used to: having more independence, living away from home (maybe for the first time) and coping with your studies. With all of these things comes more responsibility and it certainly took me a little while to learn what this responsibility meant in terms of how I treat the planet and those with whom I share it.

For many people university is the first time that they begin to see what part they have to play in a global society. Once you have left the familiar surroundings of where you were brought up the world starts to seem like a much bigger place. All of our actions have consequences and as we start to take control of our own decisions we are able to choose to have a positive impact with these actions rather than detrimental ones.

This idea of everything we decide to do every single day having an impact on someone’s life somewhere else in the world can be overwhelming.

Or it can be so exciting! What if, as we head off to university and figure out what adulthood means for us, we commit to making a positive statement with our every action. We commit to standing up against modern day slavery, we commit to standing up for our planet and all of those people and animals across the world with whom we share it.

I will admit when I first arrived at university I had no idea about what this responsibility really meant for me. Just coping with all the changes seemed to be enough to deal with. I had never heard of living ‘zero waste’ and I was blind to the devastating effects our consumerist habits were having across the world. I had no idea of the issue of plastic and I certainly didn’t think anything of my rubbish once I had thrown it in the bin.

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Three years on and I am now so aware of how important it is to become aware of our responsibility as global citizens during these crucial years at university so that you can take those principals with you throughout the rest of your life. University is a time for having fun, for sure, for making friends and memories. But it is also a real time of moulding, and how incredible would it be if every university student graduated with a changed heart for the world around them and a sustainable view of consumerism? Our world would have a much better chance if this was the case!

I have been involved in an organisation called Just Love whilst studying and it has been such an integral part of helping me to understand how my actions effect our planet. I learnt about living ‘zero waste’, ended up running a Zero Waste Week and became so much more aware about how I can stand up against modern day slavery in the consumer choices I make. Do check them out – they might have a group running at your university!

So, as you settle in to your new university life or if you are facing final year what can you do to make a positive statement with each of your choices?

Don’t buy any more bottled water. Grab yourself a reusable, preferably metal, bottle and although it might seem pricey to start with it will save you money in the long run and the world will thank you. Check out these great brands: Klean Kanteen, Chillys and One Green Bottle. Watch this space for Glogg bottles too – coming in 2018!

That coffee that keeps you awake during lectures? Don’t let it harm the earth. Make a commitment to choosing Fairtrade and stand up against slavery and poor working conditions. The same goes for tea, chocolate (and many other things besides). If it costs a little more then maybe buy a little less. Standing up for the rights of your global neighbour is much more important. Invest in a reusable coffee cup too, the stats for the disposable type are pretty scary, we throw away 2.5 billion in the UK every year…

Realised you’ve left your warm jumper at home and the weather has turned? Before you make that purchase, think about who made it. Are you causing harm by supporting modern day slavery? Check what the retailer has to say about the supply chain, is it transparent? There are lots of great companies online who are committed to ethical fashion so do have a look – Annie Greenabelle, Thought, Birdsong, Sundried. Again, if they are a little more than you would usually spend on a student budget, just be happy with less. Don’t forget charity shops offer some great bargains too! On the topic of charity shops, I have found nearly all of my kitchen utensils in them. Much better for the environment than buying new and it can be fun to see what you can find – I’ve found cake tins, a colander, and ramekins!

Consumerism is having a detrimental effect on our planet, it’s time to start bucking the trend of materialism. Often it can be tempting when you’re living off a tight budget to just buy the cheapest option but what statement are you making about your attitude towards the planet by doing that?

When it comes to food, an absolute necessity for those hard-working brains, have a look to see what markets your university town boasts. Does it have a bulk shop? Don’t pollute the oceans with pointless plastic packaging, just don’t do it. Vegetables were meant to be free! I have found a great way of cooking cheaply, avoiding food waste and using up leftovers is to make soup. A great winter warmer too! There are thousands of recipes online or just throw whatever you have in your fridge together and enjoy the experimentation!

One final note. Think of all those laptops, tablets, and phones that students must own between them…that’s a lot right! Technology has become disposable too and it’s shocking when you think of where some of the metals come from to make these things. Slavery and conflict are so bound up with the mining for these metals, a lot of which happens in the developing world. Think hard about whether you really need that upgrade: could you grab a second hand deal or even invest in a Fairphone? When your phone really does give up do your research and find out where you can recycle it so the parts can be reused. The planet says thank you.

If you’re interested in reading more about supply chains and the impact on the environment of slavery to show just how much consumer choices do make a difference I would recommend Kevin Bales’ book, ‘Blood and Earth’.

Your university years might well be some of the best in your life (or that could just be a cliché) but one thing is for sure, the habits you make whilst there will stay with you. Let’s make those habits thoroughly earth-loving and compassionate to everyone we share this incredible world with.

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Did you know about these fantastic alternatives to plastic?

We all know that plastic has become a huge problem. We have seen the horrendous images of huge piles of plastic that have been dumped, the plastic that has been caught around marine life after making its way to our oceans, and generic public bins that have been filled with a mix of recyclable plastic and food waste. But it only takes one brisk walk around the local supermarket to see the huge amount of products that use plastic as part of their packaging, whether that be the plastic around vacuum packed toys, or the plastic that surrounds a packet of plum tomatoes. Plastic is everywhere, so how can we prevent this huge problem? The answer is a simple one, we reduce our plastic intake.

The good news is, with an increased awareness of what plastic is doing to our planet, a huge variety of companies and product manufacturers are working hard to use less plastic, and come up with plastic alternatives for every day products.

Why is plastic such a problem?

Although some plastics may seem worse than others, for example, surely the thick, sturdy packaging plastic that protects electrical products is worse than the very thin plastic that holds a pack of peppers, right? Well, although it is of course better to use far less plastic, all plastic is actually made of carbon, together with other materials, that are all heated, broken down and then built up again, to form a plastic resin that can be expertly shaped to fit any desired product packaging. This carbon comes from oil, which is a fossil fuel and is incredibly harmful to our planet.

The resources that plastic is made from are also non-renewable, which means that our current heavy reliance on them as an everyday product is not sustainable. Together with this, the processes that are used to create plastics are also very damaging to our environment, as they produce harmful gases which pollutes our air, land and water.

What does this mean about the future of our planet?

Plastics on earth have become a waste nightmare, mainly because the majority of them do not biodegrade. This means that instead of disintegrating over time, they instead remain intact, often for an infinite amount of years, before they start breaking down into smaller pieces. This is the reason why plastics are such a threat for our wildlife, both on land and in the ocean.

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What are the alternatives?

Although this may sound like a lot of doom and gloom, if we all do a little, by committing to making a few small changes, together we can achieve a lot.

As consciousness increases around the planet’s plastic problem, many companies are coming up with plastic alternatives whilst maintaining the quality of their original products. This means that you can still enjoy the benefits of using the items that you have always liked, without harming the planet. Below are just a few examples of every day products that now have excellent plastic-free alternatives.

Toothbrushes. Everyone uses a toothbrush, and everyone buys a new one after theirs has worn down every few months. So you can imagine just how many toothbrushes have been produced and purchased since the day that they were first invented. This also means that every single plastic toothbrush that has ever been produced is still intact somewhere on the planet; most likely in the ocean. I recently read a statistic which claimed that 1.3 billion toothbrushes are found in the sea every single year. Hearing this shocking statistic really startled me, and I went searching for alternatives immediately. Since that day I have been using toothbrushes made of bamboo, and even got one for each of my family members, who have been converted too! Bamboo toothbrushes are completely biodegradable, meaning that they just break down without harming the planet. And what’s great is that they work just as well as standard plastic toothbrushes, lasting just as long, working just as well and even being cheaper!

Single-use items. If we write down every single item that we use in a typical month, chances are that a lot of these are single-use plastic items that are easily avoidable if we are mindful. Just one example is coffee cups, which are now also being made from bamboo, are reusable, and some coffee shops are even offering discounts on hot drinks if you bring your own cup. These are becoming increasingly popular too, which means that they are being created in a stunning range of creative designs and colours. What’s not to like? As well as this is the plastic knife, fork and spoon that you get with your takeaway lunch. Next time you’re faced with this, ask yourself whether you really need those items that you will simply throw away after one use? Can you get your cutlery from the canteen at work? Or how about keeping a knife and fork from home in your bag to use whenever you need them?

And of course a major item is the plastic water bottle, of which 20,000 are currently being bought every second! I believe that in today’s world, there is just no need to buy single-use plastic bottles when there are so many great alternatives that come in sturdy material that can last years. And finally, single-use plastic bags. The 5p law in shops has been great for reducing our use of single-use carriers, but there is still a long way to go to eradicate plastic bags all together. With so many great canvas designs for fold-up bags that fit in any pocket, there’s no excuse to ever use a plastic bag again.

Plastic cotton buds. Perhaps not as obvious as other major plastic pollutants, cotton buds are a huge problem. I recently saw a very striking and thought provoking image which showed a beautiful little seahorse, with its tail wrapped around a plastic cotton bud. Whilst cotton buds are another common item, the alternative is really simple. You can now purchase cotton buds that look exactly the same, except the plastic part is made of paper.

Plastic wrapped vegetables. For me, there’s something fulfilling about going to a greengrocers and choosing my own vegetables, as opposed to picking up a multipack of pre-selected greens. Perhaps that feeling is just me being a little weird, but regardless, there is no real need for vegetables to be wrapped in the amount of plastic that they are. From a consumer’s point of view, it doesn’t even work out cheaper to buy multipacks, and by being selective, it means that it is a lot easier to only select the amount of fruit or vegetables that you know you will eat.

As you can see, there are many alternatives to everyday items that do not contain plastic, but work just as well. With all of the information that we now have available, together with the shocking images displaying the damage that our excessive plastic use is doing to our planet, now is the time to step up and make a change. If every single person changes just a few things in their daily plastic buying habits, it will have a huge impact on the future of our Earth.

What are you going to do?

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Are you ready for Zero Waste Week?

Every year the UK produces over 200 million tonnes of waste. With less than half of this figure being successfully recycled, we are still seeing an alarming amount of waste going into landfill, incinerators and even our oceans.

Single-use plastics are fast becoming one of the planet’s deadliest pollutants, remaining in our environment for between 400-1000 years. Instead of biodegrading, these plastics break down into smaller and smaller particles – especially in the ocean where they are subject to friction, salt and UV rays. Plastics then cause havoc at every level of the food-chain with even the tiniest micro-plastics being consumed by plankton. Plastic doesn’t just find it’s way into the food-chain from the bottom however, as countless larger animals also accidentally consume larger pieces. It’s worryingly easy to find stories online of whales discovered with stomachs full of plastic – from the beached whale in Spain who died from ingesting plastic waste, to the 13 sperm whales found dead in Germany with a variety of plastic items in each of their stomachs. Of course, it’s not just whales who suffer, as marine debris has been documented to affect more than 267 species worldwide, including turtles, dolphins, birds, fish, sea lions and many more.

Now take into account the tens of millions of barrels of oil used to produce these damaging plastic items in the first place, and we’ve got a serious environmental problem on our hands.

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We all know that recycling is a great way to minimise our impact on the environment, but there is a growing argument that emphasis needs to be put on reducing the amount of waste created in the first place. By making a few simple changes in our daily lives – such as not using plastic bags, plastic water bottles or other single use items – we can have a huge impact on the health of our planet and it’s inhabitants.

This is where Zero Waste Week comes in. Started in 2008 by Rachelle Strauss, Zero Waste Week is a grassroots campaign aimed at raising awareness of the environmental impact of waste and empowering participants to reduce waste in their daily lives. As well as helping householders and businesses audit their waste and recycle appropriate items, the campaign also seeks to encourage people to ditch single-use items, or to re-use them in creative ways.

Now in it’s tenth year the Zero Waste Week campaign is hugely popular all over the world, and for good reason. As more and more consumers are waking up to the damage caused by plastics and other non-recyclable materials, there is a growing desire to do more, and use less. Whilst many retailers are slow to warm-up to this trend, there are at least some forward thinking businesses who are shunning the unnecessary plastic wrapping and going greener for the environment.

Zero Waste Week runs from the 4th to the 8th of September, but it’s not about making changes for just one week. It’s about looking at what we waste – be it plastics, food, clothing or household items – and making positive lifestyle changes for the sake of the planet.

As the oft-mentioned 2050 approaches, bringing with it a raft of terrifying environmental predictions, it’s time for significant improvements to be made. Inactivity will only make things worse, and waiting for businesses or governments to lead the way will not bring positive change soon enough. It’s therefore up to each and every one of us to do what we can to reduce the amount of waste entering our environment, and to control what materials we are using in our homes.

Get Involved

Joining Zero Waste Week is a great way to kick-start your journey into a less wasteful lifestyle. Simply click here to sign up to the Zero Waste Week community, and get daily newsletters throughout the week itself, as well as a free e-book and regular updates and tips throughout the year.

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Plastic pollution: what is it doing to our oceans?

As I settled down to watch the new Netflix documentary ‘Chasing Coral’, the follow up to ‘Chasing Ice’ I was feeling a little apprehensive about what I would learn. I knew one thing for sure, I was very excited to see the acclaimed camera skills, stunning colours of the ocean, and fascinating sea creatures, but what I would discover underneath all that was the very visual realisation of what is happening beneath the ocean, a place that not many of us fully understand.

Whilst the main reason behind the dramatic devastation of the corals in the documentary was due to coral bleaching caused by climate change, another key influence that is destroying our oceans is plastic. And I believe that reducing our plastic consumption is something that each of us can do very easily, which can make a huge impact. So that is what I am going to discuss today.

Like most people, I knew that plastic is rapidly damaging our planet, I knew that we do not use the planet’s natural resources sustainably enough, and I knew that there are many alternatives to plastic that we are not utilising. But until recently I did not fully understand the full extent of the damage that using so much plastic is doing to our planet. And the major factor that makes plastic pollution so damaging is the fact that it simply does not break down, and actually takes thousands of years for the smallest plastic product to decay.

What is plastic pollution?

When many of us think about the word ‘pollution’ we often envisage gas, fumes and smoke; the type of things that are caused by air pollution from excessive use of fossil fuels. But in fact, pollution is officially defined as “the introduction of harmful substances or products into the environment.” This leads us to understand that not only can an accumulation of any given product become pollution, but also that volumes of plastic have become so high on our planet that they are severely damaging our planet.

The recent news that an estimated 38 million pieces of plastic were discovered on an island almost entirely untouched by humans was a serious wake up call. Henderson Island is a tiny, uninhabited island located in the eastern South Pacific, and despite being one of the world’s most remote places, it was recently found to contain 99.8% pollution plastic, which equals to almost 18 tonnes.

Whilst scientists thought that the fact that this island is located in such a remote part of the world would safeguard it from plastic pollution, sadly this was not the case. Although no people live on the island, it is home to many creatures that are essential to the ecosystem, but are seriously affected by the plastic that has washed up in their home. Hundreds of crabs were found to be living in discarded plastic items such as bottle caps, and even a doll’s head.

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What is plastic doing to our wildlife?

Currently, plastic pollution statistics state that one rubbish truck full of plastic is being dumped into the ocean every single minute. On top of this, when plastic is taken to rubbish dumps and landfill sites, the pollutants that are in the plastics eventually get released into the surrounding earth, which over time affects both wildlife and ground water leading to the ocean for many years.

While we have all seen photos of various fish in the ocean being tangled in plastic rubbish, what we don’t often realise is that every single life in the ocean is affected by plastic pollution. Tiny organisms such as plankton are ingesting plastic, which poisons their system. This then results in a knock-on effect for all of the sea-life that rely on plankton for their own source of food, and so forth down the food chain, even up to the fish that we are consuming each day.

How does this affect us?

Each one of us is dependent on the health of the sea. Our oceans control the weather, climate, and are a source of life in itself. The huge body of water that covers 71% of our planet is what makes our planet unique within the universe. On top of this, our oceans contain 97% of the Earth’s water that is crucial for our survival, as well as being the main source of food for millions of people around the world.  On our planet, just our reefs alone are a source of income for over 500 million people.

What can we do about it?

Many people are under the illusion that because plastic is everywhere, we cannot avoid using it. And whilst there are currently no alternatives to some essential products that we use, there are many small and simple changes that we can all put in place to make a huge difference. Some examples of these are:

  • Use foldable cloth bags when you go shopping instead of disposable plastic ones
  • Don’t purchase items that come with lots of unnecessary plastic packaging
  • Ditch the disposable water bottles and instead purchase a refillable one
  • Be smart, and think ahead. When you decide to get lunch out, ask yourself whether you really need the plastic knife, fork and spoon that they hand out to you. Instead, can you use cutlery from your work canteen or bring in your own?
  • Recycle everything that you can. Look up the type of plastics that your local council allow you to recycle and make sure you stick to it
  • Purchase biodegradable products whenever you can. There are currently many every day items with these sustainable alternatives on the market, from cutlery to toothbrushes.

It is essential that we urgently reduce our plastic consumption, because as Underwater Photographer and founder of The Ocean Agency, Richard Vevers, stated in Chasing Coral, “Without a healthy ocean we do not have a healthy planet”.

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Our Plastic Problem

We have an uncomfortable yet undeniable truth on our hands. We live in a world of plastic. The unfortunate reality is that this man-made material is taking over and is well on its way to drowning the very man that makes it.

We come across plastic in every area of our lives, every minute of every day. It is a convenient solution to allow us to live the fast-paced, on-the-go lifestyle we all know so well. But just how convenient has it turned out to be? It seems quite the opposite is closer to the truth. Over the last ten years we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century and half of this is only used once before being thrown away. We have come to see this indestructible material as disposable. Clever, or not? I believe we have a very serious problem here. Plastic does not break down, it never will. It breaks up. It breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces which are causing havoc in our natural environments and have even made it into our food chain. This is a dangerous reality which is affecting every part of the natural world. Plastic has been found in salt, fish and seafood which most of us consider a normal part of a human diet.

I first came across the magnitude of this plastic problem at university when I became involved in the environmental section of Just Love. I have since been utterly convicted that it is up to every single one of us to sort out this problem we have all had a part in creating.

A small anecdote. I made it into work early one morning and found a coffee shop to do some people watching. I sat in as I thought this way I would avoid the dreaded disposable coffee cup situation. Apparently not. It seems that now, even if you sit in you receive your coffee in a disposable cup! So I find myself in a pickle with this cup on my hands and feeling irritated at the prospect of coffee shops ditching the crockery altogether. On top of this, even as I sat there, 7 full bags of rubbish were carried out and it wasn’t even 8:30am. I am easily frustrated at this issue as it seems clear that we have become so immune to the idea of rubbish. Out of sight, out of mind. Sadly, the reality is not so simple. Having seen the recent documentary film, ‘A Plastic Ocean’ – I cannot recommend it enough – I am no longer ignorant of the truth that rubbish is literally taking over in some places. We are all part of this problem. We continue to demand plastic packaging every time we do our weekly shop of multi-pack peppers and shrink wrapped broccoli.

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My conviction has led me to explore the idea of a ‘zero-waste’ lifestyle. Sounds wacky? This is no stylish fad aiming for minimalist white walls and single-stem pot plants. This is a real attempt at combatting a real issue which affects so many people and our planet. It is definitely clear that plastic is chosen for convenience and time-saving. This is hardly surprising as the fast-paced, busy lives which we lead demand as much efficiency as possible and this often leads to packaged items being chosen over homemade zero-waste options. Time is precious, I understand this but our beautiful world is also precious. Therefore, making some homemade brownies, flapjacks or a sandwich to take to work seems like a very do-able step to avoiding the biscuit and crisp packets in the lunchtime meal deal. Also, as a bonus, it’s cheaper too!

I don’t have all the answers and haven’t yet sussed out this alternative way of living,  I’m still walking the walk one step at a time but I would love to share some of the top tips for zero waste living which I have found very helpful. Hopefully this will encourage you to take up the challenge yourself! There are changes we can make in our homes and offices to ditch the plastic for good.

Before you get started, if you’ve yet to warm up to this idea that life is better without plastic why not commit to keeping every piece of disposable plastic for a month. I can testify to what a humbling experience this can be. It certainly opened up my eyes.

So, tip number one: Go for bamboo when it comes to brushing your teeth. Every piece of plastic that has ever been made still exists. So that means every toothbrush is still out there somewhere. Bamboo toothbrushes are easily available, inexpensive and completely biodegradable. Win, win, win. (www.savesomegreen.co.uk)

Take two: …but not two disposable coffee cups. In fact never take one again. They are not currently recycled in this country and we certainly do get through a fair few. Get yourself a reusable cup (they come in bamboo too!) and never look back.

Finally: Take the plunge and go loose when you buy your fruit and veg. Only buy the vegetables you need, none of this multi-pack business and save on the food waste as well as the polymers. Bananas have their own skin, they don’t need an extra plastic one to make it home.

There is a lot of information out there on zero waste living and how this can work practically. Have a browse and get creative!

Together we can make a stand against plastic and the problems it causes and begin to halt the suffocating effect it is having all across the world. Our planet is far too precious and we can all play our small, yet significant part, in showing it some love.

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