The six month bin
Somewhere in the stretch of the Pacific between California and the scattered islands of Hawaii, the North Pacific Gyre swirls. In its centre the water, trapped by the circling ocean currents, lies still.
Anything that ends up within the gyre, any object carried on ocean waves or wind streams, is caught there, unable to leave. And in our modern society, that means plastic.
In 1997 a racing boat captain, Charles Moore, was sailing from Hawaii to California when he noticed millions of pieces of plastic surrounding his ship. Plastic doesn't biodegrade, but instead breaks down into ever smaller pieces as a result of the twin impacts of the sea and the sun. So rather than seeing acres of floating plastic bottles as you might expect (though those exist), Moore was looking at the result of those objects having been weathered and worn, effectively filling the ocean both above and beneath the surface. "All we could see was plastic," he wrote, and dubbed it ‘the Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ – an area of debris three times the size of France filled with an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic.
We’re growing more aware of our problem with plastic. From its early days being hailed as a miracle material – durable, waterproof – fragments of it now outnumber the fish in our oceans. Microplastics sink to the ocean floor where they enter the food chain, ending up in the food we eat and the water we drink.
‘Recycling’ is the buzz word of our time, but we forget that there are two ‘R’s before it: reduce and reuse. With revelations that the plastics we put in the recycling might end up burning in incinerators, or sitting in landfill sites on the other side of the world, it seems that the most simple and reliable answer to our plastic problem is to just stop using it.
So this would be my challenge: could I avoid single-use plastic for an entire year?
Looking in my shopping basket, it seems that most of the plastic I accrue is from food, with some from toiletries or household items. The big stuff is easy: a refillable bottle of water while I'm out and about. A reusable cup for my tea. Always refusing a plastic bag at the counter.
A new wave of refill shops means that, in addition to cleaning products such as washing up liquid, store cupboard staples are pretty easy to come by. Pasta, rice, lentils, beans, nuts, porridge oats – even herbs and spices in some shops. As a vegan that’s not far off what I eat anyway. There are aisles of unpackaged vegetables and tins of beans and tomatoes in my local grocery shop – it's certainly possible to make the majority of my meals without involving any plastic.
Bread comes in a plastic bag so I start making my own. It’s labour intensive but it's so much more delicious and good for you, i.e not stuffed full of preservatives. The slow thud of the dough as I pull and roll, pull and roll, is therapeutic and satisfying. I believe that taking things back to their fundamental processes is as good for our soul as it is for the planet.
I can't live without snacks, so I start making oat cakes and flapjacks too, and even hummous. I'm not dedicated enough to make crisps, though, or crumpets. Those are probably the hardest to let go.
It’s difficult to keep something going for such a long time as 12 months. It takes concerted effort and sometimes laziness or convenience takes over. I break the rules when it's someone else’s bin. The handful of times I find myself in a supermarket rather than a refill shop I curse the retail giants that put bananas in a bag, or shrink-wrap cabbage.
But generally, there is a lot to be gained from attempting a challenge such as this. Making a concerted effort to avoid something as ubiquitous as plastic not only highlights just how much of it there is around, but opens up the channels to avoiding it. I have always believed in consumer power, and this has only confirmed that: I will continue to cycle five miles to the nearest refill shop in the knowledge that one day there will be one nearer; I will continue to buy recycled toilet roll in a compostable bag, even though it’s more expensive, because I choose to invest in the company that makes it.
And my efforts do have a measurable impact. Each piece of plastic I don’t buy is one less piece of plastic at the bottom of the ocean.
Usually I empty my bin every few weeks. Now, it's six months.