Kate Crawfurd and I are calling our plastic waste spiral sculpture WASTE…OF OUR TIME.

Plastic pollution is a modern phenomenon. Plastic was invented just over a hundred years ago but it was not until the 1970s, when plastic started being produced at scale for single use ‘disposable’ items and packaging, that the issue of disposal of the resulting huge volumes of plastic waste became a major problem. Most plastic is produced from oil, gas or coal, so vested interests are involved in perpetuating our addiction to plastic and trying to convince us that recycling is the answer. Plastic is cheap, convenient, durable and useful. But its durability is one of the factors that makes it so dangerous in the natural environment. Toxic elements and plasticisers are frequently incorporated which can leach out during use, and subsequent disintegration into smaller and smaller pieces which may never completely disappear. Plastic is now everywhere: in the rivers and seas, in the soil and in the air, in the water we drink, the food that we eat and the clothes that we wear.

WASTE NOT, WANT NOT‘ was a mantra that I heard when I was growing up in rural Somerset, as well as ‘Make do and mend. It was the post war era and money was short. My father farmed before ‘organic’ was used to describe the process: the animal poo fertilised the fields, the grass and grain he grew fed the cattle and sheep, whey from the local cheese makers fed the pigs, and the garden produced our fruit and vegetables. Nothing went to waste. We often had ‘hand me down’ clothing from friends and cousins, and my mother stitched the sheets ‘sides to middle’ when they became worn. We wanted for nothing, feared nothing, and had a freedom that perhaps is missing in today’s society.

How can we return to a society that is less wasteful, that cherishes the things that we have and looks after them? That purchases with care that things that are needed, choosing the best quality affordable with a thought to sustainability and how long it might last? Or buys second-hand, or swops out something no longer needed?

Most plastic is difficult and expensive to recycle, which is why your local recycle scheme probably takes clear or white plastic bottles and firm plastic containers (which are viable to recycle) but not films, or packaging, or anything ‘contaminated’ with food or other plastics. Big companies who want to credit themselves with recycling often pay to have their difficult to recycle, disposable products eg. coffee cups (most have plastic liners) recycled, but this is expensive and uses a lot of energy. This is not sustainable. We should stop the production of single use plastic items where there is no alternative, or tax these items sufficiently that the sustainable option eg. a re-usable cup is the preferred choice.

Plastic has its place where there is no more sustainable alternative, as long as care is taken to ensure that it is recovered, recycled or efficiently disposed of at the end of its useful life. Where is the legislation to ensure that this happens?

And what about bio-plastics and compostable plastics? Whilst these will do less damage in the environment, these products are NOT generally recycled via your home recycling scheme in the UK, and could ‘contaminate’ other re-cyclable plastic collections making them unviable. In some areas they may be acceptable in kitchen waste collections for composting. In my locality these products are sent for incineration as there is no local industrial composting facility. Let’s hope in the future this situation will change.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to aim for a zero-waste society? Where everything produced is needed, used, re-used/re-purposed/shared, then recycled? Nature is good at it. Plants take up the nutrients they need from the soil and organisms in it, they grow and provide food, reproduce and die, decaying with the help of the soil organisms to become nutrients for other plants to grow. Natural materials fit into this cycle. We can re-use glass and metal containers for a life-time if we care for them. It is a difficult ‘ask’ in our consumer-driven society, but we must make the change for a sustainable future and for the health and well-being of us all.

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