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Baroness Bennett: It’s time we stop the production of unnecessary single-use plastic

4 min read

The recycling of plastics isn't working, we need to make crucial environmental changes, such as introducing a bottle deposit scheme, to stop people using so much unnecessary single-use plastic, writes Baroness Bennett. 

In a Sheffield supermarket last week, I picked up a yoghurt pot on which the company proudly proclaimed the black plastic lid used special dye that made it “recyclable”.

Such a lot of effort, technology and human ingenuity, going into something so apparently simple. And pointless.

Just because it is “recyclable”, doesn’t mean it is going to be recycled. In fact, given we’ve been trained to know that black plastic isn’t, the percentage of those lids likely to be recycled is extremely low. In Sheffield we’re explicitly told yoghurt pots can’t be.

The whole recycling of plastics (and most other materials) is a terrible mess of confusion, uncertainty and localised variations, as Green London Assembly member Caroline Russell has exposed for the capital.

In Sheffield, the dry recycling rate (glass, cans, plastics, paper, and cardboard) is just 27%, and a glance into brown or blue bins on collection day will show rampant confusion about what’s supposed to go in them.

The focus on recyclability is one giant con, a distraction from the clear need on this plastic-choked planet to stop all production of unnecessary single-use plastic, which is pretty well all of it on the high street.

Also a con are the claims of “waste from energy”. Yes, it is better than straight incineration or landfill, but that’s like saying it is better to be punched in the arm than the head. (And Sheffield, with the maw of an incinerator to feed, is one of many local authorities with little incentive to dodge the punch of resource waste in those contaminated bins.)

The Hierarchy of Waste Management has been around for a long time, but the people making money from manufacturing single-use packaging and those maximising their profits by using it don’t like to mention that recycling is the poor third choice in the pyramid. “Reduce” and “reuse” are the gold and silver medalists.

When talk does turn to reducing and recycling, far too often the onus is laid on individuals to act. “Just buy the options without packaging, or bring your own,” is the suggestion, but that ignores the practicalities of life.

I carry a reusable coffee cup as standard, and if I haven’t got it I go without a caffeine infusion. But if I have five minutes to catch a train, and the only lunch I’m going to get is from a shop at the station, dominated as they nearly all are these days by multinational chain stores, it is plastic or go hungry. I’ll buy something wrapped in plastic. Reusable containers aren’t offered.

Even for the coffee and tea, why should it be necessary to bring your own cup? It wouldn’t be hard to have a deposit scheme for standardised cups, which could be taken back to any store. Buy your coffee in St Pancras, leave the cup in Leicester. The same could be done for sandwiches.

Yes, that means the shops would have to wash them, which requires labour, otherwise known as jobs. But they’d bear the cost, rather than all of us carrying the externalised costs of environmental degradation and litter while they walk away with windfall profits.

Yet of course in England we haven’t even yet managed the simple measure of a bottle deposit scheme, despite the number of times Michael Gove as Environment Secretary announced his liking for the idea. On most of the Continent this is standard.

But that still takes energy and even there not everything is recycled. Much better to have reusable containers instead.

Back to that yoghurt. In France I’ve bought it from a small local producer in a glass pot. Which can be taken back to the shop you brought it from, or in my case, since I brought it home, used again and again. It makes a brilliant container for home-made jam.

That isn’t rocket science. It is using the minimum of good, reusable materials well.

That’s what this planet, stretched to its physical limits, needs - and like so many other environmental changes we need, it also makes our lives better.

That French yoghurt is some of the best I’ve ever tasted. The environmental emergency is an opportunity to make life better.


Baroness Bennet is a Green Member of the House of Lords. 

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Read the most recent article written by Baroness Bennett - System Change, Not Climate Change: Why Business as Usual Won't Suffice