Reduce, Reuse, and Refill

[ Many thanks to the Wiltshire Gazette and Herald for publishing my column about the importance of reducing waste and favouring reusable products over disposable. We create the future we want by working on it today … and won’t it be better if the next generation doesn’t have to clean up our mess? ]

Habits: whether good or bad, we all have them. Indeed, scientists estimate that up to 40% of what we do each day can be considered automatic behaviours. When it comes to the environment and the products we use, our habits tend to favour convenience over long-term sustainability. There’s the coffee purchased every morning in a disposable cup; the plastic bottle, sandwich carton, and bag of crisps grabbed at lunch; the plastic-swaddled fruit and veg collected during the weekly shop. All happen on autopilot, without deliberate thought as to the impact this packaging will have on the wider environment once it’s been disposed of.

But you only have to turn the clock back a decade to a Pixar movie about a little robot who goes on a big adventure. In WALL-E, it wasn’t a natural disaster that forced humans to flee Earth, but rather mountains of waste that crowded out space for all living things, leaving only the titular robot to clean up the mess. More recently, it’s taken David Attenborough and Blue Planet II to literally bring the problem of plastic pollution into the nation’s living rooms. As more and more people realise that an out of sight, out of mind mentality is killing wildlife and choking the planet with waste, a groundswell of support for alternatives is taking shape.

One such initiative is Plastic Free July, an international movement to encourage consumers to abstain from purchasing plastic throughout the month. Although July has come and gone, it is never too late to pick up new habits to prepare for next year. After all, nationwide habit change is possible. We only have to look to the effect of the plastic bag charge: a fee of 5p per bag has led to an 80% reduction in their use. Public pressure and petitions have brought about a ban of microbeads, switched cotton bud sticks from plastic to paper, and is currently encouraging a similar swap in straws.

On an individual level, the term ‘plastic free’ can be daunting, but City to Sea, the environmental organisation behind the push for nationwide Refill stations, offers PALL: Plastic A Lot Less. Starting with single-use plastics is an easy way to reduce your ‘wasteline’ while benefiting your wallet. For example, using a reusable water bottle and filling it with tap water instead of purchasing bottled water can make an enormous difference on both fronts. As Refill stations roll out across the country, it will become even easier to hydrate on the go. Just download the app or look for the blue Refill stickers in the windows of cafés, pubs, and restaurants to find your closest station.

Then there is my particular bugbear, disposable coffee cups. In the UK alone, 2.5 BILLION cups are sent to landfill each year; that B is not a typo. This is because they are not, in any real sense of the word, recyclable. There is, however, a simple fix: swap your takeaway cup for a reusable one. Some coffee shops are now charging for disposable cups or offering discounts for bringing your own, so this is a great way to get a daily dose of caffeine while saving a little dosh.

Many people are remembering to BYOB—bring your own bag—when going to the supermarket to save 5p, and there are a few other tricks that can help reduce waste. Reusable mesh veg bags are a great next step, and using them while shopping at your neighbourhood greengrocer is a fantastic way to support local businesses at the same time. Although not all supermarkets have changed with the times, many are also allowing you to BYOC—bring your own containers—for meat, deli, and bakery items.

When viewed as a game, finding new ways to swap plastic for natural or reusable materials becomes a fun challenge. There is no need to change everything in one go, or even to strive for perfection: as with many environmental issues, it boils down to doing what you can, when you can. By adopting a range of positive habits when it comes to packaging and waste, we can drop our plastic addiction for good.

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