Waste not: A-Z guide to cutting down on plastics in the home

Households should set realistic targets to minimise single-use plastic

R is for the recycling “myth”. Only 6 per cent of new plastic material comes from recycling. Photograph: Getty Images

R is for the recycling “myth”. Only 6 per cent of new plastic material comes from recycling. Photograph: Getty Images

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When Íde Mhic Gabhann set up her own organic food business last year, it was for practical rather than philanthropic reasons. She had been buying in bulk, and was running out of space.

“Our kitchen just got very full, and it seemed the sensible thing to do,”she says of the move she and her husband, Ciarán, made to start selling package-free food and household goods.

Coffee and tea, pulses, dried fruits, herbs, spices and grains are among the items the couple’s Bring Your Own community now supplies to several markets in Co Kildare and Meath, and at the Smallchanges Whole Foods Store in Drumcondra, Dublin.

Mhic Gabhann, who lives in Dublin 8, and Molly Aylesbury of Bare Necessities are fellow organisers of Ireland’s fourth zero-waste festival in Dublin later this month, and part of a growing movement providing an antidote to the current plastic crisis.

That’s if “crisis” is the right word for China’s decision to restrict plastic imports. In fact it may have done us all a big favour, coming so soon after BBC television’s Blue Planet II images of a sperm whale chocking on a plastic bucket and turtles trapped in plastic bags.

A turtles trapped in plastic on the BBC’s Blue Planet 2
A turtles trapped in plastic on the BBC’s Blue Planet 2

Practitioners such as Mhic Gabhann and Aylesbury advise setting realistic targets and taking small steps towards a home free of single-use plastic. Here’s an A to Z.

A is for an audit of your home, car, workplace as a first step. A is also for alternatives, such as keeping cups for hot drinks, reusable water bottles, and bamboo, ceramic and stainless steel dishes for storage. A is also for Attenborough – David – who has highlighted the impact of plastics, and for advice on social media and in print. Try Bea Johnson’s Zero Waste Home, or Life Without Plastic by Canadian couple Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha.

B is for bills, which may rise initially, but fall again when shopping is confined to bare essentials. B is for baking soda, which can be used for toothpaste, to wash dishes and as a general household cleaner. B is also for big business, which feeds our addiction, but moral persuasion rather than confrontation is the route taken by the foundation set up by round-the-world sailor Ellen MacArthur.

C is for the Conscious Cup campaign, which has a handy map of coffee shops offering discounts for reusable cups. C is also for clothing with plastic content. No point discarding rainproof gear, but hunt out natural fibres such as cotton, linen and wool for tops. C is for Cashel, Co Tipperary, which has set a goal of becoming a zero-waste town. C is also for consumer power, and for cost, which many argue makes avoiding single-use plastic a luxury unless there is State support.

D is for disposables,as in the compostable kind, and detergents, which come in evil plastic pods. Aim for the large cardboard box version.

E is for the EU, which says plastic packaging must be recyclable by 2030, as part of a “circular economy”. The European plastics industry employs almost 1.5 million people and has a €350 billion annual turnover; hence the EU packaging directive militates against an outright plastic ban.

F is for those “feckables”, nickname for the free shampoo, soap and shower caps in hotels. Resist! F is for the fridge, repository of much plastic. F is also for festivals, such as the fourth Zero Waste Festival in the Art and Business Campus, Drumcondra, Dublin on February 25th.

G is for the Great Pacific Garbage patch, for Greenpeace, which has an excellent plastic use calculator on its website, and for Galway, which was the first Irish city to introduce a public three-bin waste system, and which is running a plastic-free week to discourage single-use plastic from February 5th.

H is for the health benefits of avoiding the various chemicals in plastics, some of which are hormone-disrupting and some of which leach into food and drink. And for hankies of the cotton kind.

I is for Iceland, the food retailer that stole a marketing march on rivals by pledging to eliminate plastic packaging from its own-brand products by the end of 2023.

J is for glass jars for storing food, preferably with stainless steel or screw-top lids to avoid the plastic seal.

A Coastwatch volunteer collected this waste in one outing on a small stretch of coastline between Garrarus beach and Kilfarrasy Beach on the Co Waterford coastline. The haul includes a fridge and many plastic bottles.
A Coastwatch volunteer collected this waste in one outing on a small stretch of coastline between Garrarus beach and Kilfarrasy Beach on the Co Waterford coastline. The haul includes a fridge and many plastic bottles.

K is for keep cups, already branded as the first designed to barista-standard size. Coffee from a glass keep cup is delicious, but I’ve already broken two, so lightweight plastic may be unavoidable. K is also for Klee Paper, the north Dublin-based family-run company with a strong environmental focus, selling wooden pens, bags, soaps, toilet roll, mooncups and cotton tampons, among many other things. It delivers anywhere in Ireland.

L is for list, which will grow shorter as you stock up, and for lint filter for washing machines to snare microbeads. L is also for labelling, which needs to be larger and frequently checked. Check the small print – “BPA-free” plastic may only mean replacing hormone-disrupting Bisphenol-A for other chemicals.

M is for farmers’ and food markets that sell loose vegetables, fruit and paper-packed meat and fish. And for marine litter, including tiny microbeads in cosmetics and care products, which Ireland is planning to ban. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicts there will be more plastics in the ocean than fish by weight by 2050 if nothing is done. Natural biodegradable alternatives include salt, apricot kernels, ground nutshells and jojoba beads.

N is for nappies, as in cloth or the compostable kind sold by Ecobaby and others here since 1995.

O is for oil, as a more natural alternative for moisturising skin. Organic silk fabric pieces shredded can make for plastic-free dental floss.

P is for plastic types, and petitions such as that run by Friends of the Earth and partners, seeking a deposit and return scheme on plastic bottles and cans, and a levy on single-use plastic items such as coffee cups. Six main plastic types are:

PS (polystyrene): foam hot drink cups, plastic cutlery, containers and yogurt.

PP (polypropylene): lunchboxes, takeaway food containers, ice-cream containers.

LDPE (low-density polyethylene): dust bins and bags and clingfilm.

PVC (plasticised polyvinyl chloride or polyvinyl chloride): cordial, juice or squeeze bottles and food trays.

HDPE (high-density polyethylene): shampoo containers or milk bottles.

PET (polyethylene terephthalate): fruit juice and soft drink bottles.

Q is for the quick-start method advocated by Plamondon and Sinha, for simple, slow and sustainable change.

The plastic bag charge was introduced in 2002, initially at a charge of 15 cent per bag.
The plastic bag charge was introduced in 2002, initially at a charge of 15 cent per bag.

R is for the recycling “myth”. Only 6 per cent of new plastic material comes from recycling, and failure to recycle more costs the European economy €105 billion a year, according to EU figures. Only three of six main plastic types are recycled: PET, HDPE and PVC. R is also for Repak, which explains that Ireland’s plastic waste rate is so high because we measure plastic waste separately, unlike some other EU member states.

S is for a single shower, which can wash 100,000 microbeads into rivers and seas, and for shampoo soap, string bags, stainless steel storage and the spork.

T is for teabags, which may have some plastic. Check labels and try loose-leaf.

U is for utensils . Bring your own spork or chopsticks to work.

V is for vinegar, a great cheap cleaning product, and for vegetable suppliers who deliver in boxes or sell loose.

W for waste, which you are already reducing, and for the deep-diving Cuvier’s beaked whales that ingested plastic bags and died painful deaths on the Scottish isle of Skye and Norway over the past two years.

X is for the extra effort it take a lot tackle this.

Y is for yogurt, which tastes far better from jars.

Z is for zero waste, which may feel like a far-off continent at times, but think of all the zooplankton you will save if you make it even half that far.

Helpful websites

zerowastefestival.ie

facebook.com/galwaygreenleaf

transitiongalway.wordpress.com/2017/03/20/recupan-galway

ecoland.com

econappies.ie

facebook.com/pg/bringyourowncontainers/community

facebook.com/BareNecessitiesIreland

secure.greenpeace.org.uk/page/content/plastics-calculator

voiceireland.org

facebook.com/thegreendiaryofficial/ ellenmacarthurfoundation.org

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