What connects a Pacific grey whale and you last visit to the shops?

On your last visit to the shops, it is almost certain that you came home with some plastic that you hadn’t taken out with you: if you are really careless, then it would include the plastic carrier bags from the shops you visted, but it’s hard to avoid the odd polystyrene punnet in shrink wrap. Then there are the cardboard boxes with plastic wrappers on the food inside, and sometimes also on the outside!

Then there are those little bottles of water in shrink-wrapped multipacks, and packs of fruit drinks with tough wrappers that will be around long, long after the drink has been consumed and excreted into the sewage system.

Shrink-wrap can’t normally be recycled by local authorities, nor can polystyrene, nor many other packaging materials, so they end up in land fill or being burned in the incinerators that no-one likes in their back yard (so why do those same poeple continue to produce so much waste?), along with much of the recyclable plastic.

Some of it just gets chucked anywhere: just look at the verges of a major road that hasn’t been cleared by the local authority for a while. I have been picking up this sort of litter as I walk or run through parks and the countryside for decades, but what gets missed just blows somewhere. Today’s haul was a dirty nappy in Ashridge Forest, left just off the dirt footpath in a pretty piece of woodland. There was plastic in that too.

What has this to do with grey whales? Have a look at these web pages:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jul/11/plastiki-rothschild-plastic-bottle-catamaran (millions of tonnes of plastic swilling around in the Pacific Ocean while sea life disappears)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/20/beached-grey-whale-in-sea_n_544130.html (A beached grey whale contains large amounts of domestic plastic.)

None of these materials existed 50 years ago, when plastics were still relatively expensive and the technology was at an early stage, so the entire phenomenon has built up during one generation. Our society is more obsessed with cleanliness and smelling nice than it ever was, but we seem to pay less and less attention to the filth and pollution that we leave in our wakes as we drive on through our lives.

It cannot make sense that every time we buy a sandwich, a drink and a coffee, which are consumed in 10 minutes, we throw away:

Sandwich: shrink wrap or plastic sleeve, carboard pocket, the bits we didn’t want to eat.

Drink: A clear plastic bottle with label and coloured plastic cap.

Coffee: Polystyrene or carboard cup, plastic top, plastic or wooden stirer, paper sugar packet.

What can you do about it? Quite a lot actually, but only if you are willing to think a bit more about your actions, and to not just take the most convenient course every time, which usually means buying everything in one trip to the supermarket: local shops and outdoor markets usually put less packaging on food items. And you can always select items that have less packaging, or tell the butcher that you don’t really need two plastic bags and plastic film around those chops.

If you are feeling really bold, you could protest to the retailer.

If you disagree with all of this and are one of those people who think that their convenience is paramount, and that chops need 3 layers of plastic, then you won’t have read this far anyway. But if you did read this far, I’d be interested to hear how you can justify it.