Shropshire Star focus: Plastics man v Going green - the big debate
Try imagining a world without plastic. It's tough, but there are growing concerns about how we use and dispose of this most common of materials. Here, two people on either side of the debate explain their very different views.
'Now is time to end the war on plastic'
Mike Golding shakes his head when he talks about the Government's new initiative to cut down on plastic packaging.
"It's a bandwagon that some ignorant people have clambered upon," he says with a sigh.
"That's a vicious word, ignorant, but that's what it is."
Earlier this month Theresa May grabbed the headlines by calling for a plastic-free aisle in every supermarket. But Mr Golding says that while this may play well to the gallery, the reality is it will not only lead to tons of perfectly good food being thrown away – but will actually double the amount of plastic used in packaging.
Mr Golding today wrote an open letter to the Shropshire Star urging people to put the plastics debate in context.
He is chairman of TCL Packaging, the Telford-based company which employs 80 people producing packaging materials for all Britain's major supermarkets, as well as several other food manufacturers. Every year the company, based at Telford's Stafford Park, produces half a billion bags, mostly for fresh supermarket produce. Something like 4,000 tons of plastic is used in this process.
And he says far from being the villain of the piece, plastics – intelligently used – can play a vital role in creating a greener environment.
Taking loose baby-leaf spinach as an example, he explains how every bag has at least two microscopic holes, barely visible to the human eye. Most shoppers will have no idea that they exist at all, but these tiny holes have been precision-engineered to allow just the right amount of oxygen into the bag to preserve the product.
"If you submerged the bag of spinach in a bucket of water, you would be able to see the bubbles around where the holes are," he says.
"If it was not for this packaging you would not be able to have loose spinach in the supermarket at all.
"Ninety-nine per cent of people have no idea, they don't understand the contribution that plastics make to the quality of the food we eat.
"Potatoes, for example, need to be kept in the dark to prevent them from sprouting, the normal solution to this is to wrap them in opaque plastic."
Paradoxically, he says while the Prime Minister's call for plastic-free aisles might make for good headlines, it would actually mean supermarkets would need to use much more in the way of packaging.
"If you have loose produce on the supermarket shelves, it has to be wrapped up to get there, it will be wrapped up in heavy plastic, and then unpacked when it gets to the retailer," says Mr Golding.
"It uses just as much packaging, but then, once it has gone on the supermarket shelves, the customer will then put it in plastic bags to take it to the checkout.
"That is twice as much plastic."
He says the real crime is that most of the packaging used in supermarkets could easily be recycled, if only it was clearly marked.
"People talk about moving over to paper packaging, but plastic is much easier to recycle," he says.
One of his pet hates is seeing labels on food packaging which simply say "not currently recycled."
"That doesn’t mean it can’t be, it just means that nobody has provided the facilities," he says.
For example, most of the much-maligned light plastic carrier bags are made of high-density polythene, the same material as plastic milk bottles which are commonly recycled, he says.
"The obvious thing would be for people to stuff them inside their milk bottle, but because they are not clearly labelled, people do not know to do that," he says.
He also cites research which found that the celebrated "bags for life" need to be used for at least 173 times before any environmental benefits are reaped.
"Does anybody use them for that long?" he asks. "I'm sure in many cases the handles will have come off them long before that."
He adds that unlike the bags that used to be given out free at the supermarkets, the bags of life cannot be recycled because they are made from a mixture of cotton and plastic.
Mr Golding says this report, commissioned by the Environment Agency, was conveniently ignored because it did not reflect the prevailing political wind. But he says instead of declaring war on plastics, the Government would do better to focus on getting more of it recycled.
He says most packaging falls into four categories – polyester, polypropylene and poly-ethylene (polythene) which can all be recycled – and that made from a combination of these materials which cannot. Clear labelling could vastly reduce the amount of plastic that is sent to landfill, he adds.
Moreover, if Britain truly embraced plastic recycling in a bigger way, it could not only boost the environment, it could also benefit the economy too, creating hundreds of new jobs in an industry which has great potential for growth.
"Most plastics are intrinsically recyclable," says Mr Golding.
"We get paid good money for our offcuts, so it shows they can be recycled.
"The problem is if there is no marking on the packaging, people do not know what to do with it.
"Seventy per cent of food packaging is recyclable. Plastic is a good thing."
See below for Mike Golding's open letter
'Important steps taken to change our lifestyle'
Diana and Rob Baur want to go plastic-free. They have taken drastic steps to reduce the amount of plastic and waste in their lives.
The couple in their 70s, who live in the Ceiriog Valley have made dozens of changes to their lives over the past two years, from using recycled glass jars for food storage to making their own toothpaste and shampoo.
And they say it is up to people of their generation to lead the way in saving the planet.
Diana said: “We are an animal rapidly destroying its own habitat, despite signing up to the Paris Agreement and being told daily by scientists and ‘Green’ organisations that mankind is taking too little action.
“Where is the leadership to tackle this huge problem, it lies with us all. We can all start to live, there are millions of us and we can effect change if we start right now.”
Both semi-retired, they say they have more time that most people to find ways to be greener.
Artist Diana, who has set up a Facebook page called Treading Lightly, is calling on grandparents to lead the change.
“Many of us have the health, time and resources to change the way we live,” she said.
“We are the ones who can remember how our parents managed without a car or anything plastic, how they saved every scrap of paper, never wasted food, and made our clothes, heeled our shoes and grew vegetables in the front garden. She said it was two years ago she started changing the way the couple lived.
“I began by taking paper bags to the Chirk greengrocer and only bought unwrapped fruit and vegetables. I take a re-useable lidded box, plastic yes but it’s not in the sea, to the butcher on Oswestry market and ask that the meat be wrapped in my own greaseproof paper to take home in the box. It is one small step at a time, keep existing plastic containers and re-use them, just don’t bin them.”
Diana and her husband have spent the last two years actively working to cut plastic from their lives and create the smallest footprint they can on the planet.
“We are semi-retired and have more time than most to devote to it,” she said.
Cutting down on plastic when shopping has been a major challenge in the days when it seems everything is wrapped in it. But Diana has managed even going to the extend of making her own yoghurt alternative and her own toothpaste.
“You can make home made tooth powder with bicarb, seasalt, stevia and sage leaf or hunt out toothpaste in a metal tube. Use Olive oil or soapnuts soap and pure almond oil to moisturise and make shampoo from soapnuts and vinegar.”
She buys bamboo toothbrushes and wooden hairbrushes. And supermarket shopping has taken a back seat as she hunts out independent shops which use very little plastic. Diana said: “We use home made cotton stockinette bags or paper bags for loose veg and fruit and avoid or refused ready wrapped in plastic packages.We re-cycle the small amount of unavoidable plastic and we return to sender plastic-wrapped post.”
Rather than use plastic containers at home the couple use recycled glass jars and, for the freezer, foil containers and wrap.
Newspaper and potato sacks are used for bin liners and, when it comes to tea, they substitute tea bags for loose tea and a metal strainer.
Travel is one way they have cut down their carbon footprint.
“We have a small, Fiat Panda that is very economical on fuel and we have not flown for years,” Diana said.
At home they have ditched all through central heating for double glazing to keep the heat in and an extra jumper when it’s cold.
“There is one large radiator in dining room on for the day in winter a wood burning stove in the evenings in the sitting room plus a heated towel rail in the bathroom.
“Wearing an extra jumper and double glazing has made a lot of difference to the amount of heat we need.”
Those jumpers and Diana’s other clothes are made of natural and no manmade fibres - cotton, wool, linen and leather.
“I buy less but good quality and often second hand.”
Even eco-friendly loo rolls are bought online and delivered in a box rather than plastic.
The couple are not resting on their laurels but had aims for the future.
“I want to buy less online as it often arrives with far too much plastic wrapping and, as an artist, look at other ways of creating and posting artworks. We are looking at a reduced use of our car/buying an electric car and putting solar panels on our roof or downsizing.
“And we want to share tips on the Treading Lightly Facebook page.”
See below for Diana Baur's plastic-free manifesto
The world would be a more difficult place without plastic, says Mike Golding:
"Do not shoot plastic. It is not guilty.
"It is frequently opined that the world is only four days away from anarchy if the veneer of civilisation that the human race has so carefully constructed for itself over the last few hundred years is shattered by some earth altering event; nuclear war, meteor strike or perhaps one of the pillars of our lives was hypothetically removed such as electricity or, perhaps even the internet.
"Can I add to that hypothetical list, plastic. Not only is it essential for the delivery of electricity and the internet due to its insulation properties but it ensures the hygienic delivery of medicines and clean water, either by bottle or pipe. The long list would fill the newspaper.
"Plastic is vital for all our lives so why has it come is for such recent bad publicity and why have successive governments made some dreadful decisions about it and potentially about to make some more.
"In a nutshell the problem is the presence of human food and drink packaging carelessly discarded that then ends up being in our faces and it isn’t pretty. The first poor decision which is still the subject of much misplaced self congratulation is the practical disappearance of single use carrier bags from supermarkets and their substitution with what are loosely called “bags for life”.
"Back in 2011 after five years research into the subject the Environment Agency published a study, catchily called: Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags SC030148. Search Google for a copy.
"The key conclusion that is worth picking out is that at best, a woven cotton carrier bag would have at least to do 173 use cycles to have a lower environmental impact than the that of a single use high-density polythene (HDPE) bag in its typical life-cycle. Not to mention that the HDPE bag is recyclable and the cotton bag for life is not, because actually apart from anything else, the bags for life all have a plastic lining to ensure that any liquid that leaks in the shopping doesn’t soil the consumers nice car seat.
"Unfortunately, the chatteratti had built up such a head of steam over the plan and the scientists who front the television media’s more popular discussion programmes and who carry more weight than real scientists had got so behind it that the report got buried. As a result we now either pay 5p for our sins or send to landfill our bags for life when the seams split or the handle comes off way before its 173rd use. Brilliant.
"This is an extremely controversial point of view I know and I grant you that the chance of finding a cheap poly bag blowing in the wind is reduced but causing greater environmental damage was not the answer. The problem was that the consumer, yes you, either did not know or did not care enough to ensure that the HDPE bags get recycled. Much plastic film including carrier bags is not marked with recycling information or if it is then it frequently says, “Not currently recycled”.
"That doesn’t mean it can’t be, it just means that nobody has provided the facilities. Did you know for instance that an HDPE carrier bag is made of the same material as a plastic milk bottle and just by popping the bag in your milk bottle it can happily be recycled?
"This brings me to the current piece of nonsense that is building up a head of steam. Plastic-free aisles in supermarkets.
"These aisles in the mind of the backers are produce aisles so that we can all pick our own and reduce the use of packaging.
"It is an absolute responsibility of the retailers to ensure that the food that they deliver to their stores is uncontaminated so even bulk produce like carrots or potatoes have to be pre packed to get through their supply chain, and the loose product you see in store arrives there in a large heavy plastic bag which is split for display and discarded when empty and when the consumer chooses his quantity he puts it and weighs it in another plastic bag because they don’t want it contaminating their other groceries. Twice as much plastic then. Check out this truth on your next visit.
"To make it worse all unpacked produce degrades more quickly when allowed to breathe at will in ambient conditions. Pre-packed produce is put in plastics scientifically engineered to control its breathing rate which is why today you have salad that last days in sealed bags; its why you have blueberries in January and it why you have leaf spinach at all. Un-packed produce significantly increases food waste. Please stop this bandwagon right now."
There’s no excuse for waste, says Diana Baur - this is her manifesto for a greener lifestyle:
We are in our seventies and semi retired so have more time. But in every part of our life we think about how we can be more responsible.
This is a list of steps we have made to make a difference to our lives.
Travel: We have a small Fiat Panda as it is very economical on fuel. We have also not flown for years
Heating: We have one large radiator in our dining room on for the day in winter and a clear view wood burning stove for evenings in the sitting room, together with a heated towel rail in bathroom when washing.
We simply wear an extra jumper and double glazing has made a lot of difference to the amount of heat we need.
Personal care: There is no need to rely on plastics or synthetic products. There are plenty of alternatives.
We use wooden handled hairbrush with wooden bristles and bamboo toothbrushes. We also use wooden bristle nail brushes.
We don’t buy much toothpaste. We use home made tooth powder, using bicarb, seasalt, stevia and sage leaf. If sometimes use Weleda toothpaste. It has a metal tube and plastic top.
We also think of the cost and impact of using hot water. We have fewer baths and showers and more body washes.
When washing we use an olive oil or soapnuts soap and pure almond oil to moisturise. For our hair we have home made soapnuts shampoo and vinegar and warm water to rinse.
Our loo paper is delivered in a box. There is no plastic wrap whatever, and decorative paper can be used in craft projects.
Washing & cleaning: We use ecco wash balls and bag of soapnuts. It is usually a 30 or 40 degree short wash, with a 95 degree wash once in a while.
Our clothes are dried outside or in shed, with a very short spell in tumble dryer if really necessary.
We clean with Ecover washing up liquid, vinegar and bicarb of soda/soda or soapnuts cleaner. We use Ecover loo cleaner and very occasionally bleach.
We also use cotton stockinette home-made washing up and cleaning cloths.
Clothes: We buy less but good quality to last – and no man-made fibres. It is best to stick to wool, cotton, linen and leather. We often buy second hand. We ignore fashion and go for comfort.
Shopping cooking and eating: We use our own shopping bags and a wheelie trolley and have home-made cotton stockinette bags or paper bags for loose veg and fruit.
We limit supermarket shopping and try to use local shops.
We avoid or refuse ready-wrapped in plastic packages. We recycle the small amount of unavoidable plastic packaging and return to sender plastic-wrapped post.
Worn out plastic brushes, brooms are replaced with wooden or bamboo/bristle ones.
Glass containers are used for storage including in the fridge. We use foil baking containers and foil wrap for freezer.
Salad and vegetables are wrapped in dampened home made cotton stockinet bags in salad drawer in fridge.
We bulk order cupboard staples and use home made soya milk kefir – no bought yoghurts. We re-use paper kindling and potato sacks for bin liners.
Feeding the dog: We use cheap cuts of various meats from the market butcher, wrapped in greaseproof paper provided by us and we take it home in a large lidded plastic honey pot.
The meat is cooked with wholegrain rice and grated carrot. It is stored in the freezer in foil containers.
We use paper bags for dog poo bags and substitute made-fibre dog “beds” with 100 per cent cotton bath mats – they are half the price!
Recycling: We compost food waste and shredded paper. We keep glass jars and bottles for storage and follow the council recycling system. We will also use the council recycling dump for larger items.
Our don’ts: We don’t eat meat or cow-based dairy foods. We don’t use commercial shampoo, cleaners or perfume.
We don’t buy anything in plastic bottles, or cans held together with plastic rings, plastic bags or freezer bags.
We don’t throw away any plastic bags or carrier bags, or any existing plastic containers, but try to re-use them. We don’t buy unnecessary clothes.
Our future aims: We want top buy less online as it often arrives with far too much plastic wrapping
We want to reduce use of car and look at the possibility of an electric car. We will consider solar panels on roof or may even downsize.
Reports by Mark Andrews and Sue Austin