Review: Turning the Tide on Plastic by Lucy Siegle

The statistics about plastic pollution are troublesome. By 2050, experts think there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish. We’re ingesting microplastics in our diets but not just in our seafood – traces have also been identified in honey and even beer.

So it’s fair to say that Turning the Tide on Plastic by Lucy Siegle could be a pretty depressing read.

But that’s not how I’d describe it.

Eye-opening, educational and motivating, it’s a call to arms -a toolkit to helping everyday citizens tackle one of the biggest ecological crises facing our world today.

The first part of the book is filled with research and statistics sourced by Siegle, a journalist often seen on The One Show, and an expert on plastic.

From the history of plastic to the truth about our recycling capabilities, it’s jam-packed with insightful explanations and statistics.

Maybe I’m naive, but I didn’t realise that tortoiseshell, back in the day, was actually made using the shell of hawksbill sea turtles. The demand for products from picture frames to hairbrushes left the population of these incredible creatures declining rapidly. Plastic, a new invention in the early 1900’s, was originally intended to help alleviate the damage that was being done to this dwindling species.

Ironic then, that the hawksbill turtle is one of the species now at high risk due to the abundance of plastic we’ve produced.

Turning the Tide on Plastic is absolutely jam-packed with stats…

The average European seafood eater is thought to ingest 11,000 pieces of microplastic a year’ (p.87)

‘Fifteen per cent of the globe’s plastic waste is recycled, of which just 5 per cent is actually turned into a recycled object or material.’ (p.117)

‘An estimated 2.26 million tonnes of plastic packaging is produced every year in the UK, of which three-fifths (61 per cent) ends up being dumped’ (p.135)
Data from Unilever, P&G and Kraft Heinz criticised for recycling label failures’ The Guardian Sustainable Business, 8 December 2016

But it’s not just plastic packaging that’s a problem. There are now traces of plastic in our clothes (microfibres) which are being washed directly into water streams when we pop them in the washing machine.

The more I read, the more I felt exasperated at why we have decided to put this material in, what feels like, everything!

But then you turn to the second part of the book which is intended to give you ideas on where to begin.

So, Siegle introduces the eight R’s.

Yep, forget the measly three, there’s so many more…

Record, Reduce, Replace, Refuse, Reuse, Recycle, Refill, Rethink.

The approach here starts with recording your use of plastic almost like a food diary to allow you to see where the extent of the problem lies. Is it food packaging from your weekly shop? Or those lunches you’re buying on the go? Is plastic being pushed upon you?

Once you’ve identified that, you can start to tackle the rest of the r’s – reducing your usage; replacing plastic with alternatives; refusing to accept plastic (say no to receipts, straws and disposable cutlery); reusing the plastic you are lumbered with (including water bottles!); recycling what you can; refilling containers and bulk buying so you purchase less; and ultimately rethinking your choices.

Now, some of it we should be aware of already. Using a refillable bottle and a refillable coffee cup for example.

I had a reusable coffee cup when I was at University but over the years, it’s actually become too small to hold the ‘small’ portion of hot drinks on sale in cafes and coffee shops up and down the country. Plus, it was before the wave of reusable cups so the lid wasn’t that great…

I recently bought an ecoffee cup – made from bamboo fibre with a silicone lid. It’s unbelievably light yet feels incredibly sturdy. I love it. But even before I upgraded, the shock of how few coffee cups are being recycled (just 1 in 400) put me off buying a take-away coffee in the first place. I didn’t want to contribute to that growing pile of rubbish, and I saved money in the process. Get a cup or don’t buy a drink – simple.

But asides from these quick, easy changes, there were others I either hadn’t thought about or hadn’t taken the time to realise.

Like buying from the fish or meat counter and taking your own containers rather than accepting another plastic bag.

Or avoiding wrapping paper – which is usually covered in a thin layer of plastic. Quite a lot also has glitter all over it, which is a HUGE no. One year at Christmas, we actually used recyclable Kraft paper for presents, adorning everything with a cotton ribbon. The roll of paper was pretty cheap and the overall effect was stylish yet traditional. And no plastic in sight.

Siegle also warns you to be aware of hidden plastic – wet wipes, chewing gum and teabags. I felt smug that I already knew this, and I’ve already boycotted both wet wipes and chewing gum, but as for teabags, I admit, there may be work I need to do there. (Although thankfully, my tea of choice PG Tips have committed to producing bags which are fully biodegradable and they’re now on sale).

There were also tips on recycling – make sure you have lids loosely on top of bottles for example, otherwise they go walkabouts and can easily end up where they shouldn’t.

I’m not going to lie, the book did make me feel slightly crushed about our recycling system. It’s nowhere near as effective as it should be. We should be aiming for a circular economy and turning our back on this throwaway culture, but if the recycling facilities aren’t there, the outlook doesn’t look good.

I heard Lucy Siegle speak back in July and she said:

“Technically, everything is recyclable – in theory. But we have a limited approach – a ‘mechanical’ approach. It all takes energy, money and effort. The truth is, a lot of our recycling is getting incinerated instead.”

She pointed out that Wales ranks second in the global recycling league. Surely we can learn from their success?

*

Siegle is quite clear that all the emphasis can’t be on the consumer. Manufacturers and retailers need to make big changes too and it’s in our power to put pressure on them to do so.

Thankfully, the very last part of Turning the Tide on Plastic is all about becoming an activist. That doesn’t mean you have to start waving placards around and shouting at anyone caught with a plastic straw though. There are a number of ways you can add your voice to the throng protesting for our planet. I was pleased to read the sentence ‘Never underestimate the power of a simple petition.’ If enough people stand up for something, those in power will notice.

So yes, the fight against plastic pollution can seem daunting and depressing. During the talk she gave in July, Siegle warned us that, since plastic was created, around 79% of it is still with us today. But she also pointed out that there’s now a large group of like-minded people unified on this eco-movement against plastic – something we’ve never had before.

So it may feel like you’re not making much of a difference on your own. But if we all made a series of small changes and lifestyle adjustments, we would make a big dent in tackling the plastic problem.

This book gives you a great sense of how to start.

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