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The plastic problem

How we can all pull our weight when minimising our use of plastic

Earlier this year, the Conservative government released a 25 year plan for how to improve and protect the environment. Theresa May opens the document with a foreword commenting on our duty as a country to protect our precious inherited landscapes and wildlife. She calls upon the success of the already implemented plastic bag charge quoting that ‘reducing the use of carrier bags by 83% shows the difference which government action can make, and demonstrates that protecting our environment is a job for each one of us.’ Despite the success of the scheme, there is still a constant stream of news articles which illustrate the devastating consequences of single-use plastics. This draws into question the speed of these changes: are we acting too slowly?

The government states that they are ‘working to a target of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042.’ This plan is incredibly broad and long-term, and difficult to translate to the everyday. So, I reached out to QM Young Greens for some digestible advice on how we, as students, can all contribute to tackling the plastic problem.

Unsurprisingly, the most commonly advised change is in regards to our caffeine addiction. The UK uses 7 million disposable coffee cups a day, amounting to an estimated total of 2.5 billion a year. We as students are almost certainly accountable for contributing to these statistics; The Student’s Union here at Queen Mary provides the ever attractive incentive of a discount every time a student brings their own reusable mug or coffee cup. The energy and resources required to make a plastic travel mug is the equivalent to fifteen disposable cups and lids. Therefore, despite it seeming counter-productive spending money on plastic to reduce plastic wastage, the statistics do add up.

One of the interesting recommendations on the list shared by the Young Greens was the focus on sustainable clothing items over fast fashion. Although clothing and plastics aren’t commonly associated, many cheap synthetic clothing pieces release dangerous microfibres every time they are washed. These micro-plastic fibers are released directly into our waterways causing them to be consumed by fish, ultimately ending up in our food chain. It was estimated by a study carried out by the University of Plymouth that ‘for an average wash load of 6kg, over 700,000 fibres could be released per wash.’ The study warns against being a consumer of fabrics such as nylon and polyester, opting for more natural fabrics such as cotton or wool and washing them at a lower temperature for a shorter duration.

As students, many of us struggle to maintain a balanced diet; however, altering our food habits can have hugely positive effects on both our bodies and the planet. Food packaging is often excessive and unnecessary: UK supermarkets produce almost 1 million tonnes of plastic packaging each year. Shopping at local markets or picking up ‘wonking veg boxes’ which are available from some major supermarkets reduce both plastic and food wastage. Or alternatively, reject the multi-pack and pick up loose veg. Another recommendation is buying products in bulk then cooking and preparing at home. Meal prepping saves time and money, helping students avoid simply grabbing a ready meal on the way back from the library.

Apart from these small changes, there are hundreds of other tips which the average student can use to fight against plastic waste. These include avoiding plastic toothbrushes and hairbrushes, and instead investing in bamboo alternatives, as well as carrying reusable straws, bottles and cutlery and learning how to effectively recycle in your local area.

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