Plastic Free Peckham talks recycling, PPE, the climate... and how best to take action!
Illustrations by Frankie Albion.
Plastic Free Peckham is one of the Surfers For Sewage ‘Plastic Free Communities’; a volunteer-run program with 731 communities across the UK. As well as running events, they work with businesses, local councils, community partners and schools to evaluate their environmental impact and find viable solutions.
We caught up with Community Leader, Laura, who, after seeing increasing numbers of articles about plastic pollution decided it was time to take action, not only for her own family, but for the entire community around her. Laura now dedicates most of her time around family life and her job in the product design industry to Plastic Free Peckham and to championing positive environmental change. In the last year she also received a qualification from the Cambridge Institute of Sustainability.
What is most obvious during our chat is how impassioned she is. After a hello and brief exchange of environmental woes, she launches straight into a story about a recent Extinction Rebellion Facebook post she found particularly poignant which suggested what we’re seeing with the pandemic is just a snapshot of how bad it’s going to get. “Can you see why people have stopped inviting me to barbecues?” she half-jokes.
In some ways this reaction is an indication of how long conversations about climate change have been going on for and perhaps how weary and hopeless the topic leaves many of us feeling. The good news is that there are things we can do about it on an individual level, and there are groups like Plastic Free Peckham all over the world who are slowly but surely creating positive change with the help of the community.
“We started off the first year in a really active way” starts Laura, “I had a group of twelve volunteers. We were meeting regularly and all going out to businesses. In that first year we must have reached out to fifty businesses and we only had one flat out no! I won’t tell you who, but everyone else was very keen. They’re all at different stages now and a lot need a re-visit, but it’s been difficult given the last year.”
At present, Plastic Free Peckham has twelve ‘Plastic Free Champions’. To become a Champion, businesses need to make three changes away from single-use plastic, and most have a plan to get rid of the rest. “It is the inconvenience of switching to something plastic-free which is often the challenge.” Many businesses have one order a week from just one supplier, so if that supplier doesn’t offer something not wrapped in plastic, it can be a challenge. Given how small some of these businesses are - often with one or two employees - how busy they are, and the added expense of making a switch, you can understand why it’s been so difficult.
Plastic in PPE
Unfortunately COVID has made things a whole lot worse. Not only forcing many small businesses in Peckham to close (and more inevitably to come), but because of the masses of PPE.
“COVID was a gift to the plastics industry,” says Laura, who goes on to explain about her recent appearance on BBC Breakfast’s segment about PPE with Sabrina Grant. She laments the abundance of discarded masks and gloves which she discovers every day while out and about. Where previously she would have her monthly community clean ups going ahead to try to make a dent in the piles of rubbish at large in the environment (including now the new addition of PPE), COVID restrictions mean these have not been able to go ahead.
Luckily, things are changing and Plastic Free Peckham is gearing up to restart its monthly clean ups, as well as visits to schools and businesses again. The question is, will there be an appetite for volunteering and for small businesses to make big changes when things are so uncertain?
“It’s been a really hard time for volunteers who have had shifting priorities'' says Laura, pointing to homeschooling, job retention, keeping families fed and working from home. “In the face of a pandemic, plastic pollution isn’t necessarily everyone’s top priority.But,” she says, “there’s a good narrative around building back stronger and greener. And sustainability is now such a thing.”
“It's going to be an exciting year ahead. I’d like to run a pilot project with a network of small businesses and start to look at the principles of the circular economy, so, using what resources we already have in circulation rather than constantly getting new resources. The big thing about the circular economy is it starts with design, so it needs to be circular from the outset - reduced packaging, products that can be mended and fixed up again, elements that can be switched in and out.”
Creating local networks
As many of us have switched from global to local shopping over the last year, it’s becoming clear that a lot of these smaller shops can have an impact on consumer behaviour too - from waste production and reduction, to carbon footprint - and Laura’s aim is to build up a volunteer base to help create a network of hyper local suppliers.
The idea of local networks and community is something Laura revisits multiple times over the course of our conversation, and given the year we’ve just had seems a necessity in more ways than one. “It’s also about community resilience for me,” she says. “As we start to understand the impact of the climate emergency on the UK and local communities, community resilience is going to be very important. For me it’s partly plastics, but it's also about community resilience in the face of a situation which is going to get a whole lot worse...” there’s a pause, “... without being too doomful!”
After attempting to give up single-use plastics myself last year (before the pandemic and subsequent hoarding thwarted it), it became incredibly clear how impossible it is to be plastic free without a huge amount of time and a huge amount of money.
“The expense thing really bugs me,” she says. “You have to be in a privileged position to be able to consider the environmental impact of the things that you buy.” Growing up in London in the ‘80s, her parents used to buy in bulk - something she loves about Khan’s on Rye Lane - because it’s cheaper and uses less plastic. However, the best option is still to buy from local markets, say no to their plastic bag and bring your own reusable one. Since the charges for plastic bags came in, there has been a 90% decrease in their usage, which Laura calls “one of the most successful examples of progressive legislation”. However, there are many local shops which still give them out. She points to one of the shop owners in Peckham who goes through 5000 1p plastic bags a week! When you consider the cheapest non-plastic alternative is 12p, you can understand where the challenge lies.
Making ethical choices still remains a financial challenge. Laura says, “Businesses are certainly more aware of sustainability issues, it’s whether they’re empowered to do anything about it. It takes money and it takes time to research the best options. It is often something businesses need help with.” Luckily that’s something Plastic Free Peckham and initiatives like them can support businesses with.
Privilege plays a huge role in perpetuating the problem. “At the moment, we’re very, very privileged” says Laura, “we don't reap the consequences of our actions. It happens to people on the other side of the world. It’s very hard to get people to understand that. Until we really start seeing the impact on people in London, things will change very slowly.” After saying she’d promised not to get political about it, she points to the latest news that a West Cumbrian mining company was given the go ahead for a new colliery in Whitehaven. “You can't on the one hand say the UK is going to cut carbon emissions by 78% by 2035 and at the same time open up a colliery. It doesn't make any sense. It doesn’t fill me with much hope,” she pauses, “sorry, I was going to try and be really positive!” Luckily thanks to groups like Greenpeace, the application has been pulled back, but it is still under review.
In an attempt to make better choices, many people have gravitated toward alternative products which are either made from alternative material or contain less plastic. “Ethical consumerism is a great thing” she says, “but if you spend 7 hours of your week researching the best plastic free deodorant to buy, that's going to have quite a small impact. If you spent that 7 hours writing angry letters to your MP, or signing all the very many petitions online about plastic usage, overall you’d have more impact I think. It’s about proportionality as well. I don't think it's worth spending half a day researching one plastic free item. You’re better off doing a few big things in your home.” This includes things like switching to getting a veg box delivered, as generally they use less plastic, getting a refillable soda stream if you like to drink fizzy drinks or water, and switching to a milkman, though “I appreciate that’s more expensive and has logistical issues'' she adds. While out and about, refusing plastic straws, plastic cutlery, plastic bags or coffee cup lids will also help.
So, what about recycling?
“It’s really about reducing first, being conscious about what we buy, questioning whether we really need a new item, then reusing everything we can... and recycle is the last resort”. Aside from buying less in the first place, she thinks the most useful thing people can do is to reuse packaging that comes into their homes already, rather than buying alternatives. “We can’t recycle our way out of this!”
There’s perhaps a misguided belief that bioplastics and plant waste plastic are a good alternative, but currently they’re still problematic because they don’t fit into existing waste streams. However, Laura is assuring it’s still worth doing. “If enough of us switch then waste providers can recalibrate machines, but they need enough coming through. It’s supply and demand. These plastics have to go into general waste at the moment, which demonstrates how imperfect the recycling system is.”
Ultimately, she says that recycling is simply not enough. “We need to make a significant contribution to fixing the problem. It’s not good enough to say we’re just going to try not to do any harm anymore. Even if everyone did that, we’re still in serious trouble. We need everyone to take an active interest in solving the problem.”
Alarmingly, Laura informs me that of all plastic that’s ever been produced only 9% has been recycled, while 12% has been incinerated. The rest is at large in our environment. That’s a lot of plastic. On top of that, she said the “plastic garbage patch” in the Pacific Ocean is three times the size of France and is slowly but surely toxifying all marine life and the ecosystem around it.
According to Greenpeace, “The UK produces more plastic waste per person than almost any other country in the world - second only to the USA.” However, we can’t cope with it, so we send it to other countries where it’s either incinerated, causing health problems for the people around, or dumped in the ocean.
Plastic and the climate
Not only is plastic a problem because of the increasing amount of it in landfill, it’s also massively contributing to the climate crisis. Firstly, plastic is almost always made from fossil fuels. Secondly, when it’s incinerated or heated in any way, it gives off greenhouse gases. It’s a vicious circle: As global warming accelerates, the plastic in the environment is heated, giving off more greenhouse gases, warming up the planet.
WWF points to a report by the Center for International Environmental Law, released in May 2019, which concluded that “by 2050, when plastic production is expected to have tripled, it will be responsible for up to 13% of our planet's total carbon budget - on a par with what 615 power stations emit.”
However, there are positive things to take from this!
“I’m very, very encouraged by what's happened in the last couple of years in terms of conversation about sustainability” says Laura. “It’s part of a much bigger debate about the kind of society we live in. Some people are desperately sourcing organic cotton bed linen whilst others are scrabbling around to run the hospitals and keep the streets clean and feed their kids. That’s not a society in which you can solve huge challenges like this easily. How do we unpick it and start again? Maybe there’s an opportunity now to unpick those inequalities.”
We can be hopeful at least that the next generation, who will eventually be holding the reins, are environmentally aware and are taking action. Students are often at the forefront of environmental protests and demonstrations, and throughout 2019 alone the UK Student Climate Network organised 850 climate strikes in the UK. Of course it was activist Greta Thunberg who ignited the international student movement and who still joins ‘Fridays for Future’. Only last month she was on the cover of the Radio Times, indicating just how much environmental awareness has permeated the zeitgeist.
There are also plenty of groups and initiatives like Plastic Free Peckham helping small businesses and individuals to make better ethical choices. Even on a larger scale, groups such as the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and The UK Plastic Pact focus on big brands and forcing change closer to the source, redesigning products and packaging, and ending plastic waste.
It does feel over the last year many people have had a bit of a wake up call, not only about the importance of nature and the environment, but of community and connection. “An increase in volunteerism and taking personal responsibility will hopefully be our saviour” she concludes.
So, how can we take action now?
1. REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE
Try to buy less plastic in general. Reuse the things that come into your home and pay attention to the types of plastic you’re buying. If you can, prioritise big switches over smaller ones. If you’re going to recycle, take some time to learn the symbols and find out what you can and can’t recycle in your area, as this differs from county to county.
2. PETITIONS & LETTERS
There are plenty of petitions online calling for change. Most of them take a minute of your time, so if you have access to the internet, these are an easy win. If you want to take it one step further, write a letter to your local MP calling for change. Here are a few petitions to get you started!
Greenpeace ‘UK Gov: Fix Plastic Waste Crisis’
Friends of the Earth ‘Demand a new law to end plastic pollution’
WWF ‘Fight Climate Change’
3. JOIN CLEANUPS
Find a local group who organise community cleanups and beach cleans. There are plenty of local and national resources to help you find the nearest one.
Surfers Against Sewage: https://www.sas.org.uk/our-work/beach-cleans/
Volunteering to protect the environment, raise awareness or help your community has never been more important. Plastic Free Peckham has a number of volunteering opportunities. You could be part of the team that visits businesses, schools, or community groups to help them eliminate plastic. Or there are other options including joining their community cleanups once a month (usually on Sunday afternoons).
If you’re a school, business or community group looking for help to remove plastic and be more sustainable, you can get in touch with Plastic Free Peckham via the form at the bottom of their website.