We did a Beach Clean this Sunday, one of three beaches having a volunteer clean up on the same day. The north coast of Cornwall had taken the usual battering from the recent UK-wide stormy weather spell and the ocean had thrown up many foreign objects that don’t belong in it for us to find on the beach. From that single pebble beach, around 300 metres long, with no tourist input to speak of at this time of year, eight of us picked up 120-130 kilos of plastic waste in two hours. A similar amount was collected at another beach, more difficult to get to from land and hence not cleaned often, our local regularly cleaned beach had thrown up over 65 kilos during the week.
On our Sunday morning clean there were whole fish crates, washed off the fishing boats out there somewhere, possibly not even missed by the crew. One looked like it had been floating in the water for many years, a colony of barnacles were latched on and a slimy green Gutweed covering was happily homed. The fishing industry loses a lot of crates, tackle, line and rope as well, and it’s not deliberate in a lot of cases. This stuff costs serious money to regularly replace but we spend a long time disentangling many metres of washed up line segments to recover it from its knotted sanctuaries in amongst the deep piles of seaweed.
What is noticeable now about the strandline rubbish is that the carrier bag collection is smaller. Perhaps the positive effect on people taking their own bags to the supermarkets now that the carrier bags actually cost a sum of money to the end user if they opt to have them. Funny how people can be persuaded to spend pounds more on the shopping by clever offers (or deeply cynical ones, depending on how grumpy about these things you are) but feel they’re being canny by not needing a few 5p carrier bags. It was of course still paid by them before, as part of the revenue of the store, but now at least the point hits the customer visibly in the pocket and it seems to have had the desired effect.
What is not smaller now is the recognisable parts, and sometimes still whole, water bottle remains we find. There were hundreds. It annoys me greatly that companies are happily making profits from the sale of these bottles, they are making out that you are paying for their ‘unique’ healthy water yet mostly the cost of manufacturing, transporting and marketing the bottle is what is covered by your money. The actual water is, in terms of the total cost of the product, the least valuable part. And then we volunteers pick the bottles we find up off the beach for free and send it off for recycling for them to be made into new bottles. Meanwhile the floating, gradually breaking down bottles, those that are thoughtlessly discarded, will be added to in number every day and a problem is still washing up on beaches all over the world.
Looking at the latest figures I found the industry proudly present the fact that in 2015 British firms produced 2.2 billion litres of bottled water. Even if every bottle was a 1.5 litre size that’s a huge number. Water cooler machine containers do make up some of this volume, we don’t find them on the beaches though so I suspect that the contracted removal and replacing of the empties highlights what proper care for the product cycle achieves in terms of where the waste goes.
I saw a TV progamme, can’t remember which or who, but I remember that the presenter used a vending machine which was set up to take empty plastic bottles and issue a credit against a travel fare. This was in China, and I dread to think how many billions of bottles their population must get through. The point is though, there is a recognition that there should be some way of making sure that there is a value to be be gained from re-capturing the bottles and giving people something tangible for doing it, instead of the relatively valueless contents being consumed and people wrongly thinking the bottle is the valueless part and only worth throwing away.
The companies involved in selling water will rightly point to how much effort they make with their product’s packaging, using bottles which are created from recycled materials and that can be fully recycled again. They will state that the packaging is of a safe standard and doesn’t now contain any nasties. But once they have been successful in selling the product to you, via the label and advertising proclaiming how many health-giving minerals the water contains or is filtered through and bottling it in some sort of generated-by-them idea of a pristine wilderness, at present they have no further responsibilities after that. Not one of them says that their environmental concerns actually stretch to just how much of this stuff they generate and that they’d be happy to do something about that. They’ll gladly take your money though thank you.
The contents will still be just water. No matter if an organisation called the National Hydration Council will happily remind you and promote reasons that you should be drinking more water, preferably the bottled type that their members sell of course. You don’t have to be paying hundreds of times more money to a company on top of your domestic water bill to do it. Water is available in our comparatively rich country, in perfectly healthy forms from a normal household tap. Reusable water bottles and flasks, just as convenient to carry although perhaps not yet as cool, can be purchased to use more than the once after filling it for pennies from your tap.
At present in the UK there is no other incentive apart from that on us just to be environmentally responsible about discarding the empty bottles properly for further recycling. My experience and few pictures show this isn’t working by itself and it really is time to start thinking of different ways.The Chinese machine may not be perfect, there have been arguments raised about the balance of the gain in less waste and litter in the bottle cycle versus the electrical power needed to power the machines, but there is a solid benefit in valuing the waste to incentivise customers.
If appealing to our common sense about not buying so much ‘cool’, branded water in bottles to be seen with isn’t working – and I suspect the National Hydration Council will argue against that – then we must start thinking of new ways to incentivise either the companies flooding the planet with yet more plastic, recycled and recyclable or not, or get to end consumers to change their behaviour. The Carrier Bag ‘tax’ proves that an easily avoided charge is such an incentive to start reusing and avoiding waste.
Just don’t start me on supermarkets thinking carrots need to come ready chopped in a plastic container to make them convenient to eat…
and the amount of Amazon cardboard usage.