Their lives in our hands

Gut-wrenching scenes of a turtle tangled in netting and a tragic albatross chick killed after inadvertently swallowing a plastic toothpick sent a shockwave though the nation.

The BBC's Blue Planet II series opened our eyes to the impact plastic pollution was having on our oceans and marine life like never before.

Sir David Attenborough used his public platform to urge us to understand the shared responsibility we all have to care for the natural world.

The war on plastic waste had already been brewing away in the background for a few years with the likes of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth raising awareness but suddenly the issue was thrust loudly and brightly into the spotlight.

And for many of us it's becoming increasingly harder to ignore. The statistics alone are staggering. We throw away around 295 billion pieces of plastic every year, much of which is single-use and cannot be recycled.

And every day approximately eight million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into our oceans, says conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS).

Rubbish such as bottles, coffee cups, food wrappers and takeaway containers can now be found on every beach in the world, from busy tourist beaches to uninhabited, tropical islands.

It's estimated that there may now be more than five trillion tiny plastic pieces, weighing up to 269,000 tonnes, floating in the open ocean and scientists have recently discovered microplastics embedded deep in the Arctic ice.

Then there is the devastating impact this pollution is having on our ocean life. According to The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), around 100,000 marine mammals whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions die every year as a result of either ingesting plastic or getting entanglement in plastic-based fishing gear.

It's said that a plastic bag ballooned with water can look a lot like squid, or other prey, to the seals and marine mammals that hunt them.

But it's not just a problem that is limited to our oceans. Much of the plastic ends up the sea after being carried there by rivers. A recent Greenpeace survey of 13 of the UK rivers found that they all contained some sort of plastic pollution, which can also have an impact on the birds and wildlife that rely on the water for their habitat and food.

Many of the products we use daily are flushed down toilets, including wet wipes, cotton buds and sanitary products. Microfibres are even released into waterways when we wash our clothes in the washing machine.

Earlier this year scientists found microplastics in a remote lake near the summit of Snowdon and it's believed the tiny particles are "most likely" to have been deposited by rain.

Amid this increased environmental awareness, more and more communities are taking a stand against plastic - even the Queen has banned the use of single-use plastics across all Royal estates.

Major retailers and supermarkets have also taken steps to reduce and remove any unnecessary plastic packaging. Just this week Morrisons, Waitrose and John Lewis have said they would not be using glitter in own-brand Christmas products this year.

While Boots has removed 2,020 tonnes of throwaway plastic from Christmas gift packaging which follows other initiatives such as introducing cotton buds with paper stems and reformulating its rinse off products to eliminate plastic microbeads.

A ban on single-use plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers came into force at the start of this month, making it illegal for businesses to sell or supply the items.

The Government is also working on all plastic packaging placed on the market being recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025, eliminating avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042 and aiming for a target of zero avoidable waste by 2050.

Hospitals have also been playing their part such as The Royal Shrewsbury Hospital and Princess Royal Hospital in Telford where there has been a 47 per cent reduction in the amount of single-use plastic being used by staff and visitors.

This has included the removal of cutlery and polystyrene takeaway containers from its onsite catering outlets and replacing them with recyclable materials such as paper and biodegradable straws, corn starch cutlery and compostable takeaway containers.

While the law makers and manufacturers are key to ending the plastic pollution crisis, as individuals, there are ways we can all do our bit.

The choices we make as consumers can both reduce the demand for plastic and inspire the innovation of more environmentally friendly products.

Making the first step is always the hardest part so experts recommend going through your bins for a typical week and making a note of the items you use the most.

Then research alternatives that use less or no plastic instead and make the swap or you could choose to cut them out altogether.

There are so many little things that we each do that could really make a difference and help oceans become a safer place for marine life.

There are over 600 community leaders across the UK working hard to achieve Plastic Free status in their villages, towns and cities as part of a programme run by charity SAS.

In the Midlands, groups in the towns of Bridgnorth and Newport are among those who have successfully reduced the availability of avoidable plastics by working with local businesses while encouraging people to refill and reuse.

Residents of Rugeley, Stafford and Stourbridge are also working hard to follow in their footsteps.

Dominic Keeley, from Plastic Free Stourbridge, which is a sub-group of Transition Stourbridge, is hoping the town can achieve plastic free status by the middle of next year.

"There are a number of criteria we have to meet including getting the local council onboard, working with the community to raise awareness and getting businesses on board who will reduce the amount of plastic they use and sell.

"We've got Eco Maniax zero waste shop and a couple of cafes in the town on board so far. The idea is that they do an audit of their products and make a commitment to swap what they can to plastic-free alternatives," he tells Weekend.

The group is also raising awareness of the national Refill campaign which offers a dedicated app to help people find locations to refill their water bottle, coffee cup, lunch box, groceries and even cleaning products and toiletries.

It was seeing the footage on Blue Planet II which brought home the gravity of the situation to Dominic, who is one of the campaign's coordinators.

"I saw the damage it was causing and how it was destroying the natural beauty of the environment. I knew we needed to do something about it.

"We don't know what the long-term consequences are going to be us. There is a pile of rubbish in the Pacific Ocean known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which is three times the size of France. It's enormous and it's going to be there for thousands of years," he tells Weekend.

His advice for anyone wanting to reduce the amount of plastic in their life is to start with their weekly shop.

"Everyone can make a difference. When you go to the supermarket and you have the option of buying something all wrapped up in plastic or buying something that's not, make the decision there and then. Choose not to have a single use coffee cup with a plastic lid or a takeaway lunch in plastic wrapping.

"If we stop buying things that are wrapped in plastic and buy something else, businesses will start to listen," says Dominic.

When it comes to doing a weekly shop in a supermarket, avoiding plastic packaging can feel near impossible.

If you’re prepared to forego some of your favourite foods then you may be able to give it up completely. Many retailers are taking steps to change their packaging but it’s a slow process and it will take time before plastic is eliminated altogether.

But there are ways to reduce how much of it ends up in your shopping trolley each week.

Fruit and vegetables

Most fruit and vegetables are available to buy loose without any packaging so they can be put straight into your trolley without the need for a plastic bag.

Items such as bananas, apples, potatoes, carrots, bell peppers and broccoli are readily sold like this however items such as tomatoes, whole lettuces and cucumbers often only come in plastic packaging or film, especially in smaller stores, presumably to protect them from damage.

However, for these items, it’s worth investigating your local greengrocers as they may sell them loose or at least with reduced packaging.

Bread

This is another regularly-bought item where there are package free alternatives available as long as your local supermarket has an in-store bakery.

If you it has then you should generally be able to select the loaf you want and put it in your own resusable bag. Other baked goods such as pastries and cookies can also be bought in the same way. An alternative is a local bakery where staff will be more than happy to put the loaf straight into your own bag.

Milk

Pretty much every supermarket sells milk in plastic cartons but you do get the odd one which sells it in glass bottles but it’s not common.

If you’re lucky enough to be living near one that does then you know you can recycle the bottle when you’re done. But if you don’t and you want to put an end to the number of plastic cartons being used then you could go down a more traditional route and have a milkman deliver your pints.

Yoghurt

This is another dairy product that tends to be sold in plastic containers. Along with milk cartons they can at least generally be recycled through council kerbside collections.

Some yoghurt makers are now selling their products in glass jars but they are still quite rare and tend to be more expensive. If you want to avoid plastic altogether you could make your own at home.

Meat, fish and cheese

Make the most of your supermarket’s fresh produce counters for these items. Some stores will wrap items in paper rather than plastic if you request it while others are happy to put items into your own containers -just make sure it’s weighed first or else you will end up paying more at the till.

Alternatively head to your local butchers, fishmongers, cheese shop or farm shop to source these items.

Cereals, rice and pasta

Cereals are a frustrating one as they are frequently nestled inside a plastic bag within a cardboard box. Plastic free options are generally limited to muesli and porridge in a supermarket so if you want something else then you will have to try elsewhere.

Some cereals are available in home-compostable cellulose bags or you could go to a zero waste/plastic free shop where you can take your own containers and fill them up from dispensers.

Both rice and pasta tend to be sold in plastic wrapping but non-plastic-packaged alternatives such as boxes are available, but there will be a premium to pay. As with cereals, there are can be purchased from zero waste shops without any packaging.

Biscuits, chocolates and sweets

Most biscuits are packaged in an outer layer of plastic which is hard to avoid. You could try making your own at home. But if you want shop-bought then try to avoid biscuits that are seated in black plastic trays as these are more difficult to recycle and could end up in landfill.

Most of the supermarket own brand bars of chocolate come in paper and foil, and work out way cheaper than plastic bags of chocolates. A good option for those with a sweet tooth is pick ‘n’ mix if you still have a good old fashioned sweet shop or newsagents near you.

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