I read two books last week, one short, one long.
The short one was No. More. Plastic. What you can do to make a difference, by Martin Dorey, Founder of the @twominutesolution (Ebery Press 2018). According to Mr Dorey, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is estimated to cover more than 60 times the UK’s land mass. Soon, there are going to be more pieces of plastic in the ocean, than fish. While recycling has a place, and indeed is essential, we actually need to stop producing this superabundance of plastic. What can we all do on a personal level?
You might answer, on a personal level, nothing. The problem is so vast; what does it matter what I do? But then, you might as well say that of any human problem. The sum total of human achievement, or human folly, is nothing more than an integral of all the infinitesimal activities of us all as individuals.
So I attempted a plastic-free week. I have two very good farm shops close to where I live so I didn’t really need to visit a supermarket. I can buy vegetables unwrapped, or in brown paper bags. The butcher counter uses very light transparent bags – as does the local fish van – of whose constituents I am uncertain. I’ll have to check it out. I can get soup in tins or in cardboard cartons. The bread is unwrapped. I get bottled milk, and butter in greaseproof paper rather than a plastic tub. Gewürztraminer still comes in bottles. God bless New Zealand.
So the inner man is sorted. What else? Clothes. To be honest, I have enough clobber to see me out, but if I start to look particularly shabby with my frayed collars I’ll buy a shirt hanging on a (wooden) coat hanger and avoid the shirt in the box with all that plastic packaging. Moreover I’ll make sure its 100% cotton. Apparently non-biodegradable fibres work their way from the washing machine into the ocean.
Soap. I found some packaged in cardboard. Deodorant. I actually found some in a glass bottle – my find of the week. Shaving. These sophisticated five-bladed devices are full of plastic. I resurrected my electric razor but it’s not that effective and all week I’ve been walking around with a permanent 5 o’clock shadow, looking a little down on my luck. I remember from the dim and distant past having a metal safety razor into which you inserted metal blades. I seem to recall giving myself multiple lacerations with this device and wandering around for the first after-shave hour with pieces of loo paper stuck to my face.
Loo paper! Not a problem. I can get rolls wrapped in paper.
So it goes on. Nobody said it would be easy. But in fact it’s been quite fun. We don’t need all that packaging. I might start proselytising, and become a right pain in the neck. At the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Saturday I got a filter coffee, served in a cardboard beaker, and I tried to turn down the plastic lid. But no. Apparently it was a health and safety issue. I sympathised. I didn’t say to the barista, “It’s health and safety gone mad!” I just said, “You put the lid on and I’ll burn my fingers taking it off.” She laughed.
Then I got the gift of some Christmas Cards (already) from a well-respected charitable organization, accompanied by a plastic pen. I’m thinking of writing to them (with the pen) to suggest they stop sending out the pens. The November issue of the British Journal of General Practice arrived, wrapped in transparent cellophane. I might write to the BJGP and suggest they change to paper envelopes.
But before I turn completely into a smug, self-satisfied virtue-signaller, I must mention the other book of the week, the long one. It was Churchill, Walking with Destiny by the historian Andrew Roberts (Allen Lane, 2018). It comes in at 1105 pages, but I romped through it, partly because it’s very readable, but also because I’ve read so much Churchilliana over the years that the subject matter is not unfamiliar to me. Yet I’m not sure if I know anything at all about Churchill as an environmentalist. His greatest insight lay in his recognition in the 1930s of the true nature of Nazism, an insight that made him very unpopular and an outcast in his own party; he was very nearly deselected. He had another great insight after the war when he made his Iron Curtain speech in Fulton, Missouri; this also made him initially very unpopular. On both occasions, he was vindicated. But would he have recognised the threat inherent in a plastic drinking straw?
In his autobiographical My Early Life, he gives this rallying call: “Come on now all you young men, all over the world… ‘The earth is yours and the fullness thereof’… You cannot hurt the world or even seriously distress her… She has lived and thrived only by repeated subjugations.”
Well, that’s just tosh.