Hardly a day goes by without an announcement about another initiative to reduce plastic waste, whether government plans, business strategies or community-led projects. This is great news. Although not the first to highlight the problem of plastic waste, BBC’s ‘Blue Planet 2’ presented by Sir David Attenborough has effectively moved single-use plastic waste from being a niche concern to an accepted challenge that we all need to address. But with all the national noise it can be difficult to work out what is happening locally, and in particular the opportunities to take action at a personal level.
So what is happening in Reading? How can our individual choices help drive forward the move to a less plastic Reading? Here are some of the stories relating directly to Reading that the Reading Sustainability Centre team and friends have spotted.
Reducing the need for single-use plastic
Obviously the ‘easiest’ way to reduce single-use plastic is not to use single use plastic items in the first place. Easier said than done, as social media campaigns like Greenpeace’s #PointlessPlastic are illustrating. There are also plenty of situations where plastic is currently the best option. But there are also a growing number of outlets in Reading that are beginning to offer alternatives.
Challenging plastic drinking straws
Plastic straws, like plastic carrier bags before them, have become emblematic of the sort of change that we need to make. The University of Reading and Reading University Students Union recently decided that they were not only going to stop offering plastic straws with drinks across their bars and catering outlets but were also going to make a small charge for the biodegradable alternative to encourage people to think about whether they really needed a straw at all. A number of national pub, hotel and restaurant chains with outlets in Reading have also announced their intention to ditch plastic straws including Wetherspoons, Pret-a-Manger and Costa, Wagamama, Malmaison and All-Bar-One. Keen to build on this momentum, a group of students are currently developing plans to approach other pubs, clubs and restaurants in the town to encourage them to also ditch plastic straws in favour of biodegradable or reusable alternatives. We can all do our bit as well by deciding to #refusethestraw if we are unnecessarily offered one. Some bars and restaurants have even put up messages informing customers that they won’t put a straw in a drink unless one is requested, plastic or paper. The combination of people refusing to accept a drink with a plastic straw, people tweeting pictures of unnecessary straws (with hashtags like #strawssuck, #refusethestraw and #thelaststraw) and outlets that use straws deciding to get ahead of changing public attitudes make it a real possibility that Reading could quite quickly become free of plastic straws.
Here is to hoping.
Packaging is another area where some retailers are deciding to get ahead of the curve and actively looking for opportunities to ditch unnecessary plastic packaging. TrueFood Coop in Emmer Green has taken a lead by setting out clearly on their web site how they support customers to shop without the need for single-use plastic. This includes using recyclable paper bags, encouraging shoppers to bring their own containers, selling fruit and veg loose and stocking store cupboard staples in glass jars rather than plastic. Whether or not you shop at TrueFood their web site provides a really clear outline of why change is needed and how shops are responding. In January the frozen food chain Iceland announced that it would eliminate plastic packaging for all its own-brand products. In fact all of the major supermarkets and a growing number of other retailers have announced initiatives to reduce or eliminate single-use plastics from their packaging. There is also a growing campaign across the country for supermarkets to introduce plastic free aisles. As over use of plastic for single use items becomes increasingly toxic to brands as well as the environment it is likely that the stream of companies and other bodies announcing initiatives to remove single use plastic from their services and product ranges will only grow. Watch this space!
Actively choosing alternatives to plastic
As well as ‘refusing the straw’, there is a growing range of examples of people in Reading actively seeking out or making alternatives to products that rely on single use plastics. For example, experimenting with making a reusable beeswax and linen alternative to clingfilm – great for covering leftovers to put in the fridge – as well as using shampoo that comes in a bar. Some of these are less about developing new products than rediscovering approaches used ‘pre-plastic’. Back to the future?!
Reusing rather than binning plastic and other materials
Another approach is to actively avoid treating plastic as single use – reusing plastic where possible or replacing it with something that is reusable where it isn’t.
Reusable Coffee Cups
Transition Town Reading developed Refill Reading as a way to support independent local coffee shops to offer a discount for people bringing a reusable cup. The Refill Reading team have developed a range of branded reusable cups and are currently working with 18 independent cafes in Reading to help them offer a similar discount schemes to that of the national coffee shop chains. Participating coffee shops display the Refill Reading logo in their window and apply a discount for anyone bringing their own reusable cup (whether or not a Refill Reading branded one). This is something that Starbucks has been doing for a long time and other coffee chains have started doing more recently too (including Costa and Pret-a-Manger, with Café Nero offering double loyalty card points instead). Refill Reading’s initial focus on independent coffee shops was a way of ensuring the costs of starting to offer a discount scheme didn’t put the independent sector off (before savings from the reduced need to buy disposable cups began to flow through). The big challenge now is for all of us to remember to carry our reusable cup! There is an ongoing debate about the effectiveness of discount schemes in encouraging behaviour change. MPs have recommended that rather than a discount for bringing a reusable cup people should be charged for a disposable one. Starbucks is currently working with the charity Hubbub and a number of their shops in London to experiment with whether a surcharge (or ‘Latte Levy’) is more effective than a discount in encouraging behaviour change. It will be interesting to see the findings of Starbucks’s experiment.
— Jeremy Till (@jeremytill) 26 October 2017
Tap water refill networks
Refill Bude grew out of a concern about plastics on the beach. Local people, and visitors, were encouraged to ask local cafes and shops that had signed up to the campaign to refill their bottle with tap water rather than buy water in a disposable plastic bottle. The idea was picked up by City to Sea in Bristol and first of all became @RefillBristol and then spawned a network of refill towns and cities and a Smartphone app to help people find their nearest refill point. In January the water companies announced that they were getting behind the idea and teaming up with the Refill campaign to create a national network of high street retailers, coffee shops, businesses and local authorities offering new refill stations for the public to top-up their water bottles for free. Refill London is the highest profile of these new wave of refill projects, and Thames Water is their water company partner. So it will be interesting to see what good practice and lessons Thames Water can bring to Reading.
Already there are indications of a growing refill network in Reading. At the start of March there was only one refill point in Reading on the Refill app, the pioneering Ground Up Cafe. Last week the number had jumped to 26.
Where will the number stop?!
Reimagining the public water fountain
There was a time when public drinking fountains were a common site in parks and public places all over our towns and cities. But maintenance costs and changing fashions meant that many fell in to disrepair and were ultimately scrapped. But there is the beginnings of a resurgence. In February Network Rail announced its intention to install water fountains in the majority of its 17 managed UK stations by the end of the year. Reading Station is managed by Network Rail, so hopefully a water fountain will shortly be arriving at Reading Station. Reading Borough Council has also said that it intends to start a discussion with Thames Water about the possibility of reintroducing water fountains into parks and the town square.
Cyclehoop and Transport for London launch a new Cycle Station in Hyde Park which includes a free Public Bike Pump, Repair Station and Bottle Refill Station https://t.co/6g6VLkLIxJ via @cyclehoop – What a great idea! pic.twitter.com/hWwP763jqB
— TRSC (@TRSCentre) March 18, 2018
Recycling more of what we cannot reuse
In those situations where single use plastics are unavoidable, then the challenge becomes to make sure as much of it is recycled or disposed of considerately as possible so that less ends up making its way in to the environment (and on to programmes like ‘Blue Planet 2’). Again, there is plenty of stuff happening locally.
Improved kerbside collections
Reading Borough Council and Re3, its waste management partner, have recently increased the range of plastics they accept in Reading’s regular domestic recycle bin collections. It will be interesting to see how this affects recycling rates in Reading. However, a common challenge for waste management companies across the country remains contamination – materials that cannot currently be recycle being mixed with those that can as well as materials that can be recycled but which are covered in food or ‘other things’ that make it difficult or hazardous to recycle. We all need to get better at remembering what can and cannot go in which bin and in what condition. The situation is not helped by variations in recycling practice across the country, even in neighbouring boroughs. WRAP is currently working with local authorities, waste management contractors, recyclers, producers and retailers to develop proposals for greater harmonisation of recycling options and systems across the country.
System innovations to address gaps
Costa Coffee has just announced their intention to recycle the same volume of takeaway cups used by its customers every year by paying a supplement to the waste collectors for every tonne of cups collected. By doing this Costa hope to make it more financially attractive for waste collectors to collect, sort and transport coffee cups to recycling plants, reducing the number that currently end up in landfill. Clearly a reusable cup is still better, but it is a bold move from Costa that will hopefully lead to others doing the same. As part of its partnership with Festival Republic to provide Co-op Stores onsite at summer music festivals, the Co-op recently announced that it will be trying out ‘reverse-vending’ machines in their onsite stores to help festival goers recycle the plastic bottles that they’ve bought from them. This means that Reading Festival goers will be amongst the first people in the UK to experience the use of these machines. Reading Festival will continue to offer recycling facilities for plastic bottles, and other materials, brought on to site or sold by other vendors. In fact quite a few festivals have this year signed a ‘Drastic on Plastic’ pledge to ban single use plastics from their sites by 2021.
Redesigning products to reduce waste and improve recycling
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has done much to popularise the concept of the Circular Economy. The Zero Waste movement, which grew out of the concern of a number of communities around the world to find a positive alternative to the construction of incineration plants in their community, similarly challenges us to view waste as a resource. Both challenge the linear approach to waste management by adding a fourth goal: reduce, reuse, recycle and redesign. Two examples of redesign that are currently gaining a lot of press coverage are disposable cups that can be recycled and tea bags that don’t contain plastic. At a local level, the University of Reading are currently piloting a bottle that uses innovative technology to offer a customisable range of drinks, in a reusable bottle. Owners of a Sustain It bottle can top up at a number of vending machines dotted around the campus, which also dispense free water refills. The Sustain It bottles are fitted with a chip that pairs with the machine and automatically charges the user’s account for the top up. Rather neat. Reading is the first university to use the system in the UK. There are bound to be other examples of local innovation. It’d be interesting to hear about existing companies, start-ups and community projects in Reading that are using design and innovation to reduce waste too.
Getting involved and taking action locally
It is exciting to see so much happening, as well as a bit daunting. The challenge now is to make connections to build the momentum to put Reading at the forefront of removing unnecessary single-use plastics from our waste stream and so the wider environment. Who is up for the challenge?
If you would like to get involved Transition Town Reading, Reading Sustainability Centre and a group of Reading university students are starting to build a coalition of local groups, organisations and individuals working on projects to reduce plastic waste. Some people are passionate about straws, others reusable coffee cups or knowing where they can refill their water bottle with tap water while a few of us get excited about policy and strategy. The idea is to harness all the talents towards the common goal of helping Reading get as close as possible to sending zero single use plastics to landfill or the ocean. We aim to work together on some bigger projects, but mostly our focus is on better communication and sharing of knowledge between projects.