My plastic-free life: an interview with Kate Armstrong

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Posted Jun 4 2017 by Sophie Paterson of Lowimpact.org
Plastic-free - better for trees?

You may remember from our post in May that the month of June marks The Marine Conservation Society’s Plastic Challenge. But what is it actually like to give up plastic? We spoke to campaigner Kate Armstrong of plasticisrubbish.com about her decade-long journey towards and campaign for a plastic-free existence.

So tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Kate. I am married and we live in Yorkshire, England, in a small industrial town. We don’t have pets or kids. We shop at supermarkets when we have to, we eat meat, drink alcohol and munch cheese. Giving up is not in our nature! We want to do everything but without creating a huge pile of non-biodegradable, possibly carcinogenic, lethal to wildlife rubbish that future generations will have to clean up. So in 2006 we decided to give up plastic. I started the blog www.plasticisrubbish.com to record our successes and failures. We do it for free, it is our voluntary environmental work if you like. We travel, backpack, a lot and do it plastic-free. No bottled water for us.

Was there a particular moment which sparked this decision?

One day about 12 years ago now, a plastic bag got tangled in the tree outside my house. Months later it was still there. Next year, when the leaves fell, there it was! Looking all ragged and tatty and even more unpleasant. It was then I realised that plastic rubbish, unlike an apple core, say, doesn’t biodegrade. I know it seems obvious now but I had never considered it before. Plastic of course lasts for decades, if not for ever, yet we are using it to make one-use, throwaway and trashy, short-life items.The rubbish we are making in such huge amounts will be around for ever.

Just some statistics: according to WRAP, the world’s annual consumption of plastic materials has increased from around 5 million tonnes in the 1950s to nearly 100 million tonnes today, while the amount of plastic waste generated annually in the UK is estimated to be nearly 5 million tonnes. Most plastic (and we are talking millions of tonnes a year) doesn’t biodegrade. All that plastic rubbish lasts for centuries, possibly forever! Because it doesn’t biodegrade, every bit of plastic waste, every sweet wrapper and crisp packet, has to be collected and specially disposed of, which costs a lot of money. If it escapes out into the environment it is there for a very long time. That was food for thought.

You clearly felt very strongly about the issue and sharing it with others. How did you go about building a campaign?

My campaign to help others live plastic-free started with a personal boycott and a blog. Using a material that lasts for ever to make disposable throw away products has to be a misuse of plastic, no? Which brought it right back to me: while I might not have been mindlessly scattering plastic litter, I was certainly misusing plastic. I too was a part of the problem.

I got to thinking how much plastic rubbish we, my husband and I, created. In fact I monitored it. I saved all our plastic rubbish for a week. By the end of 7 days I was running out of space. One look at our mighty pile made us see how plastic dependent we were so we decided to boycott it bit by bit, to start slow – build up those green muscles gradually. Each month we would stop “using” a piece of disposable plastic, and source a non-plastic alternative. In January 2007 we launched our 12 steps programme for a cleaner planet. We called it that because a) we were giving up plastic and b) we thought it would take 12 months!

The project struck a chord with people. Then I started posting pictures of plastic pollution on Facebook. The campaign pretty much grew from there. The blog now lists over 350 plastic-free alternatives to everyday items including frozen peas (yes, you can buy them loose – see below). It has been featured in various newspapers plus we partner a number of great awareness raising campaigns.

Peas can be bought plastic-free if you know where to look

And how have people reacted to your work?

The response to mine and other anti-plastic campaigns has been hugely positive. In the last 10 years I have seen the movement grow and it is now almost mainstream. There have been plastic bag taxes applied, you can buy compostable corn starch bags in Tesco’s and taking your own produce bags to supermarkets hardly raises eyebrows anymore. That’s not all down to me, I hasten to add, but it’s great to see how perceptions of plastic have changed.

And based on your experiences, what do you think is the most powerful tool to persuade others to support the cause?

The best way to make people plastic aware is to show the damage that plastic is doing. Photos of plastic trash polluting the planet and hurting animals illustrate the real effects better than anything. Of course they need to backed up with information about plastic. Case studies about plastic-free living show what can be done to tackle the problem. Support groups on social media where plastic-free tips can shared are hugely useful in encouraging people to make small changes that all add up.

Has your work led you into any other areas of low-impact living you may not otherwise have discovered?

There comes a point when living plastic-free means making stuff. Sometime you just cannot buy what you want and so your only option is to source the ingredients and actually produce something: food, face cream and even clothes. Lots of food comes plastic packed and if you boycott glass jars (they have plastic lined lids), then you really need to learn how to make ketchup and Branston. Turns out it is not that hard. Sauces and pickling were closed (cookery) books to me before this.

Same goes for growing. If I want lettuce or fresh basil free of plastic packaging I have to grow them. Growing a pot of herbs or salad leaves is really quite easy and immensely satisfying. Slow cooking and growing food are all good in themselves but they have another benefit. When you spend time making something you don’t let it go to waste. Every bit of sauce and every last lettuce leaf gets eaten. It has made me much more aware of food waste. Buying plastic free food often has other benefits. Unpackaged food is usually seasonal and local. No need to package it if it doesn’t have to travel too far or if there is a glut. I find myself using market and local shops more than I did. So there’s another couple of green goals achieved.

Every time synthetic fabrics are washed they shed microfibres. Even natural fibre clothing may have a plastic element. One way to ensure that your clothes are plastic free is to make them yourself, so I leant to sew. That might not be so low-impact in itself but now that I can make simple outfits I can source fabrics I wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. Finally I can buy fair trade organic clothes. Or rather I can (just about) afford fair trade organic fabric and make them myself.

I have also learnt to make personal care products. This cuts a whole load of plastic trash but also means I can avoid palm oil and use organic oils. I always get a feeling of surprise when I make a face cream that is as good as shop bought but it’s really simple, fun to do, so much cheaper and I get to control what goes on my body, where it comes from and what environmental impact it has. I can now make everything from sun block to toothpaste.

Finally it has got me weighing clothing and rationing my fibres. As an experiment, I have pledged to use no more than my fair global share of fibres. Whats a global share? Currently the global consumption of clothing works out (roughly) at 11.74 kg per person, of which 3.8 kg is natural fibres. As I don’t like synthetics I try to stick to 3.8 kg of natural fibres. Why not just use 11 .74 kg of natural fibres? Fabric production, like everything, has an environmental impact and carbon footprint, a rather large one actually. I would argue that it is not sustainable for us all to have 11.74 kg of natural fibres a year. This is one of the promoted benefits of plastic, that it takes the pressure off natural resources. Synthetic fabrics mean less land grab to grow cotton. But synthetic fabrics like any other plastic are massively polluting.

So if we cannot produce more, we have to consume less. This is how the equation works for me:

We cannot exceed current levels of production + we cannot expect others to want less than we have + we cannot swamp the market with synthetics = therefore I have to live with my global share of natural fibres.

But can it be done? My cautious reply after 2 and a half years is yes, it can.

Kate Armstrong of plasticisrubbish.com

What are your hopes and plans for the future? Is a plastic-free or nearly plastic-free existence possible for everyone?

I don’t dislike plastic as such, I dislike the misuse of plastic. Strong, durable, light weight, long-lasting and cheap, plastics are integral to the development and production of products that have changed the world for the better. Furthermore to replace all plastic products with “natural” alternatives would place a huge strain on the environment. I realise that a total ban on all plastics is not a realistic or even a desirable goal, but how plastic is used needs to be stringently examined, along with what it is used for and how it is reused at the end of a product’s life.

Single use disposable plastic products and trashy half life plastic products resulting in rubbish with a life span of centuries are not a clever use of plastic and I am proof that you can cut most plastic trash. We have sourced a surprising number of packaging-free, sustainable, biodegradable and reusable alternatives to everyday products. Now we send very little to landfill or to be recycled. Instead we compost like demons. It feels good to know we have taken responsibility for our own rubbish and can dispose of most of it ourselves. If the bin men go on strike we don’t have to worry. Is that green or just my 70′s childhood trauma revealing itself?

Either way it sounds a good thing to us! So, to ‘wrap things up’, where would you recommend readers go to find out more?

A good way to try plastic-free living is with friends, for a limited period. Plastic Free July is an annual worldwide campaign that encourages people to give up plastic for a month. It has a great website and loads of useful tips. And there is lots of support from others doing it. Going plastic-free in other months? There are a lot of great plastic-free bloggers out there who have done sterling work in promoting a life less plastic. See if you can find one blogging in your country or even town. They will be a treasure of local plastic-free resources. You can find links here organised by country.

The Plastic Is Rubbish Facebook group is a great resource that brings plastivists together to share tips and information. While open to anyone, it tends to focus on the UK. The Rubbish Diet is a another UK based program. While not specifically about plastic, it will help you cut your trash and dispose of what you have more responsibly. Surfrider Foundation (US and worldwide) supports local, regional, state and national campaigns on plastic pollution. Finally, Surfers Against Sewage (UK) campaign against marine litter. Have a look at No Butts on the Beach, Return to Offender and Think Before You Flush.

Many thanks indeed for sharing your story with us, Kate. We hope our readers will be similarly inspired to try a life less plastic – be it for a month, a year or even a lifetime!

You can find more about Kate’s Plastic is Rubbish campaign here. If you’re ready to take on the Plastic Challenge from 1st-30th June 2017, click here for details from the Marine Conservation Society – do let us know how you get on by commenting below, we’d love to hear about your experiences. Finally, take a look at our Craft skills, making & mending topics If you’re looking for easy things to get you started making plastic-less alternatives.