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DRASTIC PLASTIC by Dirk Campbell

The annual Lewes raft race is on July 1st — Ouseday as it's now called — and the organisers have come up with a new slogan: 'Think Before You Throw'. Last year eggs, fireworks and even a frozen chicken were among the objects hurled at the raftsmen, but the message refers to plastic pollution as well as dangerous missiles. It's a message that could be applied globally: 'Think Before You Throw Away'. As the ecological campaigner Julia Butterfly Hill has famously said, 'There is no "away".' Whether we put plastic in the bin or in the recycling or whether we don't, it's still going to be somewhere. It doesn't biodegrade (unless it’s not actually plastic) and it doesn't evaporate. Obviously we need to consume less of it but what to do about the billions of tonnes that are already out there?

Plastic has always been at best a convenient necessity; at worst, an environmental hazard and a symptom of aesthetic deterioration. If you're old enough to remember the 60s (whether or not you were there), you'll recall the phrase 'plastic people' used as a generic insult. The royal family were laughed at for putting plastic flowers on dining tables. Dislike of plastic goes back a long way. Yet we used it, and today continue increasingly to use it, not because we particularly want to but because it's inescapable. Most of what we buy is either made of it or packed in it. We couldn't go back to a world of glass, tin and brown paper packages tied up with string. There are just too many people and the impact on the global economy, not to mention the ecological impact on the planet, would be terminal.


By contrast with other processes, plastic manufacturing is ecologically inoffensive. Plastics are made from oil, oil comes out of the ground fairly easily, it can be turned into an enormous number of different chemicals and materials with comparatively little energy or environmental knock-on except for people who live downwind of the factory. But whereas steel oxidises and paper biodegrades, plastic is forever (though I don't see the plastics industry using that as a slogan any time soon). Even so-called biodegradable plastics don't really biodegrade, they just break down into smaller and smaller bits of plastic. Every single polymer molecule that has ever been produced is still in existence — apart from the small fraction that has been incinerated (Ecowatch). That's over eight billion metric tons in total, enough to cover Argentina, half of which has been produced in the last 13 years (Geyer, UCSB). Nearly all plastics can theoretically be recycled (BPF), but for most of it the process is too expensive. In reality only a third is worth recycling and in practice less than 10% does actually get recycled. Half of all plastics become waste after four or fewer years of use (Geyer). Eventually all plastics become waste unless you incinerate them.


So here's the picture. Plastic production is increasing exponentially, we are not going to stop using it because it's just too cheap and convenient, if we did stop using it there would not be enough alternative material on the planet to replace it, and it's filling up our oceans and landfill because we don’t or can't recycle it. Incineration is starting to look pretty attractive.  


We opposed the Newhaven Incinerator from the outset. We presented East Sussex County Council with comprehensive and detailed reasons why it was a bad thing. Clouds of toxic gas would waft over Denton and up the Ouse Valley, generally blight our lives and cause property prices to plummet. Or so we thought. And really, incineration is not a good solution. It produces lots of CO2 (probably about the same amount in a year as Lewes does on bonfire night), toxic gases and residues and increases heavy vehicle traffic — surely a better recycling policy would obviate the need for such a behemoth? In fact no, it wouldn't. ESCC came to the early conclusion that incineration, though admittedly bad, was the least worst option. Recycling, as we now know, will not solve the problem of plastic waste. It is better described as downcycling anyway because it ends up as traffic cones or rugs which eventually have to be disposed of. Landfill doesn't make plastic go away or turn into anything else. The most effective form of disposal is incineration.

Among the many arguments against effective disposal is that it will encourage higher production and just perpetuate the problem, on the same principle that if you widen the M25 to ease traffic congestion, you just get more people using the M25. A better response to the traffic problem would be to improve other methods of transport and reduce the need for people to travel in the first place, but that's not how planners think. And anyway road-building is supposed to stimulate the economy (the modern debt-based economy has to grow or die, remember). The other stimulus is to start a war; Hitler famously applied both remedies to the German economy in the 1930s. Well, we are involved in plenty of proxy wars, selling huge numbers of weapons to trigger-happy middle Eastern potentates, but this is not the place to go off on that particular tangent. Let me just mention that the global weapons industry is worth over $370 billion anually (SIPRI) and the pressure to upscale it comes from our economic and banking system in which tomorrow's growth is the collateral for today's debt. In other words the economic model we are saddled with has to grow constantly in order not to collapse under its own weight.


We can’t introduce other materials than plastic to do the same job, but can we reduce the amount of it? In theory yes, but not in time. Sudden plastic reduction would have a serious effect on the global economy. Apart from anything else it would put up food prices and increase food waste. A shrink-wrapped cucumber lasts ten times longer on a supermarket shelf and in your fridge, because it doesn't go mouldy. The number of people employed in the plastics industry itself, making the material, designing and making the shrink-wrapping, injection moulding and forming machines and operating them is enormous. The sector that designs and manufactures such machines is currently worth over $650 billion per year (GVR Inc). The plastic product and packaging manufacturing industry is itself worth another $488 billion (IBISWorld). Add those two figures and you get three times the value of the global weapons industry.

Transition Town Lewes has the slogan 'local solutions to global problems'. Is there anything we can meaningfully do at a local level about the global plastic waste problem? Plastic Free Lewes (PFL, not to be confused with the PLF, though I'm sure we'd all like to see Palestine liberated) meets once a month to discuss solutions and report on progress. To an extent, PFL is pushing on an open door. Everybody hates what plastic is doing to our world. Nobody wants to see plastic outweigh fish in our oceans. But we are trapped. If all plastics were to be suddenly whipped away, our whole civilisation would instantly collapse. We do what we can. We reuse, refuse, reduce, recycle and do actions outside supermarkets. But it will not stop timber merchants wrapping crates in swathes of plastic, nor your new computer being packed in expanded polystyrene. That particular door is going to take a lot more pushing to open all the way.


Many years ago I read a book. So long ago I can't remember the title let alone the author's name. (I have tried to google it but to no avail.) What it said in essence was this: 'Democratic governments no longer serve their electorates. Government now exists primarily to provide service and infrastructure for big business. This means that if we want to change things it's no use applying to our political representatives or going on demonstrations; we must exert our consumer power. Which we can do, paradoxically, with greater and more immediate effect than if we lobbied our MP. Business is highly sensitive to its customers because success depends on response to buying trends.' For example, 100 people could change Tesco's head office policy by going into their local branch (at different times, not all together, that would alarm them) and saying they would no longer shop there because they didn't like the amount of plastic. Or, to take another issue close to my heart, 100 customers could influence the British weapons manufacturing industry by going to a trade fair and saying they didn't like the indiscriminate sale of weapons to fascist states. More difficult, obviously, to pose as a ballistic missile customer than as a supermarket customer but you get my point. We can directly change the world because those who supply us with what we need can't do without our money. If we tell them what we do and don't like about their service it will change the way they behave.

There's also the matter of education. This town, though certainly a plastic waste offender, is not the worst in the country, and the UK is not the worst in the world, though it is the second worst in Europe. We in the UK contribute just 0.2% (254,000 tonnes annually) of total global plastic waste entering the oceans. The worst offender in the world is China with nearly a quarter of the annual total of 12.7 million tonnes, a fair proportion of which is probably from the landfill waste that Europe sends to China and doesn't actually end up in landfill. But be that as it may, we can't do anything about educating China. We can, however, educate our own growing generation, and we can educate our own chain stores and supermarkets by going in there and telling the duty manager what we think. If you are interested in joining one of PFL's groups on education, supermarkets, local traders, drinking water or recycling, do it now! 

You can learn more about Plastic Free Lewes here or join the Plastic Free Lewes Facebook Group here

NEXT MONTH: microbes and ocean clean-up.


Shoppers urged to unpack the plastic

Following on from the success of Lewes' first Unpack the Plastic event outside Waitrose in May, shoppers in town are being urged to take back their plastic packaging to supermarkets on every first Saturday of the month as part of a national campaign spearheaded by #notourplasticproblem.

Plastic Free Lewes is lobbying the local supermarkets to reduce their plastic packaging. To increase pressure, it is encouraging shoppers to think about what plastic they could do without - then hand back any excessive packaging to the supermarket it came from.

"Half of the 1.5 million tonnes of plastic waste that UK households generate every year is created by Britain's leading supermarkets," says Lynda Durrant of Plastic Free Lewes's supermarkets group, "The supermarkets can no longer say this is the shopper's problem to sort out. If we are going to tackle global plastic pollution, the supermarkets have to start taking responsibility for their contribution to it."

Plastic Free Lewes has produced a leaflet with tips on how to cut down on plastic when shopping, plus a wishlist of actions it would like the big supermarkets to take to tackle plastic waste. 

Click on the text below to view the leaflets:

What could we do while shopping?


We want all supermarkets to agree to:


"Half of the 1.5 million tonnes of plastic waste that UK households generate every year is created by Britain's leading supermarkets," says Lynda Durrant of Plastic Free Lewes's supermarkets group, "The supermarkets can no longer say this is the shopper's problem to sort out. If we are going to tackle global plastic pollution, the supermarkets have to start taking responsibility for their contribution to it." 

See more about Plastic Free Lewes and dates of monthly meetings



Lewes’ first Electric Car Show attracts 400 visitors

The inaugural Lewes Electric Car Show held on Saturday 21 April was a huge success, attracting around 400 members of the public.



In total 13 electric and hybrid cars were on display at the event hosted by Transition Town Lewes and Ovesco, the community energy company. Models included the Tesla S, the Nissan Leaf, the Hyundai Ioniq, Renault Zoe, Kia Soul and Smart Car, plus other cars by BMW, Toyota and Mitsubishi.

Visitors were able to quiz the owners about the practicalities of owning and driving an electric car and compare data for each model on real world mileage, charging times, speed and emission data. Talking to the owners gave non-electric car drivers reassurance on common concerns such as "range anxiety" – how far they would be able to travel and how they would be able to charge their car if it ran out of power unexpectedly.

None of the owners at the show had ever required rescue because of flat batteries and they emphasised how your driving behaviour adapts to energy management.

Matthew Bird, sustainability officer and lead on electric vehicle strategy at Mid Sussex District Council gave a talk on owning an electric car, the charging network and what the future might hold. A point he made was that the majority of people with an electric car either charge at work or at home and seldom need to use public charging points. A new and important EU grant was mentioned: a 40% contribution to the cost of buying an electric car for small businesses in East Sussex - more here 



Organiser Julia Waterlow says: “It was fantastic that this new event attracted so much interest and got such a positive reception from visitors. We are especially grateful to the marvellous owners who gave up their Saturday to come along with their cars and provide so much practical information to visitors. We’d like to thank Harvey’s Brewery for generously allowing us to hold the event in their yard – and Matthew Bird for a really useful and interesting talk.”

“One concern we heard from potential buyers, however, is that there are only two public electric vehicle charging points in Lewes, with many asking if the council, the supermarkets and large employers can take action to address this,” Julia said. “People who regularly have to drive long distances are also holding back from taking the plunge until there is greater provision of charging points across the country. For these reasons, some visitors told us they are initially looking at hybrid vehicles, which can fall back on a standard petrol engine when required.”

Future plans
Given the speed at which electric vehicle technology is progressing, lots of visitors asked if the Lewes Electric Car Show could be a regular event. “We will be looking to hold further shows in the future,” says Julia. “New developments in electric car technology are happening almost weekly. The one thing that you can be sure of is that both the cars and the network will be even more sophisticated within a very short time.”




Electric Vehicles

There are many good websites already covering the subject so here are links which should give you all the information you need. Note that the technology and models are changing fast so you are best to look at specialist websites like Zap Map and Nextgreencar which update regularly.

As a general introduction to electric cars, here's an excellent article by Geoff Barnard from Steyning 

    Car Club
Co-wheels car club has electric cars.


    Next Green Car
Comparisons of how green any car is (over its life), and general information on every aspect of electric vehicles here...


    Charging points
To find out about charging points, and get some of the latest up to date information on electric cars see Zap Map. They also have a guide to buying an electric car.

have charging points and offer half price charging for customers.

Office for low emission vehicles
What the government is doing.

Used electric cars: Here are a couple of websites to look at:


Different makes:








only hybrid



Record numbers of people are buying electric cars and plug-in hybrids, but many people still have reservations – and many of those centre on charging. How easy is it, where can you do it; how can you do it; and how long does it take? This video answers some of these questions:



Electric cars will come of age in 2018. For the first time they will compete in price and performance with petrol and diesel cars. But in the year ahead we will also be confronted with some uncomfortable truths about going electric.



Transition is about the creation of resilient communities. It's not about campaigning but designing. It's about putting in place systems that will help us to deal with the big changes that are on the way. Those changes will be in three main areas: energy, the economy and the environment. Read more and get linked in to the bigger picture!

Tell everyone you know about Transition Town Lewes
Together we can achieve so much more. We’re fuelled by local ingenuity and a passion for positive change in challenging times. This is our town, our future, so get in touch to share your ideas and be involved.

Take a look at our events, read some news and hopefully, get inspired by what you find here.



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