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With the Word of the Year just announced, Russell Jones looks at the background to ‘single-use’

Collins Dictionary has named ‘single-use’ as its word of 2018 in a move which is said to reflect an increasing awareness on environmental issues.

The term refers to products made to be used once and then thrown away and this got me thinking about why this has become a significant issue this year and also, why it is important.

Apparently, use of the word has increased four-fold since 2013, thanks in part to constant news stories about marine life and plastics and striking footage in pioneering programmes such as the BBC’s Blue Planet II which have steeply raised public awareness.

If you stop for a moment longer, it’s easy to see that the world we live on has only one single use as well – life.

So, unless we get very serious about our ‘single-use’ lifestyle, we are in serious danger of irrevocably harming our planet.

What did you do in the war against climate change?

Russell Jones Russell Jones Content and Communications Manager

Not my problem

It’s easy to think that this is something that governments and business should be dealing with and I’m sure that they would both argue that they are. 

However, once you start entering the world of politics and ego, it’s easy to see that public opinion is going to be a major factor in getting anything to change.

I’ve written before about Trump’s rejection of the Paris Climate Change Agreement and how, actually, individual states and businesses are carrying on with plans to reduce waste regardless of the President and a lot of this comes on the back of growing awareness amongst consumers of the effects their individual choices and purchases make – with pressure growing on individual companies and manufacturers.

The reality of the hottest days on record; unprecedented flooding around the world, forest fires in California and other well reported disasters is really starting to focus attention on how the effects of climate change are impacting on us as individuals and nations.

So, public pressure is vital to continue driving business and politicians to effect the change we all need.

But what else can we as individuals do to mitigate our own personal effect?

What to ban next?

Whether it’s straws, plastic bags, water bottles, cotton buds or more, this past year has seen a huge increase in focus on plastics and the impact of this pollution on our oceans, its wildlife and the food chain.

And collectively, this is somewhere we can all play a part. Getting your own water bottle immediately stops one more person from potentially using a disposable bottle, so the more that do it, the more waste we cut down, before it becomes a problem.

Many towns and cities are starting to introduce free refilling spots as well and there are also apps such as which show you where you can top up your fluids.

Minimising waste

I do my best to recycle and our blue bin is always fuller than the landfill bin.

The problem is that I don’t really know what can go in my bin or not? It’s not clear really and the packaging firms or labelling doesn’t help. 

As my colleague Ellina Webb has written here, recycling rules are every different depending on where you live.

That’s where the manufacturers have a serious part to play because there must be ways to minimise the amount of packaging and then minimise the amount that can’t be recycled from what’s left.

And it all needs to be made much, much more clearer.

At the moment though, there’s a lot of plastic and other packaging that can’t readily be recycled, so how do we get manufacturers to change their processes to a more sustainable business?

One impact we are trying to have on these businesses is showing how they can reduce energy use (and costs) in their operations by better use of the heating and cooling in their buildings.

As the slow roll-out of smart meters demonstrates, once you make people aware of the energy they consume, this can have a positive effect on other waste they produce.

What about you?

Here on The Hub, we’ve tried to highlight the issue with intriguing stories such as the dogs trained to recover plastic from the sea amongst others.

There’s lots we need to focus on including and especially plastics but we should also focus on the things we can all do to help ourselves as well.

At home, we don’t religiously programme the heating by season as the British climate means you can suffer random cold days at almost any time of year, but I do encourage everyone to wear jumpers and cardigans first, rather than expecting to walk round the house in t-shirts in the middle of winter.

So, have you looked at how you can reduce waste in your own home? Turning the thermostat down a degree is a well-known way but one that is worth repeating for anyone who’s forgotten this quick and money-saving way to reduce energy use.

Adding renewable heating such as an air source heat pump is another proven and viable way to reduce your carbon footprint and lower your energy bills.

Collectively, we are starting to realise that we can no longer just ‘burn stuff’ and that the age of gas and oil is rapidly coming to an end.  It is now possible to add a renewable heat pump to existing heating systems or replace these carbon intensive systems altogether if you want to be part of the future.

And with interest rates at such low values at the moment, the money you spend upgrading your heating to a renewable source is likely to offer a far better return than the banks, especially when you factor in things like the Renewable Heat Incentive, which gives you quarterly payments for every kilowatt of renewable heat you produce for the next 7 years.

What else can you do?

I spoke with my daughter about this article and she suggested that people focus on ‘Avoidable’ and ‘Unavoidable’ plastic as a good place to start.

Avoidable ones are the obvious things that society is already starting to do something about. The 5p charge on plastic bags has had a dramatic impact on their use and number. A similar thing is currently going on with disposable coffee cups.

Paper straws, cotton buds and other ‘essentials’ are now available to replace the plastic ones we have grown so used to. Wet wipes seem to be the current focus on attention.

I’ve already mentioned water bottles and many companies have done what we already have and issued staff with their own, as well as offering free water refills.

We’ve also replaced plastic cups with recyclable paper or glass and our catering team are always looking at ways to deliver good food in the most sustainable ways possible.

Things you can’t avoid

There are unavoidable plastics that we all have to use at the moment and there is no point beating ourselves up about these.

This includes things like medical use plastics, where hygiene and bio-safety are the key considerations.

It is also difficult to do the weekly shop without packaging and, short of unpacking everything in the shop and leaving it for the retailer (which is what some radicals advocate), we all end up with a collection of plastics, plastic coated paper and metal, and other composite material that we don’t know whether we can recycle of not.

That’s where we can also apply pressure to the manufacturers perhaps by writing a letter, or posting a comment on their social media channels.

A way forward?

News earlier this year that a supermarket aisle in a Dutch store was the first to offer completely recyclable packaging has led to a number of initiatives which show real promise.

Just last month the Packing Gateway website reported that Faerch Plast UK had introduced 100% recycled PET material under its Food to Go banner, with the new material reducing the need for virgin materials available from 1 January.

And in November, The Telegraph was reporting that Britain’s first supermarket in North London was operating a ‘plastic-free’ zone, with Budgens in Belsize Park promising to take the store “virtually plastic-free” within three years.

So we are moving in the right direction but there is still much, much more than needs to be done and this is where you as an individual can and should make an effort.

Regardless of how old you are now, what will you say to your grandchildren when they ask what you did in the war against climate change?

Remember, we are the first generation to be made completely and starkly aware of the harmful impact we are having on our planet

… and the last that are able to do anything meaningful about it!

Russell Jones is content and communications manager for Mitsubishi Electric