Meet the Bristol woman giving up plastic for Lent
David Clensy meets the Bristol woman who has given up plastic for Lent
MOST of us, when considering whether we still have enough moral fibre left to take part in Lent by giving something up go through the usual list – chocolate, alcohol, crisps, bread?
Let’s face it, for most of us Lent has become an incentive for a late-winter health kick, rather than an act of pious abstinence.
But one Bristol woman has reinserted an ethical element into the exercise, and presented herself with a particularly challenging 40 days and 40 nights – by giving up plastic.
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There are good reasons behind Emily Smith’s choice. By day, the 24-year-old, from Filton, works as a marine consultant for Redcliffe-based marine consultancy firm Worley Parsons. Much of her working life is spent examining the environmental considerations of seaside building developments.
In her free time, Emily is a regular volunteer with the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) – she spends hours on beach-clearing duties for the charity, clearing whole swathes of West Country beaches of accumulated bottles, bags and other plastic litter.
“The great problem with plastic litter is that it takes so long to degrade,” Emily says. “Once it is in the sea, plastic can take as long as 1,000 years before it disappears – it just stays out there for generation after generation, bobbing around and littering the oceans.
“When it does decay, it breaks down into tiny pieces, which are gathered up by ocean currents and end up being churned around in circles in the middle of the biggest oceans.”
These so-called gyres in the middle of the Atlantic and Pacific have only been known to science for a few years – but it is starting to become clear just how much ecological damage they can do.
Scientists believe they can reflect the sunlight that is normally absorbed by the sea, adding to global warming. But more alarmingly, these tiny pieces of plastic can enter the food chain.
“They are about the same size as plankton,” Emily says. “So fish and whales eat up these decaying pieces of plastic, which over the years have acted like a sponge, soaking up all the pollution in the water, subsequently poisoning the creatures that eat them.”
So when it came to choosing something to give up for Lent, Emily had no hesitation in choosing plastic. But the practicalities of removing plastics from your 21st century life are easier said than done.
“When I started thinking about it, I quickly realised that it is almost completely impossible to remove all plastic from your life,” she says. “So I decided that I would focus on removing any single-use plastic items.
“The whole idea of doing this was to raise awareness, so blogging about my experience is important to me – if I gave up all plastic, I wouldn’t be able to touch my computer keyboard to write my blog, for example.
“But it’s the single-use plastics – the generally pointless bits of packaging we get on our food, that are particularly wasteful and damaging. So that’s what I’ve targeted.”
Even so, it quickly became apparent that this would not be an easy challenge.
“I have had to strip back my usual shopping list, and start from scratch. A lot of the extraneous packaging comes from convenience shopping in supermarkets. So I have started using all my local shops on Gloucester Road.
“I can buy a loaf of bread from the bakery, and ask for it to be wrapped in a paper bag. I can get meat from the butchers, fish from the fish mongers, fruit and veg from the greengrocers.
“A lot of it is about going back to how people used to shop before plastics took over everything. I couldn’t have milk in plastic bottles, so I had to go back to having a milk man – it’s lovely to have a milkman delivering milk in glass bottles again.”
Some of the more surprising difficulties centred on cosmetics.
“I realised that almost all my make-up contained plastics,” Emily says. “So I had to throw it all out and buy make-up that was more environmentally sound.
“Lots of shampoos and conditioners contain tiny pieces of plastic that are meant to act as exfoliants. They go straight down the drain and straight into the oceans. But I went to the Lush store in Broadmead, and they very patiently went through their products showing me which ones were plastic-free. They were so impressed by the project, they gave me all the products free of charge.”
But one of the biggest challenges was finding non-plastic bin bags.
“Hopefully, the project itself will mean that I won’t have anything like as much waste to put in my bin each week,” she says. “But I still need something to line my kitchen bin with. In the end I asked my local greengrocers if I could have the sacks that the potatoes gets delivered in. They were happy to help, and gave me a pile of them.”
One of Emily’s biggest concerns is that her birthday is in March – at the height of Lent.
“I’m worried that people will buy me presents that will be packaged in plastic,” she says. “But hopefully everyone kind enough to buy me a present will know all about what I’m up to.”
As well as highlighting the issues around plastic pollution, Emily is also appealing for sponsorship. She has already raised £300 for the Marine Conservation Society.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s all for a good cause,” she says. “And I think after 40 days of living like this, some of the changes in my lifestyle will become permanent – I am likely to use my local independent shops much more from now on.”
To follow Emily’s blog, or to sponsor her, visit her website at http://plasticbeaches.blogspot.co.uk