Caught by the River

Nothing Will Come of Nothing

Ben McCormick | 21st January 2018

Ben McCormick tries life plastic-free

I started smoking just after my A-Levels, on holiday in France at a campsite just outside of Antibes. No other reason but to make it look like I was a seasoned smoker to the girl who offered me a fag. Embassy Number 1, as I recall. After a full five minutes of hacking following the first drag – explained away by my dubious claim that I must have had some beer in my mouth when inhaling – the cool, bad-boy image I was trying to affect doubtless looked pathetically unconvincing. She must have seen something in that cavalier disregard for authenticity, though, as a memorable (for me, anyway) holiday romance blossomed shortly afterwards. The habit lasted much longer. As did my foolhardy belief that such elaborate attempts to find common cause would make my chances of attracting a mate considerably better.

Fast forward 30 stupid years and I’m still finding it difficult to kick the more damaging addiction. This latest scheme is at least considerably better for the planet, if not for my love life. For someone who has frittered away more time than many people have been alive chasing wild geese down blind alleys, it’s perhaps ironic that I have become a convert to the concept of zero waste. But yet again, I find myself taking up something I had hitherto shown little interest in before I’d met someone I liked who spoke passionately and convincingly about it. I’ve learned nothing.

And if that were the only reason I’ve become a miraculous convert, I could just stop now, call myself a berk and get on with idly observing as life babbled glibly along on its not-so-merry way. Granted, it’s a cause I’d have been unlikely to take up had it not been for the person who champions it, but something about this feels different. My waste footprint is pretty small as one of London’s many single people, yet I still chuck out at least one full bin of stuff every few weeks. A rudimentary scan showed all I was throwing out (and not recycling) was plastic packaging. Transparent film that keeps food from coming into contact with anything other than a thin layer of non-biodegradable compound that eventually ends up fucking up our beaches, rivers, canals, fish, sea mammals, birds and other animals that accidentally chance upon it while looking for food. I don’t even know what it does to the earth it’s buried in, but I imagine it must be about as good for it as tobacco smoke is for your lungs. I heard somewhere, perhaps apocryphally, that all the plastic ever made still exists. It doesn’t go away, you see. Stays there forever. Breaks down into tiny pieces and gets eaten by birds, fish, mammals and eventually those at the top of the food chain. And in almost all cases, it is entirely unnecessary. That’s right. We are killing our planet and pretty much ruining our health for no good reason.

But what really brought it home was an installation at this year’s Port Eliot Festival by the Rame Peninsula Beach Care project. A team of volunteers runs clean-up operations along Whitsand Bay near the St Germans site every month, removing hundreds of sacks full of marine litter every time. The rope they made out of recovered plastic bottle lids stretched for more than a kilometre and was draped around many of the trees surrounding the installation. Accompanied by some scary statistics, such as the fact that ocean plastic kills at least a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles a year, it was sobering stuff on a Sunday morning.

I’d already begun the journey before then. In addition to getting a garden and food waste bin from Southwark Council and planting some of the herbs I usually buy packaged in supermarkets, I had signed up to take part in Plastic Free July. It was incredibly difficult. I didn’t manage it, failing just before Port Eliot by buying fresh chillies and tomatoes that were needlessly wrapped in single-use plastic. I was crestfallen. Actually genuinely gutted. I’d studiously avoided mass-produced bread, instead buying it at the local bakery, where they give you a loaf in a paper bag. I’d finally found a greengrocer that doesn’t wrap cucumber needlessly in plastic film. And I’d even sourced coffee from a supplier that uses paper instead of those plasticky foil bags you can only throw out after use. Hell, I’d gone a month without any cheese, something almost impossible to procure without a suffocating film of plastic round it to ‘keep it fresh’.

But emboldened by partial success and that harrowing installation, I’ve decided to carry on as much as possible. It’s going to be difficult. Sacrifices will need to be made. I will need to carry tote bags around. I will have to buy things in bulk and ask awkward questions about whether I can bring my own containers for stuff or not. I might even need to order an organic fruit and veg delivery box and frequent places I’d usually roll my eyes at thanks to having been brought up by modern parents. But I reckon it’s worth it. As someone more committed to the cause said to me: “Once you see how all pervasive plastic is in our lives and how largely unnecessary it is, you can’t un-see it.” And now I’ve noticed, it’s making me angry enough to do something positive about it.

Thirty years is a long time and I now know this will make no difference as far as my ulterior motive was concerned. I will also still throw things in the bin and I will still dream pointless dreams. But I’ll be doing what I can to make things better for our clogged-up rivers and seas, no matter how insignificant that may seem.