Daniel Webb is the founder of the Everyday Plastic project. After counting, analysing and photographing his annual collection of plastic waste, he was commissioned to produce a giant mural before co-authoring a seminal report titled ‘What we throw away and where it goes’, which received international media coverage. Read his story about how it all started and the impact it has had on his life so far.
In 2016, I moved to the coastal town of Margate, Kent. Because of the swathes of plastic I was seeing washed up on to the beach, I’d become more conscious of the massive amounts of packaging I was presented with in the supermarket. Twinned with the fact that I wasn’t offered any recycling at my new home, there seemed to be no way to dispose of my plastic responsibly. So, I decided to conduct a little experiment… and store all of the plastic waste I generated for a year.
When I emptied my year-long collection of plastic waste from the 22 bin bags I’d accumulated, filling the floor of a massive warehouse with thousands of familiar products and brands, I was struck by shock and sadness. This was all the stuff I’d bought, used and chucked away in 2017. Such is the nature of our fast-moving throwaway society, I barely remembered using any of it. Collecting my plastic waste for a year certainly says a lot about me, but it also says a lot about us.
Infographics credit: Designed by Leap. Courtesy of Everyday Plastic
Alongside the crisp packets, salad bags, bubble wrap, cling film and hummus pots, there were hundreds of items (worth hundreds of pounds) used to pamper myself – to improve my scent, softness, smoothness and self-esteem.
Toiletries from moisturiser and magnesium flakes to epsom salts and effervescent vitamins had filled my bathroom for years. As a student, I’d bought into a no frills Vaseline Aloe Vera cream. As a working adult, I’d graduated to a whole host of Kiehl’s products. The experience of collecting and analysing my plastic waste for a year exposed what these products really were: a bunch of plastic bottles and tubes filled with some made-up fragrant goo.
Targeted and marketed on the perceived benefits to my skin and well-being, these bottles afforded me aspiration, appeal and status as they sat on my bathroom shelves. Like many of my colleagues and friends, I was a willing subscriber to the multi-billion pound men’s grooming market. A market that by 2024 is set to be worth almost $30 billion worldwide, marking a growth of 60% in since 2014. Over the next decade, we can expect more diversification, more marketing and more fragrant goo. Post-collecting my plastic waste, I’ve dumped all my luxury toiletries, and live a perfectly sweet-smelling existence with a toothpaste and soap alone. Gone are the Kiehl’s moisturiser, facial toner and eye cream, and I can confirm that aside from the natural process of age, I look and feel exactly the same.
This shows that we’re sleepwalking through supermarkets aisles, shopping malls and online retailers, consuming without opening our eyes or understanding and acknowledging the product wrapped in plastic packaging that we’re holding in our hands. And here lies the heart of the issue.
When a culture takes root, it grows, and our throwaway consumer culture has been both subtly indoctrinated and warmly embraced.
We need to consciously and purposefully take back control of our decision-making from the hands of marketers, advertisers, retailers, shareholders and policy-makers. Impulse buys, retail therapy and convenience stores are etched into everyday language, but really they’re just catchy phrases that have been dreamt up in boardrooms.
Collecting every piece of plastic I used in a year took willpower, motivation and a shift in habit. This can easily be applied to reducing the amount of plastic we use. We need to swap convenience for a stubborn resistance. It can be done.
There are steps you can take that turn out to be cheaper and easier in the long run than using plastic. If I’d have completely given up plastic water bottles, coffee cups, straws, stirrers, cutlery, bags and shower gel, I would have thrown away 316 fewer items in 2017.
Even if we applied this amnesty to half the UK population, we could prevent 10 billion pieces from entering the waste system. And this is the key. Reducing the amount of plastic we produce and consume reduces the impact on our global waste system. So don’t let anyone ever tell you that individuals can’t make a difference!
Photo credit: ⓒ Ollie Harrop 2018. Courtesy of Everyday Plastic
You can buy the report What we throw away and where it goes from the Everyday Plastic website.
For more ideas, see our Everyday Refillable Swaps to Help Reduce Waste.
See Daniel’s giant Mural-by-the-Sea and other art works created with plastic waste.