You can’t turn on the telly box or scroll through social media without seeing someone talking about the catastrophic impact that plastic waste is having on our environment. Given the statistics on the subject, it’s hardly surprising so much attention is being paid to it.
Research by Sky Ocean Rescue shows that nearly nine in ten Brits are concerned by the UK’s use of plastics, but the reality is that two thirds goes to landfill where it takes 500 years or more to degrade. Meanwhile, 12 million tonnes end up in our oceans and there’s also the depressing situation that, for now at least, local councils are unable to recycle all plastic. With figures like this it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but there are individuals and organisations looking for solutions.
“It’s not this eco-warrior problem,” says Rachel Lewis, the brains behind Plastic Shed, a Stockport-based up-cycling initiative which provides different ways for people to become involved with re-using plastic waste, and aims to bring people together. “It affects you no matter what your ability or your gender. We all contribute to the problem and we all have the ability to do something about it.”
Lewis is a fellow of Year Here, a postgraduate course in social innovation based in London. It was her experience spending time in a community centre that sparked the idea for Plastic Shed. Social isolation is endemic in our society and Plastic Shed views tackling plastic waste as “an amazing opportunity for everyone to work together, with a shared sense of purpose”.
She says: “I was trying to think of something that was a common problem and plastic is this huge issue right now. It’s in The Guardian and the Daily Mail with the same agenda, and all people from different walks of life and backgrounds have got this motivation to do something about it.”
Plastic Shed was inspired by Precious Plastic, a global community working towards a solution to plastic pollution by providing tools and knowledge; an initiative that has been so successful it’s been picked up by hundreds of people around the world who have gone on to build machines that recycle plastic waste. Lewis is now aiming to secure money to buy one of these machines, which can be easily assembled and implanted, for a project in Stockport.
“I’d heard about the Precious Plastic community established by Dave Hakkens who is basically an inventor and has done lots of cool projects, and I saw that he’s set up an open source platform where anyone can build a recycling machine. His ethos is that everyone would have the resources no matter where you are in the world to make these machines. So, whether you’re in a desert or London, you could use it. The idea of being able to do that as a massive community project was a big inspiration.”
Plastic Shed has also drawn inspiration from the UK Men’s Shed Association.
“The idea was for retired men to go into their shed and make something to give purpose to their day. But it’s such an isolated activity so they organised groups where men can come together and have a project where they can work on it together, make friends and share skills. That’s exactly what I want Plastic Shed to be, but instead of just men it would include everyone, and instead of traditional carpentry it would be plastics.”
Lewis has already held a workshop with The Wellspring, a charity for the homeless, and while attendees weren’t initially interested in plastics, they were interested in the arts and crafts process. The workshop resulted in handcrafting poppies for Remembrance Day.
“They were contributing something to a community project and that was a big incentive for them. I’m new to Stockport so I’m at the stage where I need to understand what’s going on in the community and so I am reaching out to different groups like Disability Stockport and The Wellspring, and just understanding how they can get involved. I am getting in touch with local churches, schools and businesses and collecting plastics.”
So, what is the importance of recycling plastic waste and why should local communities get involved?
“I’ve always been eco-conscious, but I’ve never been fanatical about it,” says Lewis. This is an attitude that mirrors my own. The plastic crisis is unavoidable and, once you’ve opened your eyes to the extent of the problem, it’s impossible not to want to do more to combat the issue.
Lewis continues: “I have always been interested in arts and crafts and making things so the fact that plastic is this great material, it’s durable, flexible, the fact that you can recycle it and still get really good quality stuff, it feels like such a total waste that we’re throwing it in the bin and it’s terrible for the environment.”
For Lewis, starting locally is a great chance to witness a change in behaviour towards plastic waste and for people to see that it’s an achievable process. “Even in Stockport there’s so much plastic waste and, especially with the fact that the council can only recycle bottles, it does mean that there is so much that is just going into general waste.”
Making choices to be plastic-free can often be expensive. “I buy plastic-free toothpaste and it costs £6 a pot,” says Lewis, and we chat a bit about how pricey it is to be conscious about what we consume. For Instagram influencers, who are often gifted with products, or those with more disposable income, adopting a sustainable, waste-free lifestyle seems more attainable than for someone less privileged. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if manufacturers began addressing these issues? “It would be amazing to see the influence of consumers on brands,” agrees Lewis. “And for people to say ‘no, this is what we want’ and for brands to actually do it.”
She adds: “With Plastic Shed, it would be great to work with low-income families who perhaps don’t have the time or money to make plastic-free choices, so that their plastic doesn’t go to waste and end up polluting the environment.”
If Plastic Shed is lucky enough to secure a recycling machine, what could it make?
“With plastic, you can make so many things if you’ve got the right equipment. The long goal is to set up with the machinery and then we can shred and melt the plastic into moulds where we can make clothes pegs and coat hangers. But we are still trying to get the money for funding a machine and the space to do it in.
“Eventually, we could make stuff like buttons and jewellery, brooches and clocks, that’s where we could go with it now and then, in the future, we could be really specialist and even produce big sheets of plastic and make furniture. We can then also do more typical up-cycling like producing eco bricks to make benches and vertical gardens using plastic tubs as flowerpots.”
There’s something wonderful about people collecting and giving their waste to a local project which can then create something functional and beautiful to put back into the community. Let’s hope that this is the future.