The timing of Mrs May’s announcement did, of course, coincide with the meeting of the heads of the Commonwealth in London and Windsor. However, let’s put aside our cynicism for a moment and think of the wider implications. Here was the perfect opportunity to set the agenda and grab the headlines for the right reasons.
And why not? If the recent recycling efforts of the PM and her Environment Secretary, Michael ‘latte levy’ Gove, have achieved one thing, it is to make us all more aware of what we use and how detrimental consumer waste can be to the environment.
Mrs May says that 12 million tons of plastic are being dumped in the oceans each year – contributing to changes that are “fundamentally altering key marine ecosystems”.
Don’t under-estimate the milestone of a Prime Minister taking such a major stance on this subject. It doesn’t seem that long since the concerns raised by environmental campaigners such as Friends of the Earth were regularly derided as a hippy crusade.
Now even big business is getting onboard. The global accounting firm KPMG has recently said that it will remove all plastic cups from its water coolers, following a successful trial in their Manchester offices.
The BBC is set to follow suit, promising to scrap single-use plastic cups and cutlery across its operations by 2019. And Waitrose is introducing the ‘keep-cup’ into its stores in a bid to cut down on the cardboard cups discarded by those who can’t possibly contemplate cruising the aisles in search of the perfect avocado without a fancy coffee in hand.
Much of this revolution can be put down to the efforts of one man. Sir David Attenborough, whose BBC series Blue Planet II brought the horror of environmental destruction straight to our living rooms. Anyone who witnessed marine life dying in agony because of the sheer amount of non biodegradable plastic waste in the ocean cannot fail to have been moved.
It’s made us all look to our habits. This is why the kitchen roll has come off the worktop and is now hidden under the sink for use only in dire emergency such as pet-related incidents and red wine on carpets. Gone are the days when every piece of toast was accompanied by two pieces of quilted paper because no-one can’t be bothered to open the cupboard door and pull out a plate.
We’re not entirely uncivilised. When it comes to dinner time, we’ve found the cloth napkins which, until now, only came out at Christmas and special occasions. I’m sure that someone will point out that the process of washing these squares will impose its own toll by helping to pollute the water supply with detergent. But surely it’s better than filling the bin with pointless bits of paper or flushing them down the loo? Our blue recycling bin for paper and card is overflowing by the end of every fortnightly collection in any case. Anything we can do to reduce this burden is surely a good thing.
I’ve been thinking about our domestic consumption for a while now. And one thing that strikes me is that the refuse services we pay our council tax for simply cannot cope on their own. There is no point railing against fortnightly bin collections because we have to face facts. Local authorities only have so much money to go round and if they can’t send the bin lorry every week that’s that.
If we don’t want our rubbish to end up overflowing onto the pavement, with all the associated health and safety issues that brings, we have to take steps ourselves. And whilst it is good to know that the Government – buoyed up by the huge success of the 5p charge on plastic bags introduced a couple of years ago – is taking environmental matters seriously, we must do all what we can to help ourselves.
It’s not impossible, or even that difficult, to look for alternatives to simply consuming more and more plastic.
My 12-year-old daughter, for instance, has happily adapted her bottled water habit. She now has an array of drink carriers she can take to school or dancing class, instead of chucking dozens of empty bottles in the bin every week.
And my partner takes a flask of tea to work every morning rather than calling at every shop and garage he passes for a hot beverage – needless to say, this is saving us money too.
Every piece of kitchen roll. Every plastic knife or fork. Each coffee cup, plastic water bottle or polystyrene carton has to go somewhere. And if we could all use a little less, or outlaw our reliance on throwaway packaging all together, we would go a long way to making this world a safer and kinder place to live for all creatures.
Even Prime Ministers.