I am 75 years old and it is during my lifetime that plastics have evolved. It is hard to believe that over a mere 50-year period, plastics could be responsible for systematically polluting our environment and our bodies. This trend has to be urgently reversed and it can only be done by us, the people that so willingly embraced all things plastic over the past half century.
It is not hard to understand why we did this, as plastics have wonderful qualities and have made our lives easier in so many ways: the plastics that we generally use are light and durable, inexpensive, easily accessible, waterproof and can be chilled and frozen. However, they are also far more dangerous than we ever knew and are polluting our planet and surreptitiously entering into our water systems, food, and even our bodies. We all apparently currently consume the equivalent of a credit card piece of plastic a week– not in one piece but in fragments.
When I came to live in London in 1966, I cannot recall many supermarkets apart from the then American Safeway chain. As everything that we bought came from local shops, one went armed with a basket into which all purchases were bought. We were so excited when we knew that a large Sainsbury’s supermarket was opening on Kings’ Road. Visiting was an exciting experience. Thinking back, the minute steaks were on a pressed polystyrene tray with a piece of plastic stretched over it. That was the first plastic-covered food that I recall coming into contact with. It was also the first thin-pressed polystyrene that I had encountered.
When I was a child, we used to take our lunch to school in a tin with the sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper. Fruit and veg came loose or in brown paper bags. Meat was wrapped in greaseproof paper too. Lots of stuff, like our loaves of bread, were carried unwrapped or had a small strip of paper around them where hands touched them. Milk came in bottles and was delivered daily by a milkman. We would put the ‘empties’ out and the milkman picked those up each day as he dropped off the new daily milk. We only drank water straight from the tap from a glass. We did not have plastic water bottles or plastic glasses and when melamine, a hard type of plastic, was invented, we thought that the cups and plates that we ate off were wondrous. They were thick, resembled china ones and hailed from the USA. They were light years ahead of us in using plastic-type materials imaginatively.
Food was stored in glass jars or my Mum used to use Pyrex containers with glass lids in the refrigerator. When she had to freeze fresh produce like garden peas, she used waxed cardboard containers, which worked perfectly.
We thought that bakelite – a form of hard plastic – was amazing. That lasted and lasted and was super durable. Telephones were made of that, as were ash trays and even office utensils.
At Cookery School, our sustainable transformation has been slow and measure, with lots of room for experimentation and ensuring we get it right. We rid ourselves of single-use plastic years ago and it was amazing how creative we became at substituting other items for the missing plastic.
Some of the initiatives we introduced were:
- – Replaced plastic containers with Pyrex dishes with hard plastic lids. These are oven and freezer-proof and so all leftovers are placed in these and frozen for later use. They are also used as storage containers in our fridges.
- – Using saucers and plates of all sizes to cover our bowls, whether rising bread in the kitchen or for storing in the fridge.
- – We now ask our students to bring in their own bags and freezer bags when necessary
- – We don’t (and have never) offered plastic straws and disposable cutlery or plates
- – Partnered with Delphis Eco, the first UK cleaning company to make their bottles from 100% recycled plastic.
- – Asked all suppliers to sign a sustainability agreement, which includes using sustainable resources to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill, such as recycling and reusing products.
- – Started investigating the use of silicone. We have been testing silicone bags for freezing. They are still clumsy but there have been huge developments in the last two years so we expect to see a refined product in the market very soon.
If we start thinking about a time before we used plastic in the quantities that we do, perhaps we may find it simpler than expected to find solutions. I smile inwardly when I hear companies boasting about the paper straws that they are using. As a child we loved sipping drinks through straws – generally a treat of coca cola or ginger beer but always in a bottle – and they were always made of paper. Plastic did not exist then! We need more of this thinking – it’s time to go back to basics.