“Why are they still using plastic like this when it isn’t recycled?” My wife Sally was standing in the kitchen waving a black plastic tray at me that moments earlier had been home to some prawns. It wasn’t the first time I had been on the receiving end of this particular complaint. Indeed, it took me back over a decade ago to my first meeting with the civil servants responsible for recycling and waste policy shortly after I had been appointed as the Environment Secretary.
As they entered my office, they probably thought “Here we go again. Another new minister to whom we’ll have to explain everything.” They were clearly not expecting what followed. Having asked what their names were, I said “Just a moment” and went over to retrieve from behind my desk a large black plastic sack which I proceeded to put in the middle of the long polished wooden table. Their trepidation intensified as I then emptied the contents of the sack onto the table. Out came bits of cardboard, wrapping, films, bottles and plastic containers of all shapes and sizes – the product of our weekly family shop. I had decided that this first meeting would start with the practicalities rather than the theory so I picked up each item and enquired whether it could be recycled. They then realised that perhaps the new boss was not that peculiar after all and I learned that recycling, for something apparently so simple, was frustratingly complicated.
Since then, some things have moved on. We are recycling a lot more and and we are now certainly aware of the scourge of discarded plastic waste which spoils our towns and countryside – the author Bill Bryson once said that Britain is a beautiful country from the ankles up – and disfigures our seas.
If all 7.4 billion of us on the planet used as much plastic as we do in the UK, it really would be unsustainable. So we need to reduce its use and make sure we can reuse or recycle all of what we still need, including those annoying black plastic trays. Apparently, they are hard to separate out in recycling centres – the machines don’t recognise them because of their colour – and so it’s not really economic to recycle them, much to my wife’s annoyance.
There’s a wider lesson here for all of us. When you think about it, it’s quite astonishing what human beings have made of the gifts the earth has bequeathed to us, by which I mean the things that grow around us and the stuff we have dug up from the ground below. Using these materials we have made the iPad that I am typing this article on, rockets that have taken men and women into space, medicines that save lives, the electric guitar and Elland Road’s huge cantilevered stand. I know, it’s an odd list but you get the idea. What we have done with what we have would astonish our ancestors, but the earth’s bounty is not endless. At some point the oil will run out and supplies of lithium, which powers the batteries in our mobile phones, may be in very short supply and as a result very expensive. Meanwhile, in some parts of the world they have started mining old landfill sites to retrieve valuable metals like aluminium, realising that it wasn’t a good idea to throw it away in the first place.
What we need now is the same human ingenuity to be applied to living our lives in a way that the earth can sustain. After all, we don’t have a spare planet stored in a cupboard somewhere to call upon when we’ve exhausted this one. So we need to use our earthly gifts in a way that allows us to hand on the one earth that we do have in good nick to the next generation.