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How much plastic are we using everyday: an interview with Planet Hero Daniel Webb

Our Planet Hero shines a light on the most inspirational people taking action to protect our planet. Series 1 is sponsored by REN Clean Skincare. In this interview we talk to Daniel Webb, founder of Everyday Plastic, an organisation tackling over-packaging, recycling myths, disposable culture and helping people be more plastic savvy. It all started when he saved all the plastic he used for a year: 4,490 pieces.

How did Everyday Plastic begin?

In 2016, I moved to the coastal town of Margate, Kent. Because of the swathes of plastic I was seeing washed up on 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.

After taking 22 bags filled with plastic out of my spare room, I counted, categorised, analysed and photographed every piece. In 2018, I launched Everyday Plastic when I was commissioned to make a giant mural before co-authoring a report – What we throw away and where it goes – with Dr Julie Schneider, based on rigorous analysis of my collection.

You once saved all the plastic you used for a year. What was your biggest learning from that experience?

I learned so much – not just about the plastic problem, but also about myself. Seeing every single piece of my plastic waste laid out on the floor in front of me was the most shocking and visceral moment I had. I couldn’t remember buying or using hardly any of it (apart from a pack of Bolognese crisps from Rotter dam – yum), yet here it all was – a legacy of thousands of snap decisions, quick fixes and superfluous choices.

Since then, I have heavily reduced what I buy and consume. I take my time when making purchasing decisions and try to plan as much as I can. Being able to pause and consider what I buy has been a major game changer for me. Not just in the supermarket, but generally in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not perfect. That way, I often find a need a quick fix of Hula Hoops.

What were your major learnings from co-authoring ‘what we throw away and where it goes’?

I was really keen to make sure that this experiment was as honest and authentic as possible, so I made sure I carried on consuming as I normally would. I’d already given up drinking water out of plastic bottles and was consciously taking my KeepCup for coffee on-the-go (still ended up with 52 throwaway cups and lids, though), but everything else was the same.

I threw away a total of 4,490 individual pieces of plastic in a year. By weight, this turns out to be under the average compared to an average UK citizen. So if this was the case, by applying the number of pieces I threw away to the rest of the UK population would mean that as a nation, we are throwing away 295 billion pieces of plastic a year. A frightening figure.

We found that 67% of the waste that I chucked out in that year was use to wrap, package or consume food and drink. That only 30% is considered recyclable by councils across the UK, and most alarmingly, just 4% would end up getting recycled here in the UK.

One of the key aims of your ‘Everyday Plastic’ report was for it to be accessible to everyone – how do you think the language and narrative around sustainability and campaigning needs to change to be more inclusive?

As I was learning more about this issue, I was struggling to connect with some of the articles and commentary around plastic pollution. It felt distant, abstract… something that happened in other parts of the world. It is also a big and complex problem that for many people, is easier to ignore than confront or acknowledge.

Plastic waste is one of the major issues of our generation. So how do you make this problem matter to people, all of whom have different beliefs, wants and needs?

I was always keen to communicate the findings from my experience in a way that anyone could relate to.  I was literally laying my personal habits out on the floor. I felt that being able to tell an honest and authentic real life story in familiar language could resonate much stronger than a Greenpeace campaign.

So I think that providing a personal connection to issues – whether they are environmental, political, social etc. – helps people gain a better appreciation and understanding of it.

You say plastic pollution is a byproduct of consumerism, how can we change our consumption habits? How can we consciously take back control?

It’s also worth mentioning that consumerism wouldn’t exist were it not for the evolution, diversification and mass market commercialisation of plastic after the Second World War. Life as we know it would not exist without plastic. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we would not be able to go on holiday, eat the same food, glue ourselves to our iPhones or buy a new outfit every weekend.

Knowledge and understanding are key to changing our approach to consumption. I believe that if people have reliable and clear information, they are more encouraged to make responsible decisions and choices, which ultimately contributes to a more motivated and conscious society.

Many campaigners and activists will rightfully target governments and industries, but people power is a phrase for a reason. The changes being proposed and implemented are coming about because the public want more choice and alternatives.

Could you tell us about why you have launched the Everyday Plastic Survey lockdown edition and how people can get involved?

The concept of The Everyday Plastic Survey is simple. We challenge participants to collect and record a week’s worth of their household plastic waste before submitting their data to receive their own personalised plastic footprint. This footprint provides a comprehensive breakdown of what they throw away and where it goes.

Like so many other individuals, families and businesses we’ve had to adapt to this pretty adverse situation. With many kids being homeschooled and parents on furlough, we felt it was a great opportunity to launch a lockdown edition of The Everyday Plastic Survey.  Over 200 people took part in the first round. Between them they collected over 10,000 pieces of plastic with a household average of 141 pieces. 66% was soft, think, flimsy plastic – hardly any of which gets recycled here. Bottles and straws may be the poster boys of the global plastic problem, but to me, plastic film waste is what we urgently need to address.

We’re just about to launch our third round, so sign up to take part at everydayplastic.org before the first workshop starts!

Action from government and industry is halting due to covid-19, for example plastic bag bans being lifted or taxes and policies being pushed back. How can we keep the momentum for change going?

Too many people have put in too much hard work for this to fall off the agenda now.We cannot let the petrochemical industry cease this as an opportunity to champion single-use plastic and portray themselves as heroes.

We simply have to keep talking about it, raising awareness and questioning businesses and policy makers.

How do you think social distancing and experience of lockdown will change the future and direction of activism?

I think a lot of people associate activism with protests and mass gatherings, which isn’t always up everyone’s street. Social distancing and the adaptations we’ve had to make during lockdown can show people that you can be an activist in your own home. I want to show that individual actions – even the small ones – make a big difference. People’s individual choices are personal, but collectively, those choices become political.

You’ve previously worked as a marketing consultant. How do you think this has influenced your approach to campaigning?

To be honest, when I decided to collect all of my plastic for a year, I really didn’t have a plan in mind. I certainly didn’t anticipate that I’d have turned the idea into a full-time job a couple of years later! My marketing experience has been really beneficial though, certainly from a planning and strategy perspective, as well as understanding the need for a strong narrative.

That said, marketing really is just common sense and anyone can do it! Communicating what you’re doing and how you’re doing it is the easy bit. What will really help your campaign cut through is telling people why.

Results from the Everyday Plastic Survey Lockdown Edition Round 1:

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You can register to join the next round of The Everyday Plastic Survey and discover your plastic footprint here: https://www.everydayplastic.org/

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