It is time to talk about what we put down the loo…

With flushed plastics making up 8.5% of beach litter in the UK and a 400% rise in the number of wet wipes found on our coastlines and river beds, it really is time we stop treating the toilet as a bin.


Research carried out by the Marine Conservation Society during their 2017 Great British Beach Clean identified the shocking figures that despite filters in our sewage system 8.5% of the litter they collected were items that had been flushed. The fear is this number is rising with increasing sewer blockages and over 14 wet wipes being found per 100 metres of coastline.

The most common items found after being flushed are known as the Dirty Dozen by the campaign ‘Think before you flush’:

In the same way that when we place items in the bin we don’t often think about what happens to them next, we are turning a blind eye as to where our rubbish ends up after we flush it down the loo. Whilst the toilet may seem like a convenient way of getting rid of certain rubbish, these items do not just disappear and can cause a number of problems for our sewers and our environment.

1: Clogging up our sewers

Market research by the Absorbant Hygiene Products Manufacturers Association (AHPMA) found that we use 4.3 billion disposable sanitary products every year in the UK. This vast number is not surprising considering there are 15 million women of menstrual age, however it is estimated that a shocking 700,000 panty liners, 2.5 million tampons and 1.4 million sanitary towels are flushed down the toilet every single day.  It is estimated that blocked drains and sewers cost the UK around £88 million a year and is an issue we face here on campus.

The Estates Department has seen a recent increase in drain and sewer blockages causing maintenance and flooding issues across campus.

Turing sewage drain – blocked with wet wipes

But I thought wet wipes were flushable?!

Despite some products still being labelled as flushable unless they have the ‘Fine To Flush’ logo they should not go into the toilet. Water UK have stated that wet wipes labelled flushable do not break down and are behind 93% of blockages in UK sewers.  In order to gain the approved logo the wet wipes will need to pass strict tests. Manufacturers can have their wipes tested by WRc, Swindon-based independent technical experts who developed the specifications for flushability standards in conjunction with Water UK.

2: An ocean full of plastic

Everyone has seen the recent push to tackling the global scale of plastic entering our oceans however, whilst much of the focus has been on plastic bags, straws and packaging there has not been as much of a spotlight on the plastic entering our seas through the toilet.

Conventional menstrual pads contain around the same amount of plastic as four carrier bags, and depending on where it ends up as waste, it could have a longer life-span than the person who uses it! (City to Sea).

Wet wipes also contain hidden plastic that is often not listed in the ingredients. The material that forms many of our wet wipes is likely to be a woven blend of natural and synthetics fibres with the synthetic ones often being polypropylene polyester or polyethlene

As wet wiped break down in our oceans the microplastic fibres remain and they can be ingested by everything from zooplankton which make up the base of the food chain in the oceans, all the way up to seabirds, fish, turtles and whales (Marine Conservation Society.), with research showing that they can adversely affect the growth and reproduction of our marine species. Microplastics have also been found to have enter the human food chain.

What can I do?

First and foremost, remember, the toilet is not a bin. Only the three Ps should go down the loo and they are poo, pee and paper.

Secondly, try and refrain from using wet wipes if you can. Seek out alternatives and look out for the Fine to Flush logo.

Thirdly, if you use menstrual products please check out the ‘Plastic free Period’ campaign to learn about alternative products that could help reduce the amount of plastic you use each month as well as saving some money!

Plastic straws are a scapegoat. It’s time for big companies to change

Guest post: Mark Roberts is CEO of Conscious Creatives, a group of like-minded individuals pursuing a greater purpose through our work. Saving the planet by producing branding and digital communications packages that place sustainability at their heart and deliver long term revenue.

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There will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050.

That is the reality of the situation we find ourselves in after decades of plastic abuse.

Plastic straws, in particular, have hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Poignant footage of a straw being removed from a turtle’s nose highlights the problem in microcosm.

But of the nearly 9 million tonnes of plastic waste that hits our oceans every year, just 2,000 tonnes comes in the form of plastic straws. That’s 0.22%. So is banning straws the answer our environment is crying out for?

The demand for change

Recently there has been a wave of support for plastic-free alternatives and for the reduction of plastic use altogether. Organisations like Surfers Against Sewage are helping people turn their local communities into plastic-free zones and companies like Costa Sunglasses are turning plastic waste into sunglasses.

This awareness is fantastic and it helps consumers understand the importance of why they should pay attention to this scourge of the sea. One comment I heard recently though was “I didn’t ask for my products to come in this kind of packaging, it’s not my fault”. Infuriating as the lack of responsibility was at the time, I actually understand why the comment was made.

At a time when climate change has become more and more evident and we have documentaries like Blue Planet 2 highlighting the over-consumption of plastics it now goes beyond the consumer to governments and corporations to do their part.

The role of politics and industry

At the highest level, the United Nations and its member states are working towards the Sustainable Development Goals. These include 17 major areas of sustainability that go far beyond just plastic, seeking to eradicate hunger and social inequality as well.

The corporation part comes from the work done by the UN Global Compact, which partners with businesses all over the world to collaborate on the agendas set out by the UN. Some of the largest businesses in the world are part of this group and in theory this is a great step towards the highest authorities taking responsibility.

However, Lise Kingo, CEO and Executive Director for the UN Global Compact explained at a recent sustainable business summit that we need to be spending around 2 trillion dollars per year to meet these goals. At the moment, we are well short of that target.

To most of us, 2 trillion USD sounds like an awful lot. Here in the UK, the high street banks pull in 12 trillion GBP per year, with a shadow banking sector adding another 2 trillion GBP. It’s not that the money is not available to solve all of these problems — the reason we have not solved them is that they are simply less important than profits for the elite. If one sector from one country could save the planet, imagine what would happen if the whole world took part.

Single-use plastics: the consumer dilemma

As consumers we are stuck in two minds: either we wait for the giant companies to do something when they feel like it, or we engage our inner activist and make choices that force businesses to listen. The person who made the statement above may feel powerless, frustrated and ultimately a little guilty that their consumer habits are impacting the world in a way they don’t want. But there are reasons for optimism.

One example of a good fight against a giant corporation is Greenpeace’s work against Coca-Cola. With all of their various products they produce an estimated 100 billion throwaway plastic bottles per year. They are very much at the centre of this problem.

Coca-Cola, however, have done what many corporations have done — acknowledged the problem but offered no real solution. Coca-Cola Europe have committed to their packaging being 100% reusable or recyclable by 2025, but that’s the only hardened objective that the entire company have set forth.

If we as consumers stopped buying Coca-Cola products then it wouldn’t take long before they noticed. This is where the power of the consumer comes in. Whether we feel like it or not — and it may be very difficult to accept — we do have a choice.

Other organisations like Iceland have vowed to remove single-use plastics from their shelves, so why can’t companies like Coca-Cola follow suit?

Positive action you and I can take today

I offer then a conclusion that lies in action. No longer can we sit on the fence. We have to take a stand and ask ourselves what kind of state we wish to leave the planet in for future generations. The choices we make right now will affect billions of people, present and future.

It is not fair that the giant manufacturers are using our busy lives and desire for a good life as a way of profiteering at the cost of the planet. It’s now time to move past being angry at that fact and face the reality of what needs to be done.

I urge you to find your local zero waste store, explore what they have and ask lots of questions. By local, buy high quality and buy less. Look for the places that offer paper straws instead of plastic straws but understand that while this problem is way bigger than any individual, this is our stand for what we believe in.

If you feel inspired do not stop there. Speak to your local council, your local MPs and your local businesses to see what they are doing to tackle the problems that the environment faces. The more people that show they care, the more likely the big companies will make the changes required so that we as the consumer can have the choices we really want and the planet really needs.

 

The Environmental Impact of Flushing Tampons Down The Toilet

As a regular reader of the blog, Jo Greene, from a family run Kent based business called VR-Sani Co, wanted to share some of her expertise about the not often talked about plastic that ends up in the sea – tampons.

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After years of procrastination, it seems that we’re finally starting to tackle the global issue of plastic pollution. No doubt encouraged by Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II that horrified much of the UK, supermarkets, governments and society as a whole are starting to take measurable steps in order to reduce the amount of plastics we use.

At the heart of the topic has been the humble plastic bag, a symbol for change that has served as a stark reminder that our preference for ease and convenience often comes with a heavy price. Images of turtles, seabirds, and other marine life caught in the aftermath of our weekly shop have helped shine an uncomfortable light on our actions.

The hope is that through education and awareness, the simple act of reusing our bags will make a tangible difference to the amount of plastic that ends up our seas. But while this is a good first step, it opens the debate as to what else we need to consider.

The conversation has naturally extended to our use of water bottles, coffee cups, and even some of the more obscure products we use on a daily basis, including the small plastic beads found in a number of facial scrubs. However it is surprising that the disposal of tampons and their environmental impact hasn’t fully entered into the public consciousness in quite the same way.

The equivalent of flushing a plastic bag down the toilet

On the surface at least, what we do with our tampons may not seem like a pressing concern. After all they’re fluffy, small, and if we “accidentally” flush one down the toilet it probably just dissolves into harmless mulch of eco-friendly nothingness. But tampons, pads and panty liners generate more than 200,000 tonnes of waste per year in the UK alone, and the alarming statistic is that nearly all of them contain plastic. The impact of flushing our tampons down the toilet, while convenient, can have unexpected and often dire consequences, particularly on our beaches and in our seas.

In an attempt to save the hundreds of species from accidentally eating or becoming entangled in the litter strewn across our coastlines, the Marine Conservation Society held a beach cleanup in 2016. During their efforts they found 20 tampons and sanitary items for every 100 metres of shoreline. It’s a significant figure, and overall they estimate that between 1.5bn to 2bn sanitary items are flushed down Britain’s toilets every year.

One of the challenges is that people can often assume that sanitary products flushed down the toilet will be picked up and extracted via the local sewage system. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case, and they’re not always effectively filtered. As a result sewage-related debris ends up contributing to about 6% of the litter found on Britain’s beaches.

Changing attitudes to reverse the trend

It’s obvious that we must try and reverse this trend, but in order to openly discuss the practical steps that we as a society need to take, we firstly need to address the topic of menstruation without the fear of stigmatisation or disgust. Yes bleeding and cramps aren’t always topics generally considered apt for polite conversation, but that doesn’t mean menstruation needs to be shrouded in secrecy. The topic of periods and tampons may still be a relatively taboo subject, but by avoiding the subject entirely, we’re helping to fuel a huge environmental issue.

Many skeptics would say that this cultural taboo has, at least in part, helped the disposable feminine hygiene industry to thrive. It’s argued that clever advertising messages and a failure to clearly disclose important product information from major feminine hygiene product brands might be responsible for holding women back from disposing of tampons safety, or even considering more environmentally friendly options.

These alternative products, from reusable menstrual cups to organic cotton tampons, could help to support the use of more sustainable alternatives to conventional sanitary products. What’s interesting however is that many of these products have already been on the market for years. Their success (or lack of it) have been hampered by the popular business model that’s predicated on disposability, viewed by most brands as the more attractive option in order to drive repeat purchases.

As a result tampons have been marketed aggressively over the years, purporting the benefits of hygiene and convenience as their primary advantages. In the ever increasing quest for profits, it was always unlikely that companies would embrace a reusable, yet more environmentally friendly product line.

Marketing messages based on profit

Compounding the challenge is that tampons aren’t technically classified as medical products, and as such, companies don’t have to provide detailed product information. However, many of the modern materials used in their production derive from the petroleum industry. The potential environmental impact of these materials finding their way into a delicate ecosystem is unfortunately all too easy to predict.

Against this backdrop, it’s also easy to see why many women feel that it’s ok to flush tampons down the toilet. Anything classified as “disposable” automatically invokes a throwaway attitude, and similar products like wet wipes are often touted as flushable, even when they’re not. From a marketing perspective, it’s probably fair to say that not many people would buy a wet wipe if their strapline was “feel fresh and stick a soiled piece of cloth in your bathroom bin”.

The unfortunate reality is that unhelpful marketing messages have often encouraged us to put convenience above legitimate environmental concerns, but this isn’t impossible to overcome. Critically, we simply need the accurate labeling of products with disposal information, and to take note as a consumer whenever we purchase a sanitary product.

For example, biodegradable 100% cotton tampons are a much greener choice than standard products, but they still can’t be flushed down the toilet. Seeking the more eco-friendly products is always a great start, but typically most products will still need to be disposed of in a sanitary bin.

However relaying this message to wider sections of society has always been a little more challenging. Until we can all overcome our squeamishness towards menstruation, it’s always going to be difficult to discuss any period-related issue without it being viewed as an icky topic. Without doubt, the silence and stigma around menstrual bleeding remains a significant cultural barrier to successfully addressing and discussing a variety of important issues.

But public attitude has undoubtedly turned against disposable plastics; we simply need to be aware of where they exist in our daily lives, and for manufacturers and marketers to be more open and honest in their messaging. If we can all work together, we can help to turn off the tap of throwaway packaging once and for all.

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This post was written by Jo Greene of VR Sani-Co. An established family business that has been providing washroom services and sanitary bins in Kent and Sussex for over 20 years.

Resolutions or not…this really is the right time to ditch the plastic in your life!

Is it just me or is there a large amount of news content about plastic recently?

Whether it is the disturbing sight of plastic bottles ruining the immersion of being in the deep blue as David Attenborough lulled you to sleep on a Sunday night with the incredible Blue Planet 2; the news that China will no longer take our recycled plastic due to pollution concerns; or yesterdays ban of Micro-beads coming into full affect; it seems plastic has finally fallen out of favour.

 

So with it being the new year why not add a truely transformative resolution to your list. Ditch the plastic.

A simple way to do this is to start with any single use plastic that is entirely unnecessary. Do you need that straw in your drink? If Weatherspoons and Jamie Oliver can ditch them for good, so can you! Can Tupperware serve you better than clingfilm? Does your coffee really taste as good out of that disposable?

There are so many things in our everyday life that create rubbish after just one use but with a few simple changes you could do away with single use plastic for good. It will definitely save you money, especially if the government decide to tax all single use plastics such as plastic bottles and the so called ‘latte levy’ which could reduce the 2.5 billion coffee cups we get through in the UK, of which only 1% are recycled.

If you would like to be part of the movement to ditch single use plastic head on over to the Global Good Award’s #pointlessplastic on Twitter to get some inspiration.

How Can We Reduce the Environmental Impact of International Industry?

Today we have a guest post from Justin Fox, a graduate of the University of Kent, having studied History here from 2012-2015.

Using the analytical skills he developed during his time here, he now works as a writer within numerous fields, from environmental affairs to politics. Always interested in current affairs and keen to give something back to the University, he saw the launch of the new blog as an opportunity not to be missed!

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As the threat of irreversible climate change draws ever nearer, humanities collective need to tackle the effects of pollution and global warming has never been more necessary. Achieving a sustainable solution to the Earth’s environmental issues is paramount if we wish to continue with our current rate of consumption, and a failure to address key issues affecting the planet is simply not an option looking forward.

Out of all of the various sources of pollutant gases, commercial industry is one of the most notorious contributors. The scale of transport related carbon emissions caused as byproducts of such production is truly shocking, and the statistics tell a similar story. A Chinese study has recently concluded that approximately 22% of early deaths caused by air pollution come about due to production of ‘products destined for a foreign market’. Whilst it would be unfair to make a sweeping statement and say that no action is being taken by corporate giants to reduce their carbon footprint, there is still more work that needs to be done.

Consumer Spending

Arguably, the best place from which to affect change is from the perspective of us as consumers, whose wallets carry significant influence. Quite simply by choosing to purchase more from those companies with a more conscientious environmental agenda, hopefully that can galvanize those who don’t at present into taking action. For example, in the takeaway drinks industry, there are massive problems with disposable coffee cups ending up as rubbish as large chains fail to provide the facilities for the recycling of these cups to take place. Some however have begun to sell reusable alternative cups which whilst a start, seems to be shifting responsibility from supplier to customer, when it should be more of a joint effort between parties.

On the other hand, businesses such as Lush have carved out a niche within the cosmetics industry using sustainability as their unique selling point, to the extent that they can charge more than their rivals and still enjoy a reputation as a top quality brand. More and more young people in particular have been found to take considerate policies such as these into account, so it’s far from the case that cheaper automatically equates to better selling goods.

This culture of sustainability of course though should not be contained within just the one industry, and can be applied to nearly any other, from clothes to car buying. Whilst they tend to be somewhat costlier, environmentally responsible goods are the gateway to getting such ideals to go mainstream, and to affect real change at the top of the business world.

Cut Down on Plastic Usage

Despite being crucial in countless products, there are various forms of plastics that have a terrible effect on the environment, and on wildlife in particular. We’ve all seen the horrific images of animals stuck in various bits of thrown away garbage and aquatic life choking on smaller items, and each case is another argument why more must be done to amend our current ways. Microbeads in particular are notorious, which damage marine life tremendously despite being so minute.

To reduce the scope of this issue, we quite simply need to reduce the amount of plastic that we consume. There’s so much that gets tossed away needlessly, such as with bottled water-roughly 176 billion bottles every year will need disposing of despite it being a resource available (in the developed world at least) from literally any tap. A lot of work needs to be done to restore the world’s oceans and seas, and taking control of the plastic problem is a key element of most plans to do so.

If the usage of plastic is unavoidable however, it’s vital that the adequate facilities are in place to allow for the recycling of the material and that the public is made aware of what forms of plastic can be recycled and what can’t. All too often, recyclable material is instead sent to landfill due to contamination, as well-meaning people have made a mistake and put non-recyclable items in with them. Going forward though the ideal scenario would be for biodegradable plastics to become standard usage in all walks of life, as part of a transition towards 100% recyclable plastics in all forms. Water is quite literally the planet’s lifeblood, and ensuring its security should be one of our highest priorities going forward.

Buying Local

Something that often flies under the radar when discussing environmental practices is the significance of local produce. Typically part of the debate around organic farming and ‘food miles’, by buying local goods, small-scale businesses can profit- businesses that often rely on traditional methods of production which are less environmentally damaging.

The close proximity between producer and buyer also cuts down on transport emissions, which as we discussed earlier is a major cause of air pollution. Getting even a small amount of long-haul lorries off of the roads can only be a good thing, but these local producers rely on the loyalty of their market to survive. Against larger competition who can offer a wider variety of services, it is once more up to us the customer if we are willing to perhaps pay a bit more and look a bit further for the most eco-beneficial bits for sale.

Furthermore from a global perspective, supporting local sources of production is vital for the development of economies in less well-off parts of the world. Aid from wealthier countries whilst well intentioned, often cripples economies as producers of any goods cannot compete with literally free handouts. Developing the global economy at a town and village level is vital to help the planet as it is only when this foundation is laid that sustainable development practices can be introduced. Actively choosing fair trade products wherever possible will do wonders in this respect, providing critical support for those in need and ready to work to create their own solutions.

Apply Pressure on Environmental Offenders

If more diplomatic efforts fail to yield results, unfortunately the best course of action is for concerned environmentalists may very well be to organise campaigns highlighting various companies disregard for nature, so as to turn public opinion against those who refuse to listen to reason.

Such activism may seem exhausting and often fruitless when faced with an opponent with such extensive resources, but many peaceful movements have done a fine job at persuading big business to rethink their approach to sustainability. John Lewis is a prime case where this worked in 2010, when animal activists led a protest against the chain’s usage of wool obtained via ‘mulesing’, a particularly nasty way of obtaining wool from lambs. Their supplier in Australia even agreed to invest $23 million in finding an alternate solution, all thanks to the efforts of a comparatively small group of concerned individuals.

Ultimately, the most powerful weapon that individuals can bring about change to create a more environmentally minded international industrial outlook is to use our money to affect change. Business of all shapes and sizes are inherently profit-driven, and will react to consumer demand if enough of us let them know that we want sustainable practices and sources of goods, even if it costs us a bit extra. Change will come about given time and persistence, and eventually buyers, sellers and all the planet will benefit, thanks to a more thoughtful approach to global production.

Justin Fox