It's strange to think that the first purely synthetic plastic was only invented in 1907, by a chemist named Leo Baekeland. His versatile and hardwearing invention, Bakelite, quickly became popular. By the 1960s, product designers were championing mass-produced colourful plastics in their work. Plastic was democratic, futuristic, and cheap.
Today, our present brims with different kinds of plastic products. Some have highly valued functions, and are used in medicine and science. There are the synthetic fabrics, packages and tools we use and discard over time. And then there are the single-use plastics: food packets, disposable nappies, and wrappers on pretty much anything.
Since the nature documentary series Blue Planet II highlighted the damage plastics cause to marine life, plastic waste has become one of the biggest concerns among UK consumers. But is the government keeping up? Climate experts note that the government's intention to reduce single-use plastics in supermarkets is not ambitious, given that worldwide plastic production is predicted to reach 644 million tonnes by 2030.
The Quaker values of simplicity and sustainability mean that the harmful consequences of our reliance on plastic products and packaging are nothing new to many Quakers. I decided to take a look at a few of the different ways that they are tackling plastic today.
1. Working for a plastic free coastline
Last year Fiona Gibbon decided to take action within her seaside community of Bideford, Devon.
“A Friend and I came back from Yearly Meeting Gathering last August really looking for an environmental concern to get involved with," she explains. “I read an article about Aberystwyth working towards Plastic Free Coastline (PFC) status. To me, this had exciting possibilities, and a few Quakers from my local meeting agreed."
“We got together to decide a way forward. To get the PFC status we needed to have a Surfers Against Sewage Community Leader, so I volunteered to take this on. Another Friend informed environmentally-aware local councillors about the plastic free idea. To our surprise, one of them put PFC status on the council agendas immediately!"
“By spring 2018, two councils, seven businesses, two schools and several community and faith groups were on board with becoming a Plastic Free Coastline. We had also set up a local steering group. Bideford and our neighbouring areas received accreditation of PFC status in April."
“The strategy has since evolved, and people involved now sit on decision-making bodies like the Bideford Town Centre Partnership. The campaign began 11 months ago, and it has come this far already. I feel that Quakers played a pivotal role in getting things off the ground."
Other Quaker groups are taking part in popular local efforts to clear plastic on roadsides and coastlines. For instance, Penzance Quaker Meeting held a 2 minute beach clean after their children's meeting on a local beach.
2. Reduce, reuse, recycle
According to campaigners, the key to responsible plastic use is to reduce, reuse and recycle. Some Friends are committing to going plastic-free wherever possible. London Quaker Kristin Skarsholt told me about her efforts:
“Reducing my use of plastics is fun because I enjoy looking at the world differently and challenging myself to live by it.
“My view is that plastic is way too valuable a resource to use frivolously. My life is not plastic-free yet, or even single-use plastic free yet, because I haven't changed all my habits yet. There is plastic in almost every consumer interaction today, so the zero-waste movement mantra is 'progress, not perfection'.
“There's a lot here that reflects my Quaker practice and Quaker idealism. Slowing down and choosing with intention has helped reinforce my Quaker practice too. Relaxing my body and brain, then figuring out my solutions, is a stronger force than acting from fear or anxiety."
3. Questioning the ethics
Through campaigns like
the one run by Greenpeace, some Quakers are directly calling on corporations, suppliers and the government to adopt plastic alternatives. You can join them by asking companies to publish their plastic-usage figures, set plastic-reduction targets, or sign up to the Plastics Pact alongside ASDA and other major retailers.
Quakers are good at raising the ethical questions about the things society takes for granted, whether that's fossil fuels or plastics. In the UK, area meetings are divesting from fossil fuels, and Quakers are nonviolently protesting fracking rigs. Still more are writing to their MPs, calling on them to hold the government to account over legally-binding climate targets.
To create a sustainable world, Quakers in Britain need to continue to work towards climate justice. This involves vision, ambition, and policies that radically change the way we and our economy uses resources. Plastics are part of this challenge, and creating a future where they are used safely requires persistence. Quakers are well placed to be part of the solution.