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Earth Day Interview with Daniel Webb

Daniel Webb is the founder of Everyday Plastic. In 2016, Webb moved to Margate in Kent. He was shocked by the densely polluted coastline in this idyllic seaside town in England. What shocked him further was the lack of recycling facilities at his new home. With this in mind, Webb set out to collect all the plastic waste he created in one year.

To honour the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we spoke to Daniel Webb about his incredible project and the impact it has had.

Would you like to explain what the Everyday Plastic project is?

So, I started this project about three years ago. Like I said, I moved to Margate in Kent in 2016. I was an active runner, I’d never lived by the sea before. I come from the Midlands, I’m from Wolverhampton originally, I’ve lived in Birmingham, Bristol and London, and I hadn’t lived by the sea. So, one of the first things that really struck me was the amount of plastic that I was seeing on the beach. I’d seen pictures of it online and in videos and stuff, but never had I seen it so clearly with my own eyes – lots of plastic washed up onto the beaches, particularly after storms there’s a lot. Then, I suppose having an interest in the environment anyway, certainly a peaked interest around this time, I couldn’t really help noticing plastic everywhere else, particularly when I went to my local ALDI, 400m down the road. The supermarket shelves are just packed with plastic-packaged goods: fruits and vegetables, pasta and rice, hummus pots, guacamole, crisps, chocolate, frozen food – everything you can think of – and that’s just food and drink. So, coming back from ALDI to my flat, I’ve got all this stuff, I’m making my food, my dinner in the evenings, getting rid of the plastic, and I’m thinking about where it is actually ending up, and I called the council and asked them where my recycling bin was because they hadn’t delivered it yet, and they actually told me that recycling wasn’t available to me where I lived. So, that was the mind-blown moment for me and the main catalyst behind the reason why I went on to do this project, where I collected every single piece of plastic waste that I used for a whole year, and, at the end of it, I made this massive mural:

Photo: Ollie Harrop

But also, the main thing I wanted to do was understand exactly what went into my bin that year. I wanted to get a real in-depth insight into how much I threw away, what percentage of it I was getting from supermarkets, and obviously, if I wasn’t getting offered any recycling where I lived, what should actually be recycled.

Did you think the huge amount of plastic you collected, over 4000 pieces, was surprising? Did you think it would be more or less?

I don’t know. Basically, because I collected everything in bin bags, I had 22 bin bags in the spare room in my flat, so I put them all in there, and it looks like a lot in the bin bags, but it’s not until you empty them onto the floor, and we covered this massive music venue in Margate when we were doing it, and we covered it with all the plastic waste. And that was the most stark and surreal and shocking moment for me, just to see every single piece of plastic that I’d used throughout that whole year laid out in front of me. 20 volunteers helping out and sifting through my bins, looking at my snack habits, what moisturiser I was using at the time and things like that. So, yeah, that was the most shocking moment. I suppose another point is that of the 4490 pieces, by weight was actually under the average compared to other UK or EU citizens. So, whereas that 4490 pieces might seem like a lot to a lot of people, it actually comes under the average, which is even scarier.

Did you ever expect the project to gain so much media traction?

No, I obviously didn’t expect it at all. It was just a sort of on-a-whim decision that I’d made and it was a project – I like having projects on the go – but what I was keen to do was for it to relate to people and get a grasp on the plastic problem through someone else’s own waste, someone who’s not a scientist or a teacher or a politician or a journalist, someone who is just like everyone else. I suppose at the same time it captures how the awareness of plastic pollution accelerated after Blue Planet II that came out at the end of 2017, which was pretty much the same time as I finished. It’s also a very unique project, I’m pretty much the only person to have done this. I know actually, after I’d done this, a couple of other people have collected their plastic for a year, which is great, but I think it’s an important way to connect to the plastic problem in a very personal way.

You mentioned Blue Planet II, a series which caused lots of people to become aware of their plastic consumption. Can you pinpoint any other cultural events that have increased plastic pollution awareness among people?

I think that really was a pivotal moment. I suppose since then it’s really taken off on the news agenda. Now you are seeing projects like mine and hundreds of others across the world getting news coverage. I also think that it’s been coming for a long time. I know people that have been working on this for years and years. One of my friends from here in Margate had been working on this for fifteen years and had no luck trying to get this to the top of the agenda. I think it was a tipping point really. It just got too much, and once you start to see it and understand it, then you really can’t take your eyes off it, and plastic pollution is one of those issues that is very tangible to people. It’s an environmental issue that everyone gets behind: Piers Morgan, The Daily Mail, Boris Johnson, whoever it is. No-one is questioning the severity of it, apart from the plastics industry of course. It’s not like the issue of climate change and Extinction Rebellion, which we’re still seeing as a bit polarizing, which is ridiculous of course, but you kind of have to put the two together. Plastic pollution and climate change aren’t mutually exclusive, they’re one and the same – one causes the other and so-forth. Blue Planet II really was that moment that tipped it, and I think, from then on, we’ve seen a number of events that have helped us get to this point.

I know, apart from your own year-long project, you do smaller projects for other people to get involved in. Roughly how many people have participated in your projects?

Yeah, so this is a new project that I’ve been working on for a while. Eventually, what I want to do is to get people to have that same experience as me, and I’m not asking people to collect plastic waste for a year and then spend 3 days counting it and 6 months analysing it, that’s obviously too much. What we’ve been able to create and develop, this methodology and data analysis, can be applied to anyone. So, if one person collected their plastic for a week and they input it using our methodology, they’d be able to calculate the same footprint that I did, but very personalised to them, so that’s what we’re trying to offer to people. The reason is that it’s changed how I consume, it’s changed a lot of what I believe and how I approach life as well. I think by offering that same opportunity to people we can push this further on the agenda. So far we’ve had 230 people take part, we’ve collected over 7000 pieces of plastic. We’re actually doing a very special online version of it from tomorrow [April 23rd] while everyone’s in lockdown. We’re encouraging people to collect their plastic waste at home, record what they use and then send their data to me and I’ll analyse it. We’ve got a hundred people taking part in that, which is way more than I thought or hoped for; I thought 15 or 20 people might have been involved but I think it’s a really exciting project for people to actually get to do while they’re under lockdown at home. It just shows that there’s an interest in this topic and that people are very keen to make changes.

Do you think the UK government is doing enough to reduce plastic pollution?

No. There needs to be a major crackdown on what plastic is being produced, how it’s being disposed of and how it’s being reprocessed. The Budget in 2018, when plastic really was the hot topic – not in the environmental news columns, but actually in mainstream political news – the government only allocated £20 million towards tackling this; 20 million to develop new innovation and 10 million to repurpose infrastructure. When we look at 10 million compared to the amount we’re spending in this period now, £330 billion, just to help employees and self-employed people, there is money available to sort this issue out, and it needs heavy investment from governments. We’re not talking tens of millions or hundreds of millions, we’re talking billions and tens of billions. It’s the same for every other country in the world. The EU is fairly progressive at the moment, although I think they’ve postponed their ban on plastic straws, stirrers, cups and so-forth. But you look at the US, which isn’t really doing anything on it, so there’s a long way to go. People know about plastic pollution, but there’s still a long way to go, certainly from the government and the industry, to help it as well.

Do you think that there will be a green transition out of COVID-19, and that the UK government will listen to the voices of those that want a green recovery so we can reduce plastic waste and carbon emissions?

I’d really like to think so, because – and I may be wrong in assuming this – but I think for quite a number of people this lockdown has provided a little bit of headspace to have a bit of a quieter reflection as well, and I think, hopefully, people can come out the other side feeling more able to continue some of the things that they found positive throughout this period. And actually, air pollution has gone down. I saw an amazing picture of the canals in Venice that were just clean, and fish and birds haven’t been seen in the canals in Venice for decades. It’s pretty special really. So, I think it would be nice if people felt encouraged and active enough to push harder for changes in the production of plastic, ‘cause that’s where we really need to try and focus our energies on how much is being produced, because if we’re producing plastic then we can still be using it. It is still a supply and demand model, so we really need to think about turning off that plastic tap. I suppose one really interesting thought is people buying bottled water. I know a cargo that was doing a grocery delivery, they stopped delivering plastic water bottles ‘cause they needed to free up some space for the rest of their deliveries. That was the first thing to go, the first non-essential item, because we have clean tap water in this country. In much of the western world we can drink tap water, so if you’re at home there’s absolutely no need to be buying bottles of water, is there? So, hopefully that kind of switch that people have been doing hopefully can continue as well.

I know one of the things that I found surprising at the start of lockdown was the people were bulk-buying twelve packs of plastic water bottles, which didn’t make sense to me.

You’ve got water in your home. What do you think’s going to happen, the taps are going to go off, there’s going to be a drought? It’s not. We live in the UK, it’s one of the richest countries in the world, so I don’t think we have to be worrying about this. I think hopefully there are some switches that people will have made while they’re under lockdown that could continue. But I suppose one of the other quick things is that I have run this survey with a test group this week who all said to me that their plastic consumption has gone up, just because the choices are fewer to buy less plastic products, if they have a bulk shop near them or they want to buy fruit and veg, their options are fewer. I imagine that when we kick off this lockdown survey tomorrow that we’re going to see quite heavy plastic use actually.

Do you think biodegradable plastics are a viable solution, or should we just be cutting out plastic completely?

I think with biodegradable plastics the heart’s in the right place, but I think essentially it’s another material. It’s not plastic, it’s another material, so if we’re thinking about waste collection and management, we’ve got aluminium tins, metal, wood, cardboard, paper, plastic and then you have another biodegradable plastic, a plant-based plastic. Personally, I think that I would avoid them unless you know that they degrade, if you have a home compost bin, although many people don’t. So, I would try and avoid them if possible, don’t be swung by the fact it says ‘biodegradable packaging’ or ‘green packaging’ or ‘plastic-free’ when it looks like it’s a piece of plastic. I suppose the good thing is that it’s not made using fossil fuels as the raw ingredient, but can you imagine if our plastic consumption and use stayed exactly the same but we were using plant-based plastics. Imagine the amount of land that we’d need to create all of that material, that raw material. We’re talking about deforestation on probably a similar scale to what we’re seeing now, so I’m not really an advocate for biodegradable plastics to be honest.

How do we change people’s mindsets? Life comes at everyone fast, especially in our westernised world and the cheaper, environmentally damaging, way of life is almost inescapable sometimes.

Our culture and society are not really balanced between trying to live a more responsible and sustainable existence, and having our societal pressures doesn’t fit very well. What I would say is that little changes, one, two, three changes that you make at home, at work or wherever you are, can make a big difference. If you take a water bottle for example. If you’re going out everyday to work or school or college, and you’re buying a bottle of water. If you do that every day while you’re at college or work, then you’re probably buying over 250 bottles a year. You just wipe those out by buying a reusable bottle and never buying water in a plastic bottle ever again. You’ve eliminated those 250 bottles from bins and the waste system. Now, 250 is a lot for one person, but imagine if everyone did this, imagine if ten thousand people did that, or a million. Then you start to see how big a difference that can make. I totally understand that convenience, price, access all have a big draw sometimes against being able to live without plastic or with less plastic, but think about those changes you can make in your own life.

Thank you for taking the time to speak to us Daniel!

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