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A Magazine for Sheffield

Modern life comes wrapped up. So what can we do about single-use plastics?

Sheffield Action on Plastic share their mission to work with businesses and communities to promote reusables and alternatives. 

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Greg Hewitt of Sheffield Action on Plastic at the COP28 climate march in Sheffield, late 2023.

Sheffield Action on Plastic

Most of us are aware of the huge negative impact of single-use plastics on nature. It might feel unavoidable because modern life comes wrapped up. Maybe we’ve gone beyond the tipping point since plastic is everywhere, including in our oceans and inside our bodies.

Let’s pause for a moment. While much of this can feel out of our control, we can make conscious choices, as citizens and consumers, to live differently. These choices don’t have to cost more money and sometimes all they take is being much more aware about the impact of our consumption on the world around us.

With this in mind, I spoke to Greg Hewitt from Sheffield Action on Plastic (SAoP), a volunteer-led community organisation who are uniting with businesses and individuals to drastically reduce the use of single-use plastic in the city. During our chat Greg shared some of the financial and environmental positives to moving away from throwaway plastics, and the change of mindset that should follow.

Tell us a bit about Sheffield Action on Plastic.

We formed off the back of another group I set up which was called Plastic Free Sheffield Central, which was part of Surfers Against Sewage, who run a programme called Plastic Free Communities. It’s a tailored programme that anyone can sign up to, and you have five objectives to complete in your community to get your plastic-free community status. It’s a bit like the Fairtrade status.

We realised we wanted to make more of an impact and to do this we needed to be able to raise our own money from funding applications and take card payments at events for our reusable cups. That’s why we set up SAoP, so we had a bank account.

We will be joining the Sheffield Social Enterprise Network programme, which will help us by becoming a social enterprise as well. We have lots to look forward to in terms of what comes next.

Why is it important to consider our plastic consumption in Sheffield?

When people have heard the issues around plastics, they think about it in relation to the impact on the oceans. David Attenborough programmes have highlighted how plastics are detrimental to the environment.

We know 100,000 mammals and a million seabirds die from plastic pollution annually. With Sheffield’s position with five rivers, it’s really important as it all connects to the sea. Sheffield is the source to the sea, really. Therefore we are in a key place to help prevent plastics getting into the sea, the oceans and impacting wildlife.

Do we know anything about the impact of plastic pollution on our rivers?

Yes, we have got a number of organisations in Sheffield, like the Don River Catchment Trust who are doing some work. They do river clean ups. There is also the Sheaf and Porter Rivers Trust, who are involved in that work as well. There’s also the River Rangers. They are doing some monitoring around Sheffield’s rivers at the minute.

There was a national study looking at the issues around plastics – they found microplastics in the majority of rivers across the country.

Do you think we need change at grassroots level to make a difference?

Definitely. When I first moved to Sheffield I didn’t find any plastic free group. It’s great we have the Don River Catchment Trust and the Sheaf and Porter Rivers Trust who care about the quality of the water and protecting the rivers. That is all really great.

But one of the things we are trying to do is trying to reduce the amount of plastic getting into the oceans in the first place. That’s why we wanted to set up to do what we can to prevent using plastic where possible, and encourage businesses and community organisations to use less plastic. If the whole community is working together to reduce plastics, it will help reduce what ends up in the water supply.

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A Sheffield Action on Plastic stall on the Moor.

Sheffield Action on Plastic

If each of us made a change relating to plastics, what would you suggest we start with?

If you can, I would suggest shopping at greengrocers because they sell plastic free fruit and veg mostly.

I recently saw a news article which mentioned that there are potentially moves to ban supermarkets selling fruit and veg in plastic packaging. It could help save money and reduce food waste, if you are just buying what you need. Fruit and veg doesn’t particularly have to be wrapped in plastic. I understand that there might be challenges with transportation.

There’s also using reusable containers, so having a refillable water bottle with you. SAoP is looking at increasing awareness about the number of places where you can refill your water bottle for free. We are also petitioning Sheffield City Council to install water drinking fountains throughout the city.

We are setting up a reusable coffee cup scheme and we are excited about the launch in February. What is good about it is you don’t have to remember to bring your coffee cup with you – with our scheme you can rent the cup from the cafe by paying a deposit, which you get back when you bring it back.

Bringing your own bag is a quick and easy one to avoid plastic bags. If you can bring your own containers when you buy fish or meat from a market, you can use them to avoid having it wrapped in plastic.

Anothing thing is to find your local zero waste shop. Whether that is pasta or rice, you just refill your containers and pay for what you want.

The other important question is, how affordable is this for people?

It’s really difficult and that’s why, as well as doing all the stuff locally, we will campaign nationally to reduce plastics in supermarkets, because most people shop there. It’s these little changes which can add up to make a difference.

It’s challenging for businesses because plastic can be cheaper. Single use plastic shouldn’t be cheaper than the plastic free alternatives. Why is it that paper bags are more expensive than plastic bags?

There was the plastic ban which came in at the end of last year, which was banning plastic cutlery and polystyrene trays. Volunteers in our group went around takeaways and a lot of them were saying that the alternative packaging was more expensive. For example, wooden cutlery or plastic-free containers.

The problem is the government keep siloing everything down [in its policies]. First it was straws and stirrers, and five years on it’s cutlery. It’s frustrating.

That is why SAoP exists, as we want to do something. We have reusable coffee cups which is exciting. Another thing is to get reusable cups out to events. We want to see Sheffield events using reusable as it’s so much better.

Anyone organising an event would have to pay for disposable cups in the first place, where reusable ones can be used over and over again. Then you would have to pay to get rid of the waste. Reusables could be cost effective and there would be less waste, better for the environment. A win-win, really.

This ties into the Sheffield City Goals. One of the goals is about being cleaner and greener. This is something we need to be working on across Sheffield to reduce plastics.

We want to get the word out and we have about 500 reusable cups, so if anyone is running a community event they can hire them out. We have already heard from the Sheffield Food and Drink Festival who want to use them. Peace in the Park returns this year and we will speak to the other event organisers.

We want to shift people’s perception so using reusables becomes the norm, whether you are at a gig, football or the theatre.

Are you feeling hopeful about the future?

Yes! We’re running some plastic free markets on 14 April and 3 November. These will help encourage people to think differently about shopping and how they can get everything without using single-use plastic. We want to move forward to do more in the future to support businesses and get people into the mindset.

The University of Sheffield is running a study called Many Happy Returns, which is looking at the future of reusables. We feel that Sheffield is a prime location for rolling out reusables and we have hope for the future. It will take time, but it will happen.

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