Plastic Angst

I am ancient enough to remember Bakelite. It had been around for a while before the 50s but by the time I’d emerged it had become commonplace around the house, used for radios, toys and homeware.
A little later there was Melamine and its spin-off ‘Melaware’. My father took to these products with enthusiasm because at the time, light, unbreakable Melaware was a marvellous replacement for many of the metal and enamel items he packed into our modest, family car to go camping. Plastic was a wonder material. Homeware, toys, implements, storage boxes [‘Tupperware’], games and upholstery and much more besides were all reproduced in plastic. But back then we still had recyclable containers. We used glass milk bottles, glass soda bottles [which we children could capitalise on by returning them], glass jars, tins. We bought fish and chips wrapped in paper [newspaper on the outside], food items in waxed paper or paper bags.
Fifty years on and plastic has become the devil; the demon we must eradicate from our lives. To be precise it is single use plastic we must reject. Having been in love with the wonder product plastic for over a hundred years we are now faced with a monster of our own making. Plastic is overrunning the world, forming gigantic, unwanted islands in our oceans and lying suspended in our seas ready to ensnare fish and mammals; or clogging up our beaches, rivers and countryside, filtering itself into systems by breaking down into minute particles that can be detected even in the expensive water that people are foolish enough to buy in our supermarkets [packaged in single-use plastic bottles].
Faced with all this, plus the fact that China no longer wishes to accept our garbage, what are we to do? We are willing to change, yes. We would like to reduce our single-use plastic waste. But how can we do it? Plastic packaging abounds in the supermarkets. Unlike trendy London liberal-land we don’t have innovative green stores flogging organic turnips wrapped in jute. There are no entrepreneurial milkmen trundling round at five o’clock in the morning. As far as I can see the supermarket does not stock milk in glass bottles either.
And even if all these anti-plastic alternatives were available here in the provinces everyone would need a six-figure salary to avail themselves of their facilities. Going plastic-free does not come cheap. Some years ago a forward-thinking initiative opened stores called ‘Weigh and Save’, selling dry goods loose for customers to fill their own containers but they closed, perhaps due to public distaste for contamination from grubby fingers. It can’t, however be beyond the wit of designers to prevent direct access to dispensing machines.
We do our best. On the rare occasions when we buy a ‘takeaway’ meal we re-use the containers. We don’t buy take away coffees, preferring to sit down in a coffee shop with a china cup. We dutifully sort our waste, recycle, re-use. But expecting us to go single-use plastic free really is beyond us [for now].

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Travel or Holiday? What’s the Difference?

We are travelling across The Netherlands, meandering slowly northwards with the aim, having negotiated Germany and Denmark of an eventual stay with a Norwegian friend. The Dutch countryside, though flat as a table-top is scenic in a bucolic way and the villages chocolate box pretty with their thatched, angular, barn-style roofs and manicured gardens. [I suppose the analogy of the chocolate box must be becoming obsolete nowadays-as a child I was used to seeing the array of assorted chocolate boxes ranged along the top shelf of the village shop and all bore images of thatched cottages or streets of half-timbered houses. Heaven knows why…]

All this prettiness is, of course very uplifting. But to enjoy travel [or a holiday-whether the two are the same is a matter for debate] every sight need not be picture-book gorgeous, in fact quite the contrary-some of the ugliest views can provide the best travel experiences.

Take docks. We sailed overnight last night from Harwich in Essex [East coast UK] to Hoek von Holland [The ‘Hook’]. Harwich is a tiny port, occupied almost entirely by the two sailings of one ferry company. The enormous ship dwarfs the quay as lorries crawl up the ramp like swarming insects to be swallowed up by the gaping mouth of the vehicle decks. At last it was our turn to be swallowed, trundling across the metal gantry and shuffling into a narrow space between two caravans. We downed a couple of drinks, chatting to some touring Americans to one side and some touring Australians on the other before tumbling into bed in our cabin.

We woke to the view of Rotterdam, a forest of cranes and pylons all engaged in loading or unloading container ships. How many containers can there be in the world? One per head of the population? You could be forgiven for thinking so. The containers look like children’s bricks as they are plucked from the quayside in giant pincers and placed with meticulous accuracy on to the wide, flat deck of a ship, piled to an impossible height until it seems the vessel might topple sideways-and yet there is one on the horizon, disappearing somewhere with its unwieldy cargo.

We ground to a halt in the berth and descended to the depths to rejoin out vehicles and a long wait for our turn to disembark. Then we were away into the Netherlands and Northwards.

I attempt to make sense of the signs. ‘Slag boom’ says one, or ‘sluiz-droomen’, or broodjes slommen’. The Dutch language seems to consist of faintly abusive and insulting words although they are in fact all innocuous terms for everyday objects. We cross ‘dijks’ and wait for ‘brugs’ to open and allow boats to pass on the countless  waterways that make up the country-once passing underneath an aqueduct bearing sailing ships-an astonishing sight. We cross huge barrages like driving across the sea, where on either side cormorants are gathered, spreading their wings to dry before plunging after another fish, or tall grey herons poised motionless along the roadsides.

So to Germany then-ausfahrts, glottlestops and beer-swilling, thigh-slapping efficiency-ah, but only for one night!