Conwy Campaigners Fight Polystyrene

Expanded Polystyrene Take-away Containers.

More than an environmental problem on land – An Environmental Disaster at Sea

How do we get biodegradable alternatives in their place?



We are a wing of Friends of the Earth Cymru at the mediaeval harbour of Conwy with its historic castle, yachting marina and sandy beaches - right on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park. Of all the tourist debris that we inevitably endure here it is the shore-line element that causes us most grief and most of all by a single component which also crops-up regularly among street and roadside rubbish just about everywhere.

This is the take-away container made from expanded polystyrene (EPS), usually recognisable by its rough texture and pearly whiteness. EPS shows up as hot-drinks containers, take-away meal trays and, especially at any seaside resort, as fish and chip boxes. EPS containers do not degrade in the same way as the likes of cardboard or paper products. It physically breaks-up into smaller and smaller particles until the bits are less than a millimeter in size and then, very slowly, its styrene derivatives can start to bond chemically with inorganic material in its proximity. In the world's oceans, where thousands of tons of EPS end-up every year, EPS particles become ingested by the marine population at the invertebrate level with devastating effect. The oceans' food-chain is primed at its lowest level with toxic constituents that progress from plankton to harvested fish stocks. Not only are our oceans being poisoned - but ultimately we risk poisoning ourselves.

Can we do anything about it? Yes, we can. First of all we can do our best to persuade our local food vendors using EPS containers to consider bio-degradable alternatives. We’re about to start this as a project in Conwy. Our research first looked at the diversity of opinion expressed in the feedback from delegates to Friends of the Earth Cymru’s annual gathering at Hawarden in September and last month on our stand at Conwy’s hugely popular, annual festival-feast. As expected, we confirmed that the public are strongly in favour of legislation over EPS take-away containers. They are also quite prepared to pay extra for a biodegradable container. This affirmation endorses an opinion among us that there may be several alternative and viable incentives available to us in helping to get biodegradable containers into our local take-aways.

The spade work of this project starts with establishing a list of take away premises - as a focus for an initial inquiry into their thinking when they purchase containers. We should be asking what mechanism they would prefer to see employed that supported them in switching from the EPS. We would also need to identify the realistic mechanisms of support available – for instance, the likes of our helping to increase public acceptance of a small surcharge (voluntary, or not – what do you think?) This initial approach requires the careful preparation of a non-intrusive and friendly inquiry; possibly in the form of a verbal clip-board inquiry and/or as a written inquiry - these need to express the prospect of vendor benefits among the environmental benefits of abandoning EPS containers. Well-briefed volunteers are then going to have to do the ‘footwork’, armed with quality material that draws on the responses to our initial inquiry, to start persuading take-away vendors away from the use of EPS containers. It is obviously also going to be advantageous for us to develop, in parallel with a local press briefing, an approach to the local authority and its representatives asking for their support of this campaign.

On its own, within the ‘big picture’, this is all a minor but worthwhile effort. We can do more than this and we have two more avenues of activity that we might follow in furthering our project to get EPS packaging out of take-away food outlets

Our second approach is going to be within Friends of the Earth’s network in Wales. We want to share our experience and material, to circulate a chronicle of our project’s activity with an invitation for them to join us in approaching their local take-away vendors and local authorities in a similar campaign. Friends of the Earth Cymru are looking at the practicalities of this project being taken up by local groups in Wales and with their expertise in developing and producing project material for distribution there is every chance of making it a nation-wide campaign.

A third and even more worthwhile campaign will be for us all to ask ‘the powers that be’ to do the persuading alongside us. We have the beacon of a remarkably successful precedent to help guide us here in Wales. In 2011 the Welsh Assembly Government pioneered the widely acclaimed 5p Carrier Bag Charge, with its incredible international success - we are asking them to do the same, or employ a similar means, to replace EPS take-away containers with biodegradable alternatives. Conwy’s constituency representative member (AM) at the National Assembly for Wales is pioneering this approach with us, and we want our supporters throughout Wales to persuade their own AMs to do the same.

Written by Idris from Conwy FoE

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