Rethinking single-use habits during Plastic Free July 

Preventing Plastic Pollution

The South East Rivers Trust has been tackling pollution in rivers ever since it was formed – as the Wandle Trust – 20 years ago. 

Becoming involved with the Preventing Plastic Pollution project, on the River Medway, seemed a natural step. Plastic pollution affects all rivers, however. Therefore we want to develop our work beyond one area by engaging with a wider public as well as including the issue in our catchment action plans.

A year’s worth of cleanups give us the perfect evidence to shape behaviour change across our whole area – and the annual Plastic Free July campaign presents an appropriate moment to raise awareness of the issues and strive to change our habits. Set up in 2011, the annual campaign aims to help people reduce their reliance on single-use plastic and live by more sustainable methods.  Below, we’ve come up with several suggestions for you to try in July – and hopefully continue with well after one month.   

Why is plastic such a big issue?

Watch an episode of Call the Midwife, the period drama set just after the Second World War, and you will be hard pressed to spot any pieces of plastic. Yet in the 70 years of our Queen’s reign, plastic has infiltrated our lives so much that it has become the preferred material for creating just about everything. 

From a starting point of 1.5 million tons of plastic manufactured in the year 1950, a graph produced by the Plastic Oceans website shows that more than 370 million tonnes were created in 2021. 

This reflects that plastic is versatile, cheap and light – to manufacture as well as to transport. It is also waterproof and – as food suppliers will argue – can keep products fresh for longer. Plastic, in robust form and used for the long-term, is in many items we use regularly – vehicles, waste bins, guttering, or computers and telephones.

However, in single-use form in particular, plastic is not always easy to recycle. Furthermore, it is also in many items that are not so obvious: only in recent years have the general public become more aware that it is in coffee cups (which look like paper, but are lined with plastic sheets), wetwipes, chewing gum and cigarettes butts to name just a few items. 

Our single-use, disposable culture has left us with a global problem of plastic ending up in our environment. Latest figures on the Plastic Oceans website estimate that 10 million tonnes of plastic per year moves from our rivers to our seas. Meanwhile, the Preventing Plastic Pollution  project estimates that 50% of marine litter is single-use items.

Plastic not only pollutes our wildlife: there is evidence that plastic particles – in the form of microplastics – have worked their way into the human food chain, via the ocean wildlife that we eat.

Investigating the issue of plastic in our rivers and oceans – and what can be done about it – was the reason that PPP set up seven pilot projects across England and France, via the EU Interreg VA France (Channel) England Programme.

The South East Rivers Trust runs one of them, on the River Medway – which rises in Ashdown Forest in Sussex and meanders through Kent to the coast, making it a perfect catchment to demonstrate how plastic moves from rivers to oceans. Project statistics state that 80% of plastic in the ocean originally comes from rivers. 

Volunteers separate what they find on Preventing Plastic Pollution cleanups

Evidence from a year’s cleanups

Over the years, many activities and groups have highlighted  the issue of plastics in our environment. Plastic Free July  was one of the first to shout about the issue and encourages us to change our habits and refuse single-use plastic. An estimated  50% of plastic manufactured each year is designed for single-use products. It is a shocking figure, particularly if we paused to think about how much single-use plastic we don’t actually need. 

In the past 12 months,  our Preventing Plastic Pollution project has removed nearly a ton of litter from the Medway. Our fabulous 379 volunteers have carried out 17 litter picks and sorted the collected items into types, to identify common problems and their sources.

The majority of this is single-use plastic. The most common items have been drinks bottles, their lids, plastic bags, sweet wrappers and other food packaging. Then there are cotton bud sticks, polystyrene from packaging, film and even pens. Sadly, there are also a huge number of plastic pieces that we couldn’t identify because the original item has degraded into microplastics.

Making changes to help rivers and oceans

Whatever the plastic, however, experts estimate that  only 9% of what is produced is ever recycled.

Combining our evidence and field experiences with the long-standing Plastic Free July campaign gives us a powerful moment to change our habits.

Below are some simple changes suggested by our team – from our daily lives and hobbies.

All of them encourage us to reduce our reliance on single-use plastic.

A tonne of waste has been collected in a year by our Preventing Plastic Pollution project volunteers

Making the switch at home

  • Switch to bamboo! From toothbrushes and toothpicks to portable cutlery for picnics, use this material that will decompose. Also, buy toothpaste in jars or an aluminium tube that can be recycled
  • Change from using wetwipes to washable cotton pads or flannels. Wetwipes, many of which contain plastic, are one of the most common items found on our cleanups, particularly on estuary areas. They are often flushed down toilets and end up in rivers having come from sewers
  • Use bars of soap, shampoo and conditioner rather than bottled liquid ones. 
  • If you are debating how to prevent plastic waste but you’re not ready to give up liquid shampoos or detergents, make a step change by seeking out a refill shop, taking your bottles there to restock
  • Make your own beauty products: look up for webinars and training opportunities to learn how to make simple make up and make up remover and other beauty and cleaning products with a few natural ingredients
  • Ensure your dishwasher and washing machine detergents are plastic free, to stop microplastics entering our waterways. For example, you can subscribe to plastic free detergent pods via a delivery services
  • Seek out and make the change to reusable, eco-friendly sanitary products. There is a wealth of information available online to make it accessible to everyone. Over the years the range of products, types and materials has increased, bringing down costs and making them accessible to a wider public


Washable cotton pads are an alternative to wetwipes, which contain plastic

Changing our ways when out and about

  • Swap single-use plastic bottles for a refillable one. If you like fizzy drinks, consider buying a sodastream and enjoy the fun challenge of making your own flavours
  • Download apps that detail publically available refill points, such as cafes, restaurants and gyms
  • Make your own packed lunch instead of buying a supermarket “meal deal”, which is full of single-use packaging. This will save you money, too
  • Don’t use cling film to wrap those sandwiches! Either pack loose in a reusable box or wrap them in wax paper
  • In your workplace are you using plastic pens? Try pencils this month and encourage your colleagues to switch
  • Refuse plastic straws when buying drinks. If you really need one, ask for a paper one or take a metal one with you
A metal lunchbox and wooden or bamboo cutlery are perfect for outdoor trips

Refusing plastic when shopping

  • Switch from teabags that contain plastic either to those marked “biodegradable” or to loose leaf tea
  • Seek out refill shops and consider what containers you can refill with detergents or foodstuffs
  • Find a greengrocer for fruit and vegetables. If you do use a supermarket, take your hessian or cloth bags with you – or at the very least a bag for life. Forgotten them? Ask for a box to take away your purchases
  • Net bags can keep different fruit and vegetable bags separate, but there’s no need for any of that plastic packaging around fruit and veg, most of which has its own protective skin
  • Choose clothing and towels made of natural fibres to prevent microplastic pollution. Shop for second hand clothes at a charity shop or re-use online sites. This reduces product packaging. You can also build your very own washing machine filter to prevent microplastics to enter the pipe 
Choose the plastic free options on the shelves or seek a greengrocer not a superstore

Altering habits in our hobbies

  • Anglers: Buy loose floats and weights and avoid those in plastic packaging. Show manufacturers you want less plastic packaging. Take your fishing line to your tackle shop and ask if they have a line recycling scheme
  • Flower arrangers: whether in the garden or as in door hobby, use matting for hanging baskets and flower displays rather than oasis foam which never breaks down
  • Gardeners: use toilet roll inners as plant seed starter pots. These decompose and mean no plastic can get into the soil – and there is an endless supply!
Use compostable pots or toilet rolls, which break down in the ground, for growing seeds