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What the saviour of London’s pigeons taught me about the problem with plastic

A pigeon
‘Naomi spotted them flapping about in difficulty, caught them, snipped off the nylon and nursed them back to health and freedom.’ Photograph: Alamy

Not knowing what to do with myself and my bad temper in my 30s, I went to a creative writing class at City Lit, a London-based adult-education college. The teacher looked odd – about 70, she was always dressed in black, her hair was grey and a little wild and she seemed to have dusted her face in flour, some of which speckled her black clothes.

But there was something magical about Naomi Lewis. She was full of enthusiasm, thrilled by the efforts of her class. She would sit at the end of our square of tables, always cheery, and call out excitedly: “So good! So much of interest!”

Somehow, every week, she got most of us to scribble little gems in 15 minutes, which we would then read out boldly, to rapturous applause. We always left feeling that perhaps we really could write something worthwhile.

She wrote beautifully herself: essays, poems, books, reviews – particularly of children’s literature; her life was choc-a-bloc. But she still had time for another passion: rescuing pigeons in trouble. I saw her at it once, just off Rosebery Avenue in central London, scattering bird seed to lure the injured pigeons, catch them and save them. From nylon thread.

The poor birds would get their legs tangled in bits of it, which, unlike old cotton thread, she told us, would never rot or break, so the pigeons’ legs eventually rotted and broke. Unless Naomi spotted them flapping about in difficulty, caught them, snipped off the nylon and nursed them back to health and freedom. Luckily for them, she knew where they were. During her hours of cycling around and wandering the streets, distributing bird seed, she had learned where the crippled ones lived. Imagine her patience – the endless searching, trudging, scattering, waiting, day after day, until she eventually caught them.

Why is plastic being demonised?

Since the 1950s, 8.3bn tonnes of plastic has been produced. Plastic is seen as a versatile, indispensable product, but the environmental impact is becoming more stark. Plastic is now so pervasive that recycling systems cannot keep up and the leakage into the environment is such that by 2050 plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish. Last year scientists found plastic fibres in tap water, and plastic has been found in the stomachs of sea creatures in the deepest part of the ocean. Most plastic waste ends up in landfill sites or leaks into the natural environment, where it is causing huge damage to eco-systems on land and sea, creating near permanent contamination. According to academics in the United States, by 2015, of all the plastic waste generated since the 1950s, only 9% has been recycled, with 12% incinerated and 79% accumulated in landfill sites or the environment.

Why are the supermarkets under fire?

Producers of plastic include retailers, drinks companies and supermarkets. The Guardian revealed that supermarkets create more than half of the plastic waste in the household stream in the UK. But they refuse to reveal how much they put on to the streets and how much they pay towards recycling it. Supermarkets are under pressure to reduce their plastic packaging and campaigners argue they have the power to turn off the tap. Much of the packaging they sell to consumers is not recyclable: plastic film, black plastic trays, sleeves on drinks bottles and some coloured plastic. The Recycling Association and other experts believe supermarkets could do much more to make packaging 100% recyclable and reduce the use of plastic.

Who pays to clean up the waste?

The taxpayer, overwhelmingly. Producers and retailers pay the lowest towards recycling and dealing with their waste in Europe. In other countries, the “polluter” is forced to pay much more. In France, a sliding system of charges means those who put more non- recyclable material on the market pay more.

What can shoppers do to help?

Supermarkets are under pressure, not least from the prime minister, to create plastic-free aisles. A growing number of zero-waste shops are springing up and consumers are being encouraged to ask for products to be sold without plastic.

Sandra Laville

She couldn’t take them home, because her flat was stuffed with all the stray cats she had rescued, so she took the pigeons to the Conway Hall, just across her square, for rehabilitation and flying lessons.

She should have been a warning sign of the horrors to come – a pioneer, rescuing animals from the perils of man-made synthetic fibres half a century ago, showing what can happen if we make rubbish that lasts for ever. It kept her busy, day and night, before we had single-use coffee pods and before David Attenborough had shown us that bird searching the oceans for food for its chick and coming back with only a gob-full of plastic. Now we know that all the plastic we have ever made is still here, wrecking, choking and tying things up, and that China is so clogged with waste that it won’t help us recycle ours any more. We will have to do it ourselves. Good job Naomi didn’t live to see this.

This article titled "What the saviour of London’s pigeons taught me about the problem with plastic" was written by Michele Hanson, for The Guardian on Monday 5 February 2018 01.17pm


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