The theme of the UN’s World Environment Day this year is #beatplasticpollution.
When we advertise online, we often use the phrases “zero-waste” and “plastic-free” to connect with people who are looking to reduce their waste. In reality, these are still unrealistic terms, and it is a journey we are on rather than an end point at the moment.
Starting this business was a slow coalescence of ideas, inspired by various people along the way. I found that as I changed one thing to try and reduce my waste, another problem came to the fore. I got to the point where I would stand in the supermarket, trying to work out whether it was better to buy the organic thing wrapped in plastic, or the crappy thing that came in a cardboard box and whether to just get over myself and let my kids have a kinder egg. Down that way, madness lies, hence the setting up of the business to try and do something about it!
The problem is, when you stick your head above the parapet, slowly but surely, the way we live seems to make less and less sense. In what crazy world is it easier to dig up oil, ship it half way across the world, use masses of water and other resources in order to create something we use once and throw away?
Over the past couple of years, I have read a lot about the problem with plastics/climate change/pollution etc. But the thing I have become more and more interested in, is why it has become a problem. What is it in human nature that has nudged us along into “self-destruct” mode?
I feel there are some very long and complicated answers to that question that would take a crack team of anthropologists, historians, political experts, economists and evolutionary scientists to explore. I am none of the above.
But on a more personal level, I think that we humans are fairly bad at scale. Our lives are set up to be very busy, and we don’t always think about the wider effects of our actions. I went for a walk this morning, and you really have to go fairly high up in the hills to find a piece of litter free ground. Plastics, cigarette butts, foil wrappings are everywhere. We are good friends with the folk who run the Bolton litter picking group and know that it’s fairly devastating to go out and find that an area you cleaned one week has been turned into a trash site the next. Why on earth would we do it?
I read a book a while back called “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald. One of the passages really stuck with me which was this:
“We are very bad at scale. The things that live in the soil are too small to care about, climate change to large to imagine. We are bad at time too. We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. We live out our 3 score and 10 and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures and wipe the hills of history.”
Echoing this, Maria Rodale in “The Organic Manifesto” says
“We prefer our nature in the Macro- postcard vistas and views. When it comes to the micro, we would rather not look or know. We know more about outer-space than we do about the ground we live on, about the soil that sustains us.”
We are busy and we often fail to look up or down and focus in. Sometimes things are too overwhelming to look at, so we bury ourselves back into our busy lives and smart phones and stop looking. Me included. A lot of us live busy lives that are a couple of steps removed from nature. It becomes easy to forget the effect of our piece of litter/single use plastic in the sea on other living things.
I think another issue is how removed the plastic problem can seem from us. In the same way that we go to the toilet and flush it away down unseen pipes into unseen reservoirs, we do the same with our litter. Out of sight, out of mind. It takes widely viewed documentaries like Blue Planet to shake us up and make us truly look.
A scheme in Perth is even looking at trialling see-through bins, in a pilot “face-your-waste” scheme to help people see what they are throwing away. Which is a great idea, but for me it needs to go hand in hand with other initiatives. We now have the slim bin in Bolton, which I’m all for. But we need to go a step or two back. As consumers we can actively make better choices about what we do or do not buy. BUT, I own a bloody “zero-waste” shop and still have masses of crap filling my bin each month. Individual consumers can only do so much, and many of problems we face when trying to reduce our waste come from “up-stream” decisions and policy makers. We need better Government legislation and actual money pumped into solutions. Consumers have a lot of sway, but the simple rule of making everyone pay 5p for a plastic bag has had a massive impact. More of the same please.
Fundamentally, our plastic problem is one of design. The way we produce, use and distribute is completely at odds with a) the planets’ finite resources and b) the amount of people living on the planet.
So what do we needs to happen?
Need to stop linear model of planned obsolescence. Producing objects that are used for seconds and last for decades needs to end immediately.
Producers of materials need to be more accountable for where their products end up. Companies moving to a more circular model of design and production should be incentivised, making more companies do the same.
Changes to consumer and business practice should be supported by and driven by policy.
Policy makers have a duty to safeguard our health and environment by fully engaging with the problem and legislating accordingly.
(Info paraphrased from World Environment Day website)
On a personal level, we can make our voice heard and make small changes to our daily habits. This year, the United Nations is proposing a game of #BeatPlasticPollution tag for World Environment day, which is as good a place to start as any.
Let’s help spread the word and put an end to single-use plastic!