A week ago, I started out with an empty bin. Today, I spread out on the kitchen floor all the things I’ve put it during the week, and photographed them. I haven’t included my recyclables, just the ones which will go straight to landfill.
This has become a fairly standard exercise in some environmental activist circles, and I knew what to expect. The aim is to motivate giving up single-use plastics. The problem, as a quick inspection of this photograph will reveal, is that to give up single-use plastics pretty much means giving up eating.
In the photograph there are sixteen individual plastic items. Fourteen of them are food wrappers – including the Lockets packet, which is bordering on medicinal. One is the blister pack from some painkillers. One is a train ticket – mostly cardboard but with a plastic/magnetic strip on the back.
Some things I’ve already swapped. The three apple stickers in the picture came from organic apples bought in a paper bag, so that’s less plastic than it might have been.
Three of these items are bread, and if you are about to say that I could have baked it myself using flour from a paper bag (and yeast from a plastic bag, but at least it would be less plastic) you are right. However, I am also a lazy so-and-so whose past attempts to eat only homemade bread have resulted in just not eating bread.
Not shown here are some packets which last for a while – this happened to be the week when I finished a bag of frozen sweetcorn. That usually lasts me over a month and is much more efficient in terms of food waste than buying fresh veg for one person with a moderately unpredictable schedule. I also ate pasta and rice and all sorts of other things also stored in plastic bags.
Also not shown here is the growing pile of damson stones which I will probably end up putting in landfill because there’s no way they’ll compost in my little bin. Since the damson tree is providing a large amount of plastic-free fruit, though, this might be a trade-off of some kind.
This post does not have a happy ending. It has a pit of despair – how will I ever help to save the planet if I can’t feed myself while I’m doing it? – and some questions. To what extent is this my fault, as an individual, and to what extent is it a structural failing in the system within which I live? How much am I cheating by not including recyclables? How far can I get outside this system, and how far can I work to change it while I’m also supporting it by buying these products? How long can one live on nothing but organic sweet potato?