Tag Archives: plastic free

Single use plastics

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.

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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 beĀ 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?

Personal and social transformation: should we share more of our struggles?

What am I going to do about it? This is a recurring question when people bring up this big issues of the day – and I suppose I mainly have climate change and climate justice in mind here, although other forms of social justice will be close behind. Coming away from Yearly Meeting Gathering, a week in which I have heard many people urging the community to act and act quickly, many people talking in more or less abstract terms about movement building, and, as someone put it in conversation, many “impassioned pleas for something”, it seems like an important question.

My instinct is to look for something clear and preferably dramatic to which I can commit in my own life. Change made, rules nice and simple, done. That’s what I did in 2011, when my Quaker community made our original commitment to being a sustainable community and I went vegan as a result. Of course, being vegan isn’t actually a single change, and the rules are neither clear nor simple, and it’s never done. There will always be a time when there’s no vegan option, and an argument about why it would be more environmentally friendly/socially just to eat local venison/sheep’s milk/misshapen avocados/nothing but water, and the eternal shoe problem, and someone on Facebook who thinks I’m the scum of the earth for eating Lockets with honey, and compromises to make even within plant-based food (like this: organic soy milk and a vitamin tablet, or fortified but non-organic soy milk?). For just as long, I’ve wished I could commit to going plastic-free. Wouldn’t it be clean, and simple, and give off the impression of being morally good, to not have anything to send to landfill?

It would also have the consolation of being extremely difficult, taking up a lot of time and energy and attention and thought, and being easy to explain to people and show off about. It would be satisfying because it would be entirely within my control – and its effects would be very minor, because it would involve going to considerable lengths for results which only affect my life. It is, if not a selfish answer, then at least an introverted one. Like other ways of shaving a tiny little bit off one’s own environmental impact, it lends itself to lots of research (and a certain amount of arguing on social media) and not to reaching out or making common cause with others.

(This might, of course, be just another excuse for not doing it, because it’s difficult and tiresome. But I think it can be an excuse AND genuinely onto something about why it appeals.)

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Allotment produce. Easy to brag about on social media, difficult to live on.

When I think about trying to break out of this way of thinking – moving the focus away from controlling the effects of my own life and towards working with others to change the world – I don’t really know what I’m aiming for. I am rather inclined to tell myself, for example, that I don’t really know any people, or that I don’t know the right people, or that I can’t do anything because most of the people I know don’t live in the same city. These things have a grain of truth – but I also have nearly 600 Facebook friends and my blog posts often have fifty to a hundred readers, so my sense of shouting into the void is mainly an illusion.

One of the things which creates this illusion is the choices I make about what to share and what to keep private. Sometimes I think this is right – my online presence is, among other things, a professional one, and some things about my life should be left out of that (everyone moans about work sometimes… except me, obviously, this is still a public space!). Sometimes it’s just a personal choice – I could tell you about the train wreck which passes for dating in my world, or my invisible illnesses, but I don’t think either of us would gain by it. Sometimes, though, it’s easy to post things which are good for my ego – look, I did this and that; look, I got published; look, still vegan; look, no hands! – and keep the moral dilemmas and hard work which underlie these things all to myself. A first step to building a movement around something has to be to talk about it, or I (and you?) will keep imagining being alone with the issue.

That being so, perhaps my next series of blog posts will be about my open questions, the problems I haven’t solved yet in trying to live a sustainable and just life, and the cases where there may be no single right answer. Would you read them? Will you share your own struggles, in writing or in person or somewhere else? (Is it too clear and simple? Too me-focused?)