Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Plastic-Free Public Servant?

Leonie challenged me recently to imagine what I would do with my life if I never had to work again. Not work again? But I like what I do!

It's true that working full time and working out when I'm not working doesn't leave me with a lot of free hours. There are loads of things I would do if I had more time (and if I weren't careless with what time I do have). I would read and write more poetry. I would meditate regularly at the Wellington Buddhist Centre. I would learn how to make patchwork quilts, how to paint and how to make my own clothes. I would spend more time at the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary. I would probably, predictably, spend even more time at the gym, running and on my bike. I would hopefully spend some quality time in the pool. I would almost certainly go to more art exhibitions and concerts. I would grow my own fruit and vegetables, plant out my garden with more natives and eliminate the various noxious species flourishing in corners. I would redecorate our house.

Of course I would travel. The travel answer is too obvious. I haven't been overseas in nearly ten years (I'm embarrassed to admit that) and it's about time I did. However, even if I never have to work again I can't travel forever.

If I REALLY never had to work again, if I were able to make a lifestyle change that wouldn't just be about finding more THINGS to do and more about fundamentally changing the way I live, there is something I would really like to do. I would like to stop buying anything made from plastic.

Beth Terry, of Fake Plastic Fish has pretty much already said anything I could hope to say on this matter, but I thought it might be useful to try to spell out exactly why eliminating plastic from my life has ended up being number one on my list of 'things I would do'.

Here is my reason number one for wanting to stop consuming plastic. Welcome to the Plastic Stew. This is a huge area of the Pacific Ocean where ocean currents and environmental quirks have led to a not very appealing collection of plastic. The problem though isn't just the plastic bags, the can rings wrapped around birds' necks, the bottle caps in dead sea creatures' stomachs. Those are just the more visible side effects of plastic pollution.

Unfortunately plastic doesn't just disappear. Instead, it breaks up into smaller and smaller particles. In this stretch of ocean the water contains six times more plastic than plankton. So what happens to these particles of plastic? They get eaten as though they were plankton. Those creatures which don't starve as a result get eaten by other creatures, who then get eaten by other creatures, who may well then get eaten by humans. Fancy a little plastic with your sushi? Now about a little endocrine disruption with your chips? Work out for yourself what the side effects of consuming all those toxins might be doing to you, let alone the planet's biodiversity in general.

Don't think that recycling lets you off the hook either. Chances are those bottles in your little green bin won't end up being recycled anyway, or will end up being turned into products that will eventually end up in a landfill anyway, or will accumulate in a polymer mountain in a country like China, where the Western world can tuck its environmental guilt away out of sight.

So, what can I do? The Green Party does, of course, have some good ideas, and Hamish and I have been involved in several music festivals based on Zero Waste principles. However the logical place to start is at home. How can I start eliminating plastic from the things I buy each week?

Let's start with food. Here I have unashamedly played the no-time card. It's easy and quick to park in a supermarket carpark and grab a week's worth of groceries. Fruit gets slipped into plastic bags. Meat comes wrapped in plastic wrap, resting on polystyrene trays. Inside the cardboard cereal box the cereal is sealed in plastic. Bottles have plastic sealing their lids closed. Frozen food comes packaged almost exclusively in plastic. Milk, yoghurt and cheese - all stored in plastic. Alison Holst's face is printed onto the plastic bags used in the bulk bin area. Don't even get me started on the pleasures of fresh pasta - presented, of course, in plastic. Even if I bring my environmentally friendly organic cotton bags the checkout person will still try to wrap the chicken and the cat food in plastic bags.

At the gym - the sports drinks and protein bars - all packaged in plastic. My beloved running shoes - non-biodegradable. My shampoo bottle - also plastic. At work polystyrene cups are set out next to the coffee plunger at morning tea time. The dishwashing powder comes in a plastic bottle, as does the environmentally friendly dishwashing liquid. Even the environmentally friendly laundry powder comes with a plastic scoop.

My iBook - largely plastic. My beloved Tivoli radio - plastic. Pretty much any of the toys I would like to buy will come packaged in plastic. My medication comes in non-reusable plastic bottles. Even the plastic Snapper card I bought to replace my bus pass came encased in its own little plastic wallet.

Of course there are ways around all of these problems, as Beth is discovering. However truly abandoning plastic also involves surrendering a lot of the consumption-focused middle-classed and privileged lifestyle I and my peers are used to indulging in. And I feel like a petulant, spoiled little child saying this, but it also involves giving up a lot of time and risking becoming viewed as a right oddball.

I enjoy farmers' markets, but it takes time and energy to stop off at the market after a Sunday bike ride. Yes, I know how stupid that sounds. It takes time to drive to the Island Bay butcher and request that meat be wrapped in paper, not plastic, and then to stop off at a bakery for packaging-free bread (although I love bread fresh from our breadmaker). I would feel like an idiot taking my own recyclable containers to Kana Khazana for my Indian takeaway. I would miss the convenience of buying a serving of Pasta Fresca chicken ravioli, even though I know I would enjoy making my own pasta and that it is perfectly possible to make up a large batch and freeze the extra.

The cliche is that Rome wasn't built in a day, and nor will Pip's plastic-free world happen overnight. It's not just the obvious plastic products either. There is also a huge problem with processed food (let's not even open the corn debate here or mention the genetically modified food problem) and petroleum-based or dependent products. The more I read the greater the issues I feel compelled to address become.

I can start small. The obvious first move is to stop being so lazy and do the farmer's markets and shop small and local. I can look for organic or sustainable products. Where possible I will seek out glass or cardboard. This summer I WILL establish my fruit and vegetable garden (if only because I grew up with fresh produce out of the garden and miss it badly). The money I save won't hurt either! I can make steps towards a more sustainable life in general, and until the day comes where I really no longer have to work, that will have to be enough.

1 comment:

Marshmallow said...

Far out, this post really got me thinking about the amount of plastic we use - even unintentionally, yikes. And it's so damn true about the Friendly Checkout People wrapping your chicken in plastic bags even though the whole point of bringing in your cotton ones is so you don't have to use up more plastic ones.

[and if you want to listen to the Zombie track in RPM 40, this is a segment from the filming of Body Combat 36, where they used the same music]