Sunday, 30 April 2017

Are You Hooked on Plastic?

What does a world without plastic look like?

There are fewer and fewer people who are able to answer that question. After the mass production of the plastic bag and explosion of plastics onto the consumer market in the 1950's, plastic has become so ubiquitous that it is difficult to imagine a world without it. Imagine walking along an urban beach and not seeing a single scrap of plastic, walking down the street and not seeing plastic rubbish discarded in the gutters and drains.

No doubt life was very different pre-plastic, when working your land, providing for your family, and living within your means were considered the norm for many. A time when things were slower and simpler. But my how times have changed in a relatively short time frame. For better or worse the invention of plastic has made life a lot more convenient for our time poor, money rich, consumerist society.

Things that used to be crafted from wood, clay, steel and glass are now plastic, extruded and churned out on a line for immediate consumption, with many items literally only used momentarily before ending up in the bin. The much-loved plastic shopping bag is used for a whopping 12 minutes on average, before being unceremoniously discarded.

There was a time when plastic items were expensive and treasured, a wonder of science and technology, take Tupperware for example. But now it's so easy and cheap to get plastic ware that we literally throw it away after a single use with barely a second thought!

Fruit in Japan
Fruit in NZ
It's doubtful that our addiction to plastics is a mere accident or natural progression. On the contrary I believe we have been conditioned and manipulated to use and accept plastic without question, and despite increasing calls for decades to find alternatives to fossil fuels and their byproducts, we are consuming more and more plastic with no tangible end in sight. A world without plastic pollution and fossil fuels is still a fantasy.

I was an eighties kid so I grew up in the 'plastic fantastic' age, when plastic was marketed as a new-age wonder of technology and plastic toys were being constantly pushed onto kids that had to have it all. Now there are fewer and fewer options for non-plastic items, or items not wrapped in plastic packaging, and more often than not when I ask retailers why there are no alternatives they look puzzled and have to think about an answer or some kind of excuse. The number one reason I'm given for fruit and vegetables being wrapped in plastic, is hygiene.  It seems a bizarre reason when you consider that vegetables are grown in dirt and manure! Not to mention that most people wash their produce before consuming, or that the majority of Japanese people don't eat the skins on their fruit and vegetables, even peeling individual grapes?!

Manufacturers laughing all the way to the bank.

With the oil industry under increasing threat do you think it's a coincidence that we are being pushed to buy bottled water while waterways are increasingly polluted? That everything comes in plastic because it's just more hygienic? Or that we are given no alternatives because they are inferior? Just think about those reasons for a second. On one hand we are told we must reduce our carbon footprint, while on the other hand manufacturers continue to churn out more single use plastic, and encourage us to buy more, more, MORE polluting products.

Take a look at the example of disposable and 'reusable' razors. Today I went to buy replacement cartridge heads for my lady shaver, which although still has some plastic parts is somewhat less than the disposable versions. The manufacturer gives me one choice of replacement cartridges in a small cardboard box, at 598 yen for two. Or instead I could get a pack of four disposal plastic razors in disposable plastic packaging for 198 yen. So essentially in trying to avoid plastic I have to pay three times the price?! Some will argue the quality is better but in my opinion that is absolute garbage. If anything I would say the replaceable types blunt quicker. Manufacturers must sit around the meeting room table rubbing their hands together while they laugh and laugh at our gullible stupidity.
Barring going au naturale (which will probably get me even more weird side glances), there's waxing of course (if medieval torture is you're thing), or other expensive and involved permanent hair removal options. But seriously, my next non plastic investment will probably be a metal safety razor with replaceable blades, for a fraction of the cost. You have to wonder why these much more environmentally friendly razors have been replaced by inferior plastic versions, don't you.

So what can we do about this conundrum?

Be vocal.
There are many household things I've successfully and fairly easily replaced with non plastic items, pantry items and hygiene products for example. But I often have to hunt for things, it requires effort, and sometimes I just don't have the time or the money. We need retailers to provide more options, and if we don't tell them we want it then how are they going to know there is a demand, or that we even care? So my advice is email your local supermarket or talk in store with the manager directly (if possible), whenever you have the time or inclination. Ask retailers if they have alternatives, and if they don't then why not? Kudos has to go out to the rare gems who are addressing the problem head on, like the fantastic Kiwi business Innocent Packaging that sees the value in being a business that supports sustainability.

Start to question your own habits.
So many things we do on a daily basis have just become force of habit. Sometimes we do things because we are told to, or perceive that everyone does things a certain way so we must also.
Do you really need that little plastic bag to go inside a big plastic bag? Or could you just carry it to your car and put your purchase in your eco-bag? Do you really need plastic bin liners? Or could you use paper or fold your own? Do you really need plastic food-wrap? Or could you put a plate or bowl on top instead, or transfer to a reusable container? Do you really need those plastic net things to put in your kitchen sink catchment? Or could you just empty it out directly in your compost or bin every day and wash it? Are you buying into the marketing hype or just doing things because everyone else does it? Think about what motivates you.

I've been careful to try not to push my agenda on people, as it's not my goal to guilt people into feeling they have to stop using plastic. At the end of the day I realize people are busy and will reach for the most convenient and cheapest options, and for that reason conscious consumerism will fail and is a fraud as long as manufacturers continue to get a free-pass for using unsustainable materials. It's a gloomy and sickening realization when you find out you've been naively manipulated for so long. We can turn it around though, but boy oh boy have we got a lot of work to do.

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