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How to rid the world of plastic
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How to rid the world of plastic
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Articles
22 September 2017

How to rid the world of plastic

Plastic waste poses an environmental crisis, so why aren’t more people trying to live without it?

Written by Tan Allaway

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Image via Flickr/Kevin Krejci

“Everything is always in motion, and everything is always moving in the directions of least resistance…I made up my mind at this point that I would never try to reform man – that’s too difficult. What I would do was to try to modify the environment in such a way as to get man moving in preferred directions.” Buckminster Fuller, The New Yorker, 1966

What did you have for lunch today? What was it packaged in?

Chances are, you had something that was sold to you wrapped in plastic. And that’s a huge problem: both to the environment and to human health. Almost every piece of plastic ever created still exists on this planet. Despite your best efforts to dispose of it properly, 40 percent of plastic ends up in landfill and 32 percent leaks into the natural environment, including waterways, where it devastates wildlife and leaches toxic chemicals into the human food chain.

A report released earlier this year by the University of California, Santa Barbara, concluded that plastic pollution is an environmental crisis comparable to climate change. Yet, at the planet’s current rate of consumption, by 2050 humans will be discarding so much of the stuff that the oceans will contain more plastic than fish.

It’s not a challenge too great to solve, though. As individuals, we can make a tangible impact. One that will in turn influence others, creating a ripple effect that should feed into the tsunami of positive living our planet so desperately needs.

Where to start? Buckminster Fuller’s thoughts ring true when it comes to implementing change: humans will naturally follow the path of least resistance.

If we want people to reduce their plastic consumption, it has to be easy for them to purchase sustainable and plastic-free products.

Here in Melbourne we’re lucky to have access to some wonderful stores, largely independent retailers, that sell a huge range of groceries without wasteful packaging. You just need to know where to look. I have a well-trodden route each weekend, following a treasure map of stores unearthed through months of research and exploration: bakery, greengrocer, bulk food store, butcher, deli.

I recognise that not everyone has this access, or local shopping nous. The default grocery experience is in major supermarkets, notorious for blithely selling sweet potatoes in cling-wrapped trays, handing over sliced deli meats sheathed in plastic, and depositing weekly home deliveries in a small mountain of grey bags.

Supermarkets will only change their offering if the consumers demand it—and customers will only demand plastic-free packaging if there’s the will to do so.

How can you change consumer behaviour on an individual level? Or rather, as Fuller would prefer, nudge people in the desired direction?

One thing not to do is march in cack-handed. Present a problem as too great and you risk turning your audience the opposite way. Even if a person knows that they should be doing x, y or z, if that opportunity for change seems too hard to realise, they’ll be left with an unpalatable gap between their beliefs and their behaviour. It’s what’s known as cognitive dissonance.

This “uncomfortable inner tension”, as explained by Per Espen Stokness in What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, “only dissolves when one or other of the components changes and harmony is restored.” If acting on climate change falls in the too-hard basket, the easiest way to resolve the dissonance may well be to convince ourselves that the problem isn’t so urgent after all, or that the actions of one person will never be enough to make a difference.

And so it could seem with plastic-free living, which is perhaps one reason why more people don’t give it a go.

I’ve been living ‘plastic free’ for three years. I know that many new acquaintances are amazed when I explain my choice to refuse single-use plastic. They think it’s a gargantuan undertaking. But here’s the secret: it’s really not that hard. Anyone that’s living this way will explain that once you work out the shopping hacks and get into the rhythm, plastic-free living becomes so normal.

Here’s another secret: I currently don’t buy all my products plastic free. Milk, yoghurt, Tim Tams…there are a few items that still make it into my home, their packaging migrating to my bin. But that’s OK. The task doesn’t have to be too impossible. My weekly rubbish collection is still only a couple of fistfuls at most, a far cry from the volumes I might have generated five years ago.

Once I started this experiment, I set up TalkPlastic—a group to share experiences and tips for going plastic free. The plan was to smooth the way for others. It set off a ripple effect. Friends would proudly text me with their latest sustainable change, or tell me stories about how they’d convinced their parents to take reusable bags to the supermarket, or workplaces to supply staff with KeepCups.

The behaviour of peers is contagious. A fascinating study by Yale and New York University in 2012 showed that people are more likely to install solar panels on their home if their neighbours have them. It also showed that greater visibility of solar panels and word-of-mouth recommendations meant larger installations.

Don’t underestimate the value of setting an example. Socially and psychologically, your own actions have the power to lay a path that seems easier for others to follow. As more and more consumers seek out sustainable products, the vibrations of their marching feet should shake retailers into action.

Now it’s your turn to try going plastic free. Make one adjustment at a time, then challenge yourself to eliminate another item. Then another.

As you make the changes, talk about them. Make them visible. Make them positive. Wear this new lifestyle loud and proud and see how contagious it is.

ACT NOW

  • Need to bag up some vegetables? Use paper mushroom bags instead of the plastic ones. You can also use these paper bags for nuts and other items in supermarket bulk bins.
  • Buy a bamboo toothbrush. Plastic ones will seem hideous once you’ve made the switch.
  • Bring your own reusable tupperware to the butcher, fishmonger or cheese counter. You’ll be amazed at how much your weekly waste gets cut down as soon as you stop putting meat trays in the bin.
  • Use a pencil instead of a biro.
  • Buy a bar of soap instead of a plastic soap dispenser or shower gel. Beautiful, natural handmade soaps are often sold in local markets.
  • Ask for cold meats to be wrapped in paper, not plastic, at the deli counter.
  • Use beeswax wraps instead of cling wrap. These are stunning, antibacterial cotton wraps that can be reused many times.
  • Say ‘no’ to disposable extras when you’re eating out. Getting a burger? Ask for sauce on the side of the chips, not in a plastic tub. Ordering a drink? Make sure they don’t include a plastic straw.
  • Carry a reusable shopping bag on you all the time so you’re never caught short. Onya sells Australian-made bags that can be clipped to your keyring and are made from recycled plastic.

To register for the Dumbo Feather Climate Challenge, and to receive week eight straight to your inbox, sign up here. Find all content for week one-six here.

Tan Allaway

Tan Allaway is the founder of TalkPlastic, a project dedicated to talking about plastic use and sharing opportunities to act on the issue of plastic waste. She lives in Melbourne, where she is editor-in-chief of digital technology and innovation publication Digital Pulse.

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