Individuals kicking the plastic habit: is it enough?

Let me just preface this by saying that I think Beth Terry is fantastic. In case you don’t know, Beth has a website (really, it’s more than just a blog) called My Plastic-Free Life that basically documents her journey of giving up plastic and encourages others to do the same. I’m relatively new to it, but she’s been around since 2007.

It’s great, don’t get me wrong. Plastic is evil; it never goes away and it’s probably not all that good for you (but what is?). I’ve been trying to reduce our plastic consumption too, and have made some big steps: swapping to cloth nappies/diapers and wipes, purchasing metal water bottles, and banning liquid soap from the house. We’ve also been cutting down on tissues and packaged cleaning products, and I’ll continue to cut down as I’m able. Suggestions welcome.


Firstly, the whinge. It’s hard. It’s time-consuming. And it’s expensive. Especially with kids. Many of Beth’s recommendations centre around going to the farmers’ markets with your own cloth bags (not just to carry shopping in, but to bag each type of fruit, vegetable and legume). And buying bread that’s not packaged. And asking every online retailer you ever shop with to please not wrap your products in plastic. I could go on.

Do I have to point out how much all of this is not going to happen? Yes, certainly we could plan better and always have green bags with us, but sometimes we don’t and need to pick something up on the way home. You know, so as to feed the kids and all. Farmers’ market? Butcher? Deli? The supermarket is one of my coping mechanisms as a working mother; often our shopping happens late at night when everything else is shut. And don’t even get me started on the suggestions of “just make [bread/crackers/jam/sauce/tofu] yourself”. In all my spare time, sure. I’ll also get my own cow and milk her.

Then there’s the plastic that kids just attract, like magnets. Not just food packaging, but toys. Toy packaging. Toys begged for. Toys given as gifts. And soon enough, there will be toys bought with own money. Not to mention other miscellaneous stuff, like potties and high chairs and car seats. These things are mentioned in a guest post on My Plastic-Free Life, actually; one commenter suggested taking presents away before the kids get them. That might work for our baby, but I’d like to see someone try that trick with our almost-five-year-old.

Still, gradually we can educate and improve and make better choices, especially as our finances improve with time. Sure.

But then, secondly. Really, what’s the point in making these reductions? There’s the feel-good factor, doing something positive for the environment. But in the scheme of the world’s population (not to mention industry) it’s insignificant. I don’t think our tip is appreciably smaller because of the disposable nappies that we didn’t dump in it.

To me, the only real point is to make a point. To show that it’s possible, and then to push for legislation. Because the mounds of plastic are not going to go away because I carried a few organic veges in a hemp bag. They’re going to lessen, maybe, when the companies making them are forced to do better. When bottled water is taxed at 1000% or more. And when we start pushing, as cliched as it may be, for a better future for our children.

13 thoughts on “Individuals kicking the plastic habit: is it enough?

  1. A friend’s local council banned plastic shopping bags, and found that sales of plastic garbage bags suddenly increased. In some areas it actually takes more energy to recycle than throw away thanks to energy costs.

    Solutions that seem simple are unlikely to make any difference. And there’s a danger in the feelgood factor too – if you feel like you’re ‘doing your bit’ you are less likely to do something effective.

    I don’t know the answer, but one part as you say is going to come from social change pushing for legislative change. Money is also a big part of it – when carbon producing industries are charged the cleanup costs it’s going to change the economic equation radically.

  2. Exactly Deb, all those hidden effects. Like the pub that started using plastic cups to save washing-up water in drought.

    If those come to light and are reflected in the costs of goods and services, maybe we can get somewhere.

  3. This post will be read as negative but it is honest!

    I think an argument like this is speaking to only certain kinds and uses of plastic. You cannot live your modern life totally without it. Plastic is in your car, your computer, your shoes, your lighting fixtures, your toothbrush – and I do not consider this a bad thing. I live in 2011, not 1800. We have invented these things to make our lives more comfortable and convenient. At a price? Undoubtedly. I am sure it is doing the environment no favours – but why do we care about the environment? Beyond aesthetic reasons, we care because it is our habitat, and when it goes, we go, and I am fine with that. Nowhere is it written humans must exist forever. We are due for extinction and will have our turn like all other living things. So I am going to enjoy my 2011 lifestyle, which includes using products with plastic and not worry about what will happen when I am no longer here. Unfair? Selfish? Maybe. But “fairness” and “selfishness” are human constructs, not physical/biological phenomena. I think people do things like live plastic free, go veg, whatever – moreso for the feel good factor than to make any difference. Make changes in your own life if you must to assuage guilt or live within your personal belief system, but with a overpopulated world of 6 billion, I believe the die is cast and there is no where to go evolutionarily but down. The sheer number of people living on the Earth is what is depleting resources (and I acknowledge resources are used unevenly, but are you really ready to step down from your 1st world western lifestyle in the name of resource equity for people in Africa? You’d be hard pressed to find many who would.)

    Happy to use cloth bags, reuse the same water bottle, buy bio degradable plastics, whatnot, but I lose no sleep over the manufacture, use, and existence of plastic in my world.

  4. Thanks for your comment. :)

    Yes, human extinction is more or less inevitable. However, plastic isn’t just a problem for the future, it’s a problem for now as well. The toxic chemicals in it are well documented to increase the risk of cancer and birth defects.

    And the amount of plastic in the environment is a problem right now. There are seas of plastic in certain parts of the ocean, gathered there because of the currents; otherwise untouched islands in the Great Barrier Reef and elsewhere have plastic water bottles and other garbage washed up on them. This is not only an aesthetic problem but also a problem of conservation of species if one feels any sense of stewardship to the planet. Beth’s blog was originally called “Fake Plastic Fish” because if we don’t curb our plastic addiction that’s all we’ll have left.

    However, if that doesn’t bother you, fine. Complacency (and industry greed) are precisely why I’m suggesting that legislation is what’s needed. If you were standing in the supermarket and could buy a bamboo toothbrush for $2 or a plastic one for $20, what would you choose? Win win.

  5. “If you were standing in the supermarket and could buy a bamboo toothbrush for $2 or a plastic one for $20, what would you choose?”

    Oh, DEF the cheaper one! :-) I’ll be in your army if it means cheaper but still effective products in the store. I think you will find the majority of people base many decision purchases on availability and cost (for some of the reasons you cite in your blog like time, effort, finances…). People will happily be sustainable when it is cheaper and more convenient to be such.

    Glad you are blogging again, by the way. I have somewhat fallen off the wagon but getting back on…

  6. It’s all about making the right environmental choices easy. I think we can all agree on that. It’s great for individuals make the effort to go to farmer’s markets, buy bulk, make their own tooth paste, etc, BUT not everyone is going to do that. In fact 99.9% percent of the population is not going to move from convenience to inconvenience. I think our first step is to replace all this one-use plastic packaging with more ecological packaging. Just like organic produce made it into the mainstream markets, market-demand can make this happen. When we have a big enough push from the bottom maybe we can pass legislation. The problem with legislation, in the US at least, is that elected officials are allowed to except huge donations (aka “bribes”) from corporations. So we can’t expect they will do anything that hurts the profits of their constituents (aka “corporations). I’m working on a list of products with plastic-free packaging which people can leverage to request certain products from their stores, or order them online. I think promoting these EASY alternatives and getting them on store shelves is the way to go.

  7. I agree, having the alternatives in place is an important step. They also need to be affordable. (For example, I wanted to buy some tea-tree oil antiseptic. It was around $7 for a tube, or I could buy neat tea-tree oil for $14 — 50mL in a glass bottle, or 100mL in a plastic bottle. And the neat oil is a poison, which I prefer not to have with kids in the house. I ended up getting the $7 tube.)

    Legislation seems to be slowly working, with different towns banning plastic shopping bags — it’s a start.

  8. Although re that last point, see Deb’s comment above. I think ultimately the scope needs to be bigger. HUGE tax on plastic, tax breaks for sustainable stuff.

  9. First: Congrats on baby 2!

    Second: Holy cow, you must be busy :)

    Third: Applauding your steps– cloth wipes and diapers.

    Fourth: I entirely agree that legislation is what will make the biggest difference. And perhaps deacrease all the late-night shoppers rubbing their brow trying to figure out which toothbrush, which tea-tree oil.

    Finally: Have you seen Tapped, a documentary about bottled water?

  10. Oh thanks! He’s almost 16 months now so almost not a baby anymore, but yes BUSY is the one word that would sum me up these days.

    I haven’t seen Tapped. Haven’t bought bottled water in a long time though.

  11. hey rivqa
    Doing research on recycling and came across your blog.
    I love it! you have me completely distracted from work now.
    Taryn (from SA- remember!)