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.

Your life in landfill

The proverbial straw, for me, was the disposable toothbrush. Of course, most toothbrushes are disposable (except for these), but I’m talking about the single-use variety. Apparently these have been around for a while, but (because I spend so much time avoiding popular culture) they’ve only just caught my attention. Could there be anything more absurd? Can they possibly do a better job on-the-go as a stick of chewing gum?

Presumably, we’re just too busy to plan ahead for our one-night stands… or whatever other occasion you might want to brush your teeth when not in your own bathroom. Likewise, too busy to put a tablet of Berocca into a glass of water.

Isn’t it about time that there was some kind of regulation governing this type of ridiculous product? Clearly, people can’t be relied upon to make intelligent, sustainable choices about these things. Tissues, paper towels, single-use plastic containers, bottled water… all these things are not only going into landfill, but also cost energy to manufacture.

I’m well aware that as a parent using disposable nappies (aka diapers) it’s hypocritical to say this, but at least nappies are used for a finite period of life. And I am actually giving cloth nappies a go. I’m probably better placed to do this than most women, as my husband does all our laundry: for too many families, cloth nappies are just another burden on women. So I’m all for seeing our disposable lives as a community problem that needs to be solved collectively.

That’s why I think we should deal with the most inane of these products first and work our way up to the ones that are actually useful — it might be worthwhile to create recyclable or biodegradable versions of these. (There are already several brands of biodegradable nappies). Half a brain and half a conscience should be enough to deal with this kind of rubbish.

Carbon nutrition labels

Woolworths (or Safeway if you’re Victorian) may soon be providing information about the carbon footprint of the products they sell, according to today’s Sun-Herald.

This is probably a good thing, but I’m sceptical (naturally) about how well it’s going to work. What will be included in the carbon footprint? Will water and energy costs both be considered? How will the system by monitored, and by whom, unless the government is willing to get involved? And how long will it take for workarounds to be found (like labelling sugar as “evaporated cane syrup” on ingredients lists)?

On a larger scale, will it encourage industry back to Australia in the long term? (And at what cost to developing countries?)

Until these questions are answered, I’ll sit back and watch how this develops with interest.

Organics just aren’t sustainable

This post was originally dated 30 September 2007; technical difficulties have prevented its publication until now. Publication should now resume as “normal”…

Following Elizabeth Finkel’s blistering critique of organic food (which suggested that organic food is not better for you or the environment), Cosmos Online has published an opinion piece from Craig Meisner, an American professor based in Bangladesh.

Professor Meisner’s intimate knowledge of the true conditions in a developing country refute the assumptions often made when researchers try to determine if organic farming can feed the world. According to Meisner, the assumption that organic fertilisers and mulches are plentiful, even for the poor, is incorrect. Any change to current agricultural practices would require major changes, such as sacrificing fields growing food for fields growing legumes for fertilisers (the bacteria in legumes’ roots can fix nitrogen), which is too risky for the very poor when it means they might go hungry.

To me, the solution is simple: since the evidence shows the organic farming isn’t really that much better than modern conventional methods, those promoting organics should get off their high horse a little bit. For those who want (and are able) to pay the extra cash for the feel-good sensation of food with no “chemicals” (but possibly extra parasites and insects), that’s great — even more so for the farmers making money from it. But there’s no reason to foist that on everyone else, particularly if they live in a developing country.

Of course, there are issues with the toxicity of pesticides in the quantities used by farmers, including language barriers preventing sufficient understanding of warnings, but this needs to be addressed separately to the issue of organics vs conventional farming. Farmers deserve the best they can get out of their land.

Science in the USA

I just spent 3.5 weeks in the United States, which is the reason for the lack of posts since the 4th (when we left). As I haven’t read much science news (or any other news) since we left, I’ll have to draw on my actual experiences (gasp) for this post. So, here is a round-up of the science-related touring that we did.

  1. In the Muir Woods, California, we saw the giant redwoods, which are beautiful and awe-inspiring. We also listened to an ecology talk run by a volunteer, in which we learned why the woods were named after John Muir (William Kent, who bought the land to conserve it and donated it to the government, wanted it named after his hero) and a bit about redwood biology (they can reproduce sexually or asexually, and can grow so tall because they have symbiotic fungi that draw water in from the fog).
  2. We visited the aquarium in Monterey, California, which is renowned for its three-storey kelp pool containing many of the local species, including the lovely leopard sharks. We saw penguins, sea otter, and lots of fish. We managed to get to the penguin feeding, otter training, and kelp pool diver feeding (that is, a diver fed the fish). The keeper talks were excellent, especially the otter talk, which explained how they care for injured otters, foster hurt babies, and release them back into the wild. Conservation is important at the aquarium, and the otters that they have kept are considered unreleasable.
  3. In New York, we went to the American Museum of Natural History. The museum is huge and we didn’t get through the whole thing. But we saw the space exhibit and the planetarium show (“Cosmic Collisions”, narrated by Robert Redford — it was excellent), quite a lot of the biodiversity exhibits and of course the dinosaurs and extinct mammals. The museum reminded me a lot of the Australian Museum, but it was less child-oriented and at least three times the size.
  4. On our last day in New York, we visited the Central Park Zoo. This is a cute little zoo, which you can get through in under an hour. We loved the polar bears and penguins and puffins.

Other general observations:

  • Conservation and environment really is a big deal in California — it’s not just a media beat-up. Cars are smog tested yearly, everyone I met recycles absolutely everything, and public transport around San Francisco was excellent.
  • The staff (paid and volunteer) at every attraction we visited, were passionate and enthusiastic.
  • In New York, people were interested in the environment but far less knowledgeable about it.
  • We didn’t meet anyone who believes in “Intelligent Design”, but I think that’s just a testament to flying over the “fly-over” states.