My “plastic-free” July began with an idea to retain every piece of plastic waste I consumed, and port it around over the month in a bag with me wherever I went.
Had I stuck to this plan – despite deliberate and even desperate efforts to excise plastic waste from my life – I’d now be limping around like Skinner, from Howard Barker’s The Castle. She’s a witch punished for a murder by having her victim’s corpse strapped to her back.
Even without the bag, my plastic use weighs heavily on my conscience. Anti-plastic advocates often cite a visual moment of realisation of the size of the plastic problem. There’s an infamously life-changing photograph of an albatross chick with its stomach split from swallowed bottle lids, another of a seahorse with a Q-tip curled into its tail. A year ago, I discovered 30 separate bits of plastic waste in what is supposed to be my organic vegetable garden, and I’ve been minimising my plastic waste ever since.
I bought the books – the excellent Waste Not by Erin Rhoads and Less Stuff by Lindsay Miles are encouraging, Australian and familiar. I’m a beeswax-wraps and bamboo-toothbrush user, I “make do and mend” my clothes, I store bulk-bought snacks in glass jars. But there are no illusions in our house that taking mere individual responsibility for what is a collective problem can ever solve it – one household makes negligible difference when 340 million global tons of plastic are produced in a single year. The enraging history of plastic also includes how its corporate makers avoided bans and regulation by aggressively mobilising anti-litter campaigns in the 1980s – a sleight-of-hand blaming of citizens for the garbage mountains that their own companies were pumping out.
But my partner accepted my logic that, as activists, an ongoing awareness of where and how we use plastic would attune us to thinking through what a policy response to the plastic crisis might be. The challenge set was not to change our tastes, just to ditch the plastic parts of them.
Our advantages are many. We live in a regional community that still has market gardens, local producers and specialty shops. We have the vegetable garden, our own fruit trees. I work from home, I’m good at craft, I can cook, I make my own sauces and jams. Reducing our plastic use meant rejecting the sole local supplier of store-bought bread, so I taught myself to bake my own. I replaced plastic-packaged cola with one that’s homemade. Already, instead of a premixed cleaning spray, I ferment lemon scraps in vinegar for a month and spray that around.
But these simple replacements have a petrochemical trail. Locally, vinegar comes only in plastic. The spray bottle is plastic. Maybe the container the bread yeast comes in contains plastic; packaging that seems innocuous – from teabags to tin cans – often does … and pretty soon I was too damn depressed to look closely.
Plastic is ubiquitous. All the seedlings for my garden are sold in plastic pots. At the local organic vegetable market, the harried grocer displays capsicums, cauliflower and potatoes naked, but sells them in fastened plastic bags. This is an improvement on the supermarket, where the “organic” vegetables are sold as bricks from a styrofoam and cling-film plastic wall. At the local butcher, I asked if they could wrap the sausages in butcher’s paper instead of plastic. “Nah, we don’t use it,” she responded, as if I’d come in asking for a new wheel for my penny farthing or for a crank to start up my car.
Dairy was a disastrous prospect. The supermarket sells seven brands of cream; they’re all made locally – and every single one comes in a plastic container. I ordered silicon containers to freeze leftovers in – they arrived padded with plastic bubbles. A tin pot of cream deodorant came wrapped in plastic security stickers. Imaginative schemes for waste minimisation were met with pre-emptive defeat; the attempt to cater a dinner party from a medieval (!) cookbook demanded ingredients that only came plasticised.
I tried to reenact what I remembered of my nanna’s depression-mindset, zero-waste home … but no victory over plastic ever seemed unpunished. Cardboard-boxed Velvet soap is cheap, cleans everything … and, apparently, contains palm oil. Opening my cupboard doors onto paper sacks of flours and sugar was heartening precisely to the point I discovered that some shitting mice had trashed the lot.
Of this last catastrophe, my partner’s mother made the gentle point that if the purchase – of, say, plastic storage containers – is for lifetime use, then it can’t be considered plastic “waste”. But as every plastic lid, bag and bottle reminds, every piece of it is with all of us for more than a lifetime.
Yes, there are people whose skills in planning combine with their access to resources and they manage waste down to a monthly thimbleful. But not only are the majority of us incapable of their thrift, their example can’t just magic the plastic away.
What I learned from my month of privileged, cashed-up western failure is that it’s going to take the regulation of plastic production, distribution and supply by global governments to make anywhere “plastic-free”. Single-use-plastic-bag bans are not enough. Recycling is not enough.
Governments must legislate to enforce the use of alternatives, starting yesterday. A dead albatross is hanging around our necks, it’s full of plastic waste … but we’re the ones who will choke on the stuff.
• Van Badham is a Guardian Australia columnist