I’ve begun to realise how much time I spend thinking about rubbish – literally. One of my very first posts on this blog was about the repercussions of our disposable lifestyles, such as the Pacific waste island. I’ve also talked about how much food and ‘stuff’ we waste in other posts.
I’ve always felt strongly about waste, especially the plastic variety, but I never grasped how much it was affecting me. I was brought up with the time-honoured “can’t leave the table until you’ve eaten everything on your plate” philosophy (I can clearly remember the nights I spent gagging over my pumpkin until long past bedtime). As a uni student, moving house was great – I had a legitimate excuse to throw out all the broken, useless things and unwanted gifts I had hoarded in the cupboards all year out of guilt.
Then I discovered that my sewing box was literally overflowing with absolutely useless scraps of material off-cuts and torn clothes that I hoped to ‘find a use for’ one day. I began to notice that I felt guilty whenever I walked out of a shop with a plastic bag, or when I bought some daily essential like milk or yoghurt in a plastic container. Every time I emptied the recycling bin I found myself suspicious of whether what I had put in there would actually get recycled. I began philosophising on the environmental consequences of using essential ‘waste’ items like my toothbrush or toothpaste tubes, which didn’t really achieve anything except more mental anguish than I needed. (By the way, brushing your teeth with your finger doesn’t really have the same effect as a brush.)
The other day I had a sort of epiphany. It could have just been my inner guilt trying to reclaim some ground, but I still think it’s pretty valid.
Despite our apparent entitlement to Choice in product consumerism, we are not given choice of packaging. Since the post-war ‘throw-away lifestyle’ was invented, plastic has saturated every corner of the Earth. While there are many companies that do provide biodegradable or non-plastic packaging, most of our daily essentials and many other ‘unique’ products only come en plastique. There is no other option.
Why are we, the consumers, made to feel solely responsible for polluting the Earth with plastic? A consumer, by definition, consumes – it cannot produce, create, manufacture or come up with new resources itself. (Although, digressing into ecological theory for a moment, human ‘consumers’, unlike other animal ‘consumers’, do produce a ridiculous amount of post-consumption waste that is external to their ecosystem’s natural energy cycle. How do we thus fit into the food web? Are we consumers, producers or conducers?)
However, back to the sinful consumer…Is it really fair that the finger is pointed squarely at us? There are many, many items that we ‘consumers’ buy because we have to – not because we choose to. The argument that producers will keep producing as long as consumers keep consuming only extends so far. If we are presented with milk in plastic bottles, we have to buy it (unless you’re one of the lucky few who can milk their own cow). If toothbrushes, deodorant, razors and those absolutely essential ‘feminine hygiene’ products come in plastic packaging, we have to buy them – there is no other option.
We can take our own calico shopping bags to the supermarket, we can choose to buy as much as we can in cardboard, glass or paper packaging, we can refuse the offer of a 10 cent plastic bag at the department store (and juggle all our new underwear, make-up, dinner plates and the new broom back to the car, trying not to drop anything). We can grow as much of our own food as we are capable of, we can slow shave instead of using disposable razors, we can buy only natural fibre clothes. We can even go off the grid and completely change the focus of our lifestyle to have as little impact as possible on the Earth (which is pretty hard to do in modern ‘western’ society).
Yet there comes a point when we, the consumers, will be doing as much as we can do to minimise our waste production. After that, the onus falls on the producers, manufacturers and shopkeepers to simply stop manufacturing and packaging everything in plastic.
© Manu Saunders 2012