Going plastic-free can be a surprising journey

Opinion piece, first published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 July 2018.

As the NSW government holds out against banning lightweight plastic bags, a new plastic-free industry driven by innovative businesses and pro-active consumers is rapidly leaving our policy-makers and retailers behind.

Today NSW is isolated. New bans came into force on July 1 in Queensland and Western Australia, in line with the ACT, Northern Territory South Australia and Tasmania. Victoria’s ban is due to be implemented next year.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this was the pinnacle of the single-use plastic debate. However, it is already possible to do much more in Australia than say "no" to plastic bags and straws or hand a reusable cup over counter to the barista (although all of this is fantastic progress). It is governments and big retailers who need to catch up.

A new breed of small business owners and an explosion of online retailers means almost anything can be sourced without plastic packaging. Alongside our major supermarkets are a growing number of bulk stores where you can buy many of the same products, scooped instead into brown paper bags or your own jars, and fruit and veggie markets that leave their produce "naked". Online it’s similarly easy to order solid shampoo and conditioner bars wrapped in paper from Tasmania, for example, or minty bamboo fibre dental floss from Queensland. And, if you happen to be in Brisbane you can drop into a "make-up bar" to source all your beauty products that would otherwise come in plastic tubes.

The plastic-lite world is coming ready or not. Why? Partly because of the internet. Not only has almost everyone with a computer or smart phone seen the graphic images of wildlife choked or maimed by plastic rubbish, but the internet also enables plastic-free innovators to connect with customers. We’re also realising that it’s not just the plastics that we can see that matter.

Microplastics – all those minute fragments of plastic left behind as plastic breaks down – are entering the food chain and ecosystems via our marine life and our soils. They are also turning up in bottled water. Most brands on the market contain plastic fragments we’re ingesting. And even though we might think we’re recycling, just 14 per cent of plastic waste is recycled worldwide. In Australia it’s even less. These are powerful push factors.

That said, the first time you thrust your own reusable container across the counter at the butcher or the fishmonger can be disconcerting. We are herd animals and the familiar mantra of convenience trumps all else. We’ve long been encouraged to "waste lots, want more".

So, it’s worth recalling that we had to be taught to throw things away. In the 1950s, after the first coffee vending machines were introduced in offices in the US, workers carefully washed up the plastic cups for reuse. Ditto the first plastic bags; they could be seen everywhere hanging on our clothes lines. After the "waste not, want not" austerity of World War II, it took us a while to adjust to the abundance that cheap, convenient plastics helped usher in.

But, by 1955, Time magazine had introduced us to “Throw Away Living”. Cleaning up after ourselves had apparently become an antiquated waste of time. A seemingly endless supply of disposable items and products symbolised the triumph of modernity and efficiency over the drudgery of the past. And, plastic was – and still is - at the forefront of modernity.

The challenge now is to find a middle ground that enables us to take advantage of the many benefits of plastics without ruining the environment and our health. Theoretically, this is something governments and decision-makers should be taking on. Banning single-use plastics is the first obvious step. In the absence of political leadership, however, many people are forging their own path.

It can be a surprising journey. It doesn’t take long to realise that the growing plastic-free movement is about much more than rubbish. Plastics are not just functional materials but the enablers of a frantic lifestyle of fast food grabbed on the run. Conversely, giving up single-use plastic packaging forces you to slow down. Buying plastic-free wholefoods means cooking from scratch, shopping seasonally and engaging with small, local businesses and markets. And foregoing plastic packaging puts many overprocessed foods that expand our waistlines and jeapordise our health off the menu. Reducing plastic waste is a lifestyle change.

And it can also be surprisingly simple. We already have the blueprint. Our grandparents and great-grandparents shopped pre-plastic and lived to tell the tale. They’re the time travellers among us, and like the trope of the time travellers of fiction they can help us navigate this future.

If there is one single tip for reducing your plastic footprint it is talk to older members in our community. They’ll come up with a long list of great ideas like keeping a cardboard box in the back of the car, investing in a "granny" shopping trolley or some string bags or asking the butcher to go back to "butchers’ paper". Our grandparents valued food and resources because they had too little. It is up to us, to understand the perils and waste of having too much.

Clara Williams Roldan