Wednesday, 25 April 2012

A Manifesto (of sorts)

I wanted to update this blog today, but I’ve been struggling to decide what to write about. Should I talk about the oil that goes into manufacturing plastics? Or one of the many impacts of plastic pollution, maybe one that isn’t so often broadcast on the news or the internet? Should I talk about what the word ‘plastic’ means, or has come to mean? Or what about the ironic stupidity of our culture in making something that is designed to last forever, but made for the express purpose of throwing it away after one use?

The Plastic Diaries
For any readers who are new to this blog, perhaps I should tell you that it started because I was worried about plastic, the fact that it’s everywhere, the fact that while many of us know that plastic pollution is a problem, very few people do (or try to do) anything about it. Plastic, and all the hazards associated with it, has, for the most part, become an accepted part of life. Yeah, we’re destroying the oceans, but it’s not like we can do anything about it, really, is there? Not unless I want to give up all my home comforts, sacrifice modern living. When I say plastic is everywhere, I mean it: look around the room you are sitting in right now. What can you see that contains plastic or is made of plastic? Or, let’s flip this question around, what can you see that is not plastic, or did not come wrapped in some form of plastic packaging? Because, actually, that’s probably an easier question for you to answer.

One day, I sat down, and that’s what I did: looked around the room, looked in my bag. Sitting in my little bedroom, tucked away in the south of Cornwall, typing this, without even getting up from my chair, I see: my computer, my lamp, my tv, my digibox, my fairy lights, some dvds, some cds, a biro, my mobile phone. It’s all pretty basic stuff, and I wouldn’t have any of it if there was no plastic. Heck, chances are I probably wouldn’t even be sitting here if there was no plastic, because modern medicine would just not exist. So it’s pretty cool stuff. We can bend and manipulate it into a million different objects, we can make it hard and durable or soft and pliant. Incredible. So, in many ways I love plastic and, oh boy, does it serve its weight in gold at times.

Invisible Costs
But therein lies the problem. Plastic should be worth its weight in gold - at least. But its cheap. The word ‘plastic’ has even become synonymous with the word ‘cheap’. Alongside its infinite adaptability, this is one of the reasons, I think, that it’s the most widely used material in the world.

But there’s a whole lot more to plastic than these two things. Wrapped up inside that pretty little package is a bunch of stuff that we don’t see: the chemical poisons that constitute part of its make-up, the environmental consequences of its disposal, the environmental consequences of the sheer volume of plastic that we dispose of on a daily basis; the resources, oil and water and energy, that go into its manufacture just for us to discard them a day, a week, a month later. None of this is taken into account in the monetary value we put on plastic. If it was, most of us wouldn’t be able to afford it, not in daily terms, not for just that sweet or chocolate wrapping. And if it was, the plastic companies wouldn’t be able to exert such control over our consumption the way they do today - because if it cost us in monetary terms what we give up to be able to hold it in our hands, we wouldn’t be buying it and using it so regardlessly.

This is a theory that is being used by a lot of environmentalists today: that we should be paying for more than just the materials we hold in our hands, that we should also be paying for the consequences that result from the manufacture and use of that material.

I had dinner with some friends the other night. K & D are quite the average family. One young child, both of them working full time, and they bought their first home about a year ago. They were earning £19 or £20k a year, each, but have just had their salaries knocked back to about £16k due to an enforced contract change by the company they work for, so money and the ability to pay their mortgage is on their minds.

“Do you ever shop in Aldi?’ K asked me. Truthfully, no.

“Only £1.50,” she says, pointing to something on the counter. “Half what we’d pay for a brand.” She goes on to regale me with all the other bargains she’s found, and the fact that they’re just as good as what she was buying before. I’ve no doubt they taste just as good, but I can’t help thinking about what those cheaper prices mean.

“And yesterday I got a bag of potatoes for just 63p,” she finishes. My first thought is for the farmer. I’m sure it must have cost him a lot more than 63p to grow those potatoes. And if he did manage to do it that cheaply, what chemicals did he have to spray over the crops and the earth to do so? And what will those chemicals do his fields, to the water table?

Thinking about plastic and thinking about me
I started this blog because I wanted to think more about plastic, because I wanted to think more about what plastic meant to me, and because I wanted to document my attempts at giving up plastic. Have I achieved any of these things? Yes, and no, is the answer I think I’d have to give. I reduced my plastic intake quite a lot, and I’m proud of what I achieved. But I don’t seem to have had much of an affect on the people around me. Some of the struggles I had with plastic and my now ex-boyfriend, Bron, are well documented within this blog. And now that I’m back at my parents house, I seem to be having even less of an affect. Have I stopped trying? Should I be trying harder? Should I be stronger-willed? I certainly still care, and being around my colleagues from Hevva Hevva / Shortcourse has been inspiring, to see what they are achieving.

Plastic is still a problem. And its an international one. In some ways it’s more talked about today than it was when I first started The Plastic Diaries three years ago - there are even a few books about it now - but in some ways its less talked about too. Its an accepted problem, like climate change, that we know is out there, but as a society we don’t have enough immediate jeopardy to inspire us to act, or, at least, not to act ‘big’ enough. Why are western countries - the ones who are the biggest consumers of plastic - the ones who are doing the least about controlling it? Why do Ireland, Wales, India, have plastic bag bans or taxes, but England doesn’t? If we can’t even get that right, what hope do we have of achieving anything else? What is it going to take to inspire change?

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