• Ian McClellan

Week 3: I have switched to soap bars and solid shampoo.

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

Plastic waste is a problem.

We are not scientists in our family, nor are we industrialists, or politicians, or ardent environmentalists. Yet we can say this with high confidence that none of these professions would disagree with this statement.

It is also not new news.

Fast-food corporations are discontinuing plastic straws, supermarkets are discontinuing plastic bags, multinationals are reducing micro-plastics in beauty products and clothing. There are likely many more things happening that I have not mentioned, and we should all be very proud every time that we make a choice to consume a product more naked of plastic over an alternative, and be proud every time that consumer pressure leads to a change in an industry towards less plastic.

By doing these things, we feel a sense of optimism, that we can all make small changes that will make a difference to the impact that plastic waste has on our planet, particularly single use plastic. We certainly felt it as a family when we talk about what we do to contribute.

For example, we already refuse or re-use bags at supermarkets and stores wherever possible. We are increasing aware of single use plastics, and try to avoid using these where we notice we are doing it. We notice more and more the packaging that a product contains, and if there is an alternative available then we choose that alternative, and are prepared to change shopping habits to do this. We re-use takeaway cartons for batch meals, until they fall apart or smell.

However, just scratch below the surface of these actions and their contribution to the plastic waste problem, and you quickly disappear into a worm hole, inside a rabbit hole, inside a supermassive black hole, that leads to an enormous sense of confusion and hopelessness about what impact we are actually having against this runaway juggernaut of a problem.

Figuring out what little changes we can make as individuals to plastic consumption, that might have a big collective impact on the planet, seems like an exercise in futility, or worse a self-aggrandising and empty gesture to pat ourselves on the back. Even the sheer irony and naivety of typing this on plastic computer keys, shows the scale of what we face as a planet.

The reason for this is because the more you read, the more that you realise that plastic seems to be in almost everything in one form or another, and that we have done this to ourselves. The problem is perhaps not the substance, but the attitude.

Eliminating plastic is almost the same as eliminating consumerism, or materialism. If we want to own things, then we are going to encounter plastic. If we want to wear things, then our cheapest and easiest clothing solutions use plastic. Plastic has been a background hum to our lives for decades. As an invention, like many things from TNT to the Internet, it was invented for good. But we as humans have a knack of using it for bad.

We ignore this hum of plastic, and this hum of the harmful effects of plastic, because we have become lazy and entitled. We try to ignore it because we created the problem based on the simple fact that we want stuff, we don’t want to pay too much for it, and then when we’re done with it, we just want to throw it away.

That being said, attitudinal change to single-use plastics, is a great example of how a large part of the population can make more effort, and how this can have a direct impact on our planet. The increasing rage against plastics, even if it is a small part of the larger issue, is a great example of how we are all connected, and how we can all make a difference. It is a start, and something to cling to.

It is also an inspiration, and we should take inspiration from the first people who scratched their heads at a plastic straw, or turned a furrowed brow to a discarded plastic bag. There must be something we can do, within our own home, to chalk up at least a small tick in the ‘change’ column, and contribute to this attitudinal change and create another small voice in a collective call to action. It is the inspiration that we clung to, and that we used as we embarked on this week’s change.

I took an inventory of our plastic use in the kitchen cupboards. I took a walk around the different rooms, and questioned what I used individually and what we used as a family, and why we used it. We scratched our heads and read packets and boxes, to see if there was something big we could figure out. We spoke with friends, discussed habits that we could change or new ones we could build.

It was only one morning, mid-shower, that an idea metaphorically tripped, whilst literally tripping over the collection of bottles and tubes that litters the cubicle floor. It triggered a memory of being a small boy growing up in the 80s, and how our approach to washing was more minimalistic. It would be a bar of soap, and a dark green bottle of shampoo. The soap, might not even be new soap. It might be the slivered ends of the last 12 bars of soap, remoulded in a (plastic) press to save money and waste. After football, there was bubble-bath as a treat for aching muscles, but from a narrow choice of basic varieties, not the thousands that now exist. One of our shower gels right now, even contains gold. Actual gold.

I say this also with a sense of experience, having been involved in the health and beauty industry for a time, and complicit in the search for these new and exotic varieties of toiletries. I have experienced the economic incentive to seek out a new trend, to squeeze growth from a saturated market by taking inspiration from travel magazines, or Michelin Star menus. I once spent a whole day photographing patchouli. It was always done with good intentions, always to make people happy. I never imagined what was being used up, drilled, released into the atmosphere, as a side-effect, whilst I was doing it.

If we can change, and if we can thinking creatively to do better, and pass this on, then we can start to make a difference. We are all connected. Our little changes have an impact directly, they have an impact attitudinally, and ideologically. It all starts with the individual, and so from this week – we have replaced all our soaps and shampoos with solid bars.

In the bathroom, this means that two bars, replaces around 5-6 different plastic containers. Sourced as locally as I could, and manufactured as kindly as possible. Vegan, not wrapped in plastic, and although relatively expensive, I am confident it will last weeks.

It is not a perfect solution, and I am sure it will not always work for those who have skin conditions or have other medicated needs, but I will give it a try. My skin is normal, my hair is normal. I don’t think I need to apply oils or lotions in the shower, and I am a bit sceptical that they just smell nice and get washed down the drain with no significant beneficial effect at all.

To go a step further, I then took all the waste packaging that was replaced, and made a space rocket. This completes the circle, and makes sure that for now, we don’t put our old plastic containers back into the system immediately. In a perfect world, this would not have existed in the first place, but for now we make a better choice for the next choice, we can't change the old ones.

I also realise this is a very complex problem, which is why we always say this is what we are doing, and someone else may agree or disagree with the opinions. Maybe plastic is the biggest problem, or maybe we’ll find one that is equally large as we learn as individuals and as a family. Perhaps there are people reading this, and shouting apoplectically at the screen that it is not enough. You are right.

I also do not want to simplify the problem. I do believe and understand that to put the production and instance of plastic waste in reverse, we have to not only fundamentally change our entire value system, we also have to have something akin to a new industrial revolution to figure out a useful and productive solution to all the plastic that exists already – in our homes, our oceans, our rubbish dumps.

To do this in a way that does not just create a self-perpetuating cycle of more, different, plastic waste, and instead reduces the amount of plastic in existence or at least draws a line under the amount of plastic in the World, is the point where my mind melts. But I know there are lots of great people working on exactly this - whether it is beach shoes made of ocean plastics, or building materials, or many other efforts.

Whenever anyone has figured out an idea like this, then we all should know. The individual, or collection of individuals, that figure out how to create useful, durable, items from our current plastic waste, should be given the biggest platform of any platform, be given the biggest stage of any stage, and the biggest microphone, or any microphone, to shout it from. The people who have found plastic alternatives, so that at source we stop creating new plastic items, should be given the same.

This is partly why we also started just putting ideas and opinion out there - perhaps in the hope that it would be part of a wave of sharing, and creating, and changing. So we can also learn more, and make a better choice for the next product we buy.

Going a step further, once we have figured out products that use all the waste we have, and also other ways of replacing single use or other non-essential plastics ... we should ban the production of new plastic of this type entirely.

If you are also reading this, and thinking that what we have done is nonsense, then again you are probably right. So instead of thinking of our practical change, consider this a piece of symbolism, to contribute in a small way to a large and multi-generational call to action.

We are all connected, we all have ideas. We can do this together.

#beplanetwise #littlechanges #reduce

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