Week 39: The journey of a plastic bag.
Updated: Apr 30, 2021
The only thing we can really be one hundred percent of, are the things we do.
We are 100% of everything we apply ourselves to. Whether we believe we have succeeded or failed, whether we think someone else is doing it better or not, the common ground is action. Everyone who gets the job, or didn’t get the job, took action to apply. The movie star on the big screen with a fabulous trailer, and the amateur dramatic in the village hall who gets changed in the cloakroom, both acted. To help a stranger, to hold a door, to take an umbrella in case it rains. We are 100% of the actions we take.
The only thing we are zero percent of, are the things we don’t do. If we don’t make the phone call or fill out the form, then we are definitely not going to get the job. If we always wished we were going to do it, then we didn’t. If we don’t act, then we are not doing it. We are zero percent of that thing.
Outside of the singular moment, in all the categories of combinations of things that we measure ourselves against, we are some kind of percentage in between. It might be one percent, or it might be ninety-nine percent. We might be top three, bottom four. We can move those ratings, and those numbers up and down, according to action. If we stop acting, then it is probable we’ll stay in the same place, or drop down the rankings. If we keep going, or if we go again, that might still happen too but the chances are we’ll get better at whatever that thing is and give ourselves a good chance to move that percentage upwards. If you do something once, you are doing it 100% more than not at all.
Side note: I am not a philosopher, you might be reading this and thinking of exceptions and holes in this theory, sorry about that.
The reason for this thought, is because I was compelled this week to keep acting on plastic, which would make this the fourth entry in Project Planetwise that deals with plastic in some direct way. It is also a follow-on from last week’s diary about the thing, because when life chooses a path for you, it’s best to keep walking to the end or at least the next junction.
In each of the previous times I have thought about plastic, I have talked a bit about the concept of being zero plastic, or being plastic free, as an impossible thing. I have always said that plastic is a problem, but also that the notion of zero plastic or being plastic free is unachievable and disillusioning. I’ve posted links of all the times I have tackled something plastic-related as part of Project Planetwise at the end of this entry in case you would like to read more. Each time I learn a bit more about how to reduce my plastic and our family’s plastic, but also find myself in the same overwhelming cycle of rabbit holes.
I have also felt hypocritical in lots of ways if we try to be zero plastic, because actually many wonderful and progressive things in our lives are only achievable because of plastic and they are things we use and don’t even notice. I keep coming back even the fact that plastic was invented to stop us using natural materials such as ivory, or that it made medical devices such as syringes accessible to those who did not have that option before. It was invented as a force for good, and in many cases is still be used as such – but also as well as becoming utopian, it has also become dystopian, and now in lots of places an actual real life unmitigated disaster.
I guess the things is, this conflict is within us all and is often something that I have been asked during the last months of making a conscious effort to be more planetwise. It is sometimes also used as an expression of doubt. How can we consume certain products, if we are against plastic? How does this purchase, or that product that we have, reconcile versus our principles on plastic? Aren’t we failing at every turn? Aren’t we just saying that we are environmentally conscious, but somehow greenwashing ourselves or being trying to be somehow eco-cool.
It is all true, and it’s something that I think about a lot to try and be more present and more aware of plastic. The hypocrisy of our plastic consumption is something that I think about a lot. It chips away each time I take the recycling tub down the drive.
It has also led to a gradual re-framing of the problem and the challenge in my head and the challenge to myself and our life. I find reframing things, and trying to break them down into smaller parts that we can control, is helpful in situations where something feels big, and overwhelming. It gives a positive start point, and positive start points are good to build from.
This reframing, has helped make a small change in my opinion about being zero plastic. It has also come because of what I have begun to notice through reading and through acting on plastic, which is also the benefit of finding a start point with things. I find that once you’ve started, you begin to see so much more. I wanted to share this reframing today and think about it as this week’s planetwise change.
It is simply: I am going to notice plastic.
I am feeling more hopeful about a new way to look at the plastic problem, that is planetwise because it is a common ground. It is something we can all do, and that is relatable to me, and I think therefore relatable to many. It is action, and therefore means that if we embrace this change then we are taking 100% action. Plastic free moments, are achievable and somewhere to start.
What does it mean – to notice plastic? It means I will pick things up, turn them over in my hands, think about what they are made of before I make a choice. Think not just about the item, but how it is packaged. I will consider plastic in each moment, and with each thing that I use, to build up this habit of noticing. By noticing plastic in each moment or as many moments as I can, every day, it means I can have conscious plastic free moments. It is reframing the problem as action, and owning 100% of that moment.
There is no better place to explain this, than with single use plastics.
As an example, think about the life of a piece of single use plastic, such as a plastic bag. And please don’t think of where it came from, or where it might go to, because I am thinking in the moment. The popular thinking is that one plastic bag, might have been made from something, and if we recycle it then it might be made into something else. Advances in plastic recycling technology have created an opportunity for us to rationalise single use plastics as being made into something at the end of their life such as a funky unicorn straw; or maybe your water bottle will be made into another water bottle, and then another, and so on to eternity.
However, although we like to think the life of a plastic bag or a water bottle is always a neat and tidy circle, is not guaranteed and there are some staggering stats about how much does not get recycled alongside what does.
Staying in the moment, we don’t even need to get statistical about this, and also I am not talking about the dark economy of pretend recycling practice, and actual overseas dump reality. More just about looking around today as you’re out and about, and noticing how much of this plastic doesn’t get caught in the recycling process because its blowing about in the breeze. Out of the car window or next to you on the pavement, notice how many little bits of plastic bag there are poking out of the ground, caught in thorns in a hedge, blowing around in little windy eddies in back alleys. I even found a little bit woven into an old blackbird nest I found when I was tidying up some ivy in our garden this week.
The reason for these little bits of plastic, is because plastic does not break down like a compostable item, but it does break up. Heat and cold over time, turn a plastic bag into shredded parts. The wind takes this plastic all over the place. We don’t notice it, because we are used to seeing little bit of white everywhere. But by noticing it, we can reframe our thinking from justifying recycling our single use plastics, to the simple thought that it would be nicer for the planet, if this bit of plastic just didn’t exist in the first place. It might be a recycled plastic bag, or it might be another type of recycled single use plastic, but wouldn’t it be nice that instead of us using the millions and millions of tonnes of plastic to make single use items, that we found ways to remove them from this single use and unpredictable chain.
Maybe even next time we’re out walking, we can pick up a few plastic items that might have blown around, and put them in our own recycling, or public recycling bins. This will remove them from landfill or worse, and will create a net benefit. It is 100% action.
Take this breakdown of plastics further, and I can’t help continue this journey into microplastics. Imagine our plastic bag, continues to break up over time into smaller and smaller parts, eventually too small for us to easily see. When it becomes this small, it becomes classed as a microplastic. This means it falls into the same category as microfibres from clothes, microbeads from cosmetics, and other tiny pieces of plastic that are becoming an enormous problem in our oceans and rivers. Microplastics are tiny fragments of plastic that are too small to be caught in water filtration, if this is even the way they enter these waterways, given our plastic bag and its own journey. Recently, the full scale of these is beginning to be understood, as organisations and groups continue to experiment in the oceans and measure the amount of microplastics in existence. You can read about the most recent studies here, in a BBC article from just last week.
The reason microplastics are important, can also be linked to the life of our plastic bag. The reason we don’t want microplastics in our waterways, is because plastic is really good at absorbing harmful other chemicals. Therefore although our fellow creatures might not notice they are eating plastic, and images of microplastics might not be as dramatic as sea turtles trapped in nets or other sea creature ingesting bottles, but eating plastic and being poisoned, they are. Which means that if we as humans then eat a fish or other creature that has inadvertently eaten plastic, then we are eating it ourselves.
This may even be the unhappy ending to the story of the plastic bag. We walk past it, because we don’t want to get our hands dirty. We think it is someone else’s problem, because we didn’t throw it out in the first place. The bag snags on a tree, and is shredded over time, and becomes smaller. It then finds its way to a beach, and the salt and the wind makes the pieces smaller again. Eventually, by the power of nature the plastic bag, becomes lots of tiny bits of plastic bag. It is eaten by a fish, and although plastic might not have been the thing that killed the creature we have eaten, or it might not have broken up in the soil that grew our vegetables, we eat a tiny part of that bag anyway – maybe through the fish itself, maybe through the salt we put on our chips. By this point it might have gathered high concentrations of DDT, or other chemicals that we don’t use anymore but are still lurking in our oceans.
Whilst I am also on microplastics, and as an epilogue to the story, let’s talk clothes for a moment, because this is another decision we can make in the moment. This is a big moment of connection, and a big example of how we can make small changes, that create attitudinal change.
On this topic, I am especially conflicted. I know that when it comes to microplastics, clothing fibres are the biggest contributor. We are thrilled to have found ways in our family to reduce the release of these through changes to our laundry habits. I understand it has become a thing because plastic is cheaper than natural materials, which means that if we are buying our clothes from somewhere that is considered ‘fast fashion’, or if we are amazing how cheap a certain item of clothing is, then it is likely to have been made at least in part from a synthetic material such as polyester or acrylic, which are the materials that shed from these items as microfibres. I know that we can go further - by choosing more natural materials, and by investing in better quality clothing manufactured in a sustainable way. If you are looking for tricks here, then please explore sites such as https://goodonyou.eco/.
However, I also understand that changing habits is hard, and so I’ve reframed also the approach to this. Instead now of simply trying to boycott fast fashion outright, there is a common ground that we can encourage as we change. It is around the new ranges, that you might find in being introduced by high street stores as a way of offering an ethical alternative - they might be called 'conscious' or 'for good'. These selections and product ranges, have been accused of greenwashing, which is label attached to brands when they are somehow distancing themselves or creating distraction from environmental harms elsewhere. It is perhaps valid, and the perfect solution is to simply change the full range of clothing to be conscious, and the non-conscious be the exception. But this in itself a journey, and so how about this thought.
I like to think that behind every ethical range, is an individual who wants to make a difference. That someone had an idea, pitched it because they really care, and who wants their organisation to change. We can paint them as disciples of the evil corporations, or we can support that person and that range whilst we figure out how to make bigger changes, and give them the confidence to continue to do their thing too. Maybe ethical ranges are small, but they are a start, and there is no-one better placed to make a big difference than an established fashion house with the resourcing, supply chains and talent to make the change. They just need the economic incentive,and this is something we can all provide through our buying choices.
This individual, might be the change from within, or they might even get the confidence to break free, and to create the next big bridge between the industry and the planet. We see them as the 0%, but they might just be the 100%. We are all connected, and everything starts with the individual, or with an individual.