Cracking the plastic habit: one day at a time

In October 2017 I left my job in London to try and finish the PhD I’ve been working on for the last few years. Stepping away from the routine, from habits accumulated over 10 years of London living, and from the pace demanded by trying to combine work in a busy consultancy, a part-time PhD, social life, exercise, leisure, self-improvement etc, has taught me a few things. Now that my brain isn’t filled with the daily to-do list of things I’m meant to be doing for other people, other concerns and interests have bubbled up to the surface. Things I actually care about and think are important have had a little more room to breathe and reassert themselves. (I’d recommend taking some time off work at some point, if you can afford to, for this very reason).

Concurrently, we’ve had this whole public outcry in the UK about the plastic problem. I’ve known about this problem for a while. In 2014 I think it was, I nominated the Ocean Cleanup project for ‘Designs of the Year’. So it’s not new knowledge (to me). But I haven’t up until now really done anything to change my own behaviour. Being off work, and also spending some time outside the UK in different contexts, I’ve had time to properly ponder this. One day in January I sat down and made a very long list of all the ways I was using plastic in my life – and started thinking about how to get rid of it. Here are a few things I’ve come to understand as a result of all this thinking…

Plastic use is deeply tied into and perpetuated by the ways we live and work, and changing habits means recognising that what we think is normal is entirely constructed (and therefore changeable). I had a moment in Marseille when I realised that I hadn’t seen anyone, in the week I was there, carrying a disposable coffee cup: because they tend to drink coffee sitting down, in a café, usually being sociable with someone else. How different to my daily experience of London, which I am used to thinking of as a civilised place. Why do we all participate in this fiction that we don’t have time to drink coffee sitting down?

We have become accustomed to, and consequently demand, perverse levels of convenience and gratification. We equate ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’ with having whatever we want the instant we desire it. I’ve noticed myself, when coming to terms with the fact that I JUST CAN’T HAVE SOMETHING because I can’t find it not in plastic, feeling indignant about it, like my rights have somehow been infringed. ‘What do you MEAN I can’t have my favourite brand of salted peanuts?!’ Stopping to think about it, freedom might equally mean a lot of other things. I guess our freedom to buy shit is just a much more tangible kind of freedom than – for instance – the freedom to have the water we drink not contaminated by micro-particles of plastic.

Very often this freedom-as-consumer-convenience seems to mean plastic, perhaps because its cheapness as a material means it’s the only economical way of us continually buying lots of stuff. The reason we demand such levels of convenience is because we have ‘no time’. And the reason we have no time is because we’re so busy working – which for most of us either means helping someone else get rich, or not being paid at all to labour in other ways. We’re in an escalating spiral of earning and spending, and not thinking: it’s only because I’ve got more time now that I’ve managed to make some changes. Consumer capitalism is driving us and not the other way around. (I recently saw an advert on the tube for ‘mindful’ – MINDFUL – recipe boxes, where the ingredients for one meal are delivered to you in a box. These are a supposedly healthier version of the popular idea for those who want to cook but have no time to shop – or, presumably, look at a recipe book or see what they have in their cupboards or measure out quantities of ingredients. So that’s that. Mindfulness has been absorbed and dismantled. Didn’t take long. Anyone who buys one of these idiotic boxes should just receive a letter outlining the definition of ‘irony’.)

I think the normal habits of daily life for Londoners exhibit some of the extremes of convenience-addiction, and these are also some of the easiest plastic uses to knock on the head: carry a water bottle and reusable cup, take your own packed lunch etc (see this top ten list from Westminster Council). But even without the fast food factor, eliminating plastic takes effort, not least because it can be time-consuming: it means planning ahead, going to specific places to get stuff (not just the store you happen to be passing on the way home), buying things in bulk, sitting down to eat lunch (on a plate) rather than getting a takeaway, taking your own containers to shops, returning glass bottles to be recycled. It is also often not simply a question of substituting one consumer choice for another – but setting in train a whole sequence of things, or thinking completely differently about a daily practice. For instance, going to a market, seeing what fresh produce they have, and planning a meal from what’s available, rather than picking a recipe and then going out to buy the exact and probably not seasonal and therefore packaged and flown in ingredients. In other words, there is labour involved – and often what plastic seems to represent is someone else doing that labour, and us paying for it.

Our material choices are symbolic. The existence of so much plastic in our lives is the material manifestation of certain values: disposability, cheapness and abundance, convenience, outsourcing of labour, buying rather than making. Taking different choices actually means valuing different things, and valuing things differently.

The good news is other ways of living are entirely possible. Everywhere else I’ve been in Europe over the last few months I’ve seen great examples of habits, systems and practices that exclude plastic – often because a local culture has somehow resisted the introduction of it in the first place. If you just look back in time, there’s normally a non-plastic way that we were doing something that worked perfectly well (baking soda and vinegar are miracle products). Some of the things we buy and use are completely unnecessary inventions (a lot of cosmetics come under this banner) and you can just congratulate yourself for realising you don’t need to spend money on it anymore. If you ask the internet ‘how do I do x without plastic’ – someone else somewhere will have asked and answered that question.

And the best thing (for me anyway): the non-plastic alternative is a positive aesthetic choice. How much more beautiful are glass, brass, wood, cork, silk, beeswax, copper, tin, enamel, wool, cotton, bamboo, paper, string, ceramic, porcelain, linen etc than the plastic that is so often substituted for these things? Wouldn’t it be nicer, really, instead of having hundreds of cheaply made sweat-labour produced plastic clothes that don’t quite fit our unique shape and wear out in a few months, to own a few well-made items that fit and flatter and will last for years? Choosing not to have plastic in our lives could be – Olivetti typewriters aside – aesthetically enriching.

Some things are hard – plastic is now deeply embedded in many systems and avoiding it completely is tricky. So it’s not only about what we do as individuals of course – businesses and governments also need to do their share. But in a consumer society, where we spend our money – or indeed choosing not to spend but make something yourself – can be powerful too. The supermarkets seem to be taking a while to cotton on, but there are entrepreneurs and companies trying to do things the right way, and we can shop with them. Often it means supporting small businesses over big ones – green grocers over supermarkets, or going direct to producers – and there’s something nice about that anyway. We can participate in the creation of new systems of production and consumption as consumers: it may be hard to find somewhere to get tailored clothing made these days, but that doesn’t mean it will always be the case, if we ask for it. Ultimately these kinds of choices can change the economic equation too – buying something only once, and/ or making things for ourselves, means we need less disposable income: maybe then we could all work less?

So, as I have a bit more time on my hands – and because time seems to be a component part of the problem and I know lots of people who care about this but don’t have time to figure it all out – I thought I’d try and make myself useful. Long lists of actions can be overwhelming, so here and here I’m going to share one thing a day – the things I’ve found out and learned about living life without plastic. Hopefully it’ll inspire and help you too.

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