Challenge: A life wrapped in single use plastic

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Words || Jasmine Phillips

When it comes to environmental consciousness, I’d say I’m fairly average.

Like any university student, I have a pretty good understanding of global warming and the dire situation our world is currently in. I try my best to recycle, I don’t use straws (since I have no real need for them), and I always refuse plastic bags. My attempt to reduce landfill by collecting my work’s bottles and cans and hauling them to a Return-and-Earn might have deemed me a Good Environmentalist if I didn’t consume so much takeaway coffee. Sometimes I’m willing to go the extra mile, but honestly? I need to be incentivised, or at least given an example to follow. I feel good enough about what I already do that I’m actually kinda lazy beyond that.

At least I’m doing something, right?

This first Grapeshot challenge really did push me to confront my laisses-faire approach to environmentalism. These excuses that I have are excuses I’ve heard plenty of times from people who don’t want to change racist, sexist, or otherwise problematic behaviours. And when I know that global warming disproportionately affects minority groups, why am I not committed to doing better?

First, the challenge perimeters. My every-day medication comes in a single use blister pack, so we labelled that exempt. The initial idea was to go plastic-free for a weekend, but it didn’t quite feel challenging enough – I wanted to really get a taste of the plastic-free life.

In the week leading up to the challenge I found myself becoming increasingly aware of just how much plastic (especially single-use stuff) I was using in my everyday life. I noticed it everywhere; my hands clasping around a bubble tea, unwrapping a box of tampons in the women’s room, rolling cling film over leftovers. Even when I made a genuine effort not to use bottles and straws, plastic was just everywhere.

The first day was hard. I had to re-evaluate so many choices that I usually took for granted. I needed to think seriously about what I was going to have for breakfast, or buy for lunch, what I was going to snack on – okay, yeah. It was mostly food that was the problem.

But it was a serious problem. Forget the usual suspects – individually wrapped chocolates, biscuits, ice blocks, or muesli bars. Forget that I had a major sulk when my girlfriend picked me up from work, because she got to have a McFlurry.

(“I’m not asking for a McFlurry without a spoon, Jas. You don’t have anything to eat it with, and you’re gonna get it all over the car.”)

I couldn’t buy grapes, or berries, or cherry tomatoes.

I couldn’t buy icing sugar, or food colouring, or sprinkles.

I couldn’t get pasta, or noodles, or rice.

I wandered through the aisles of Woolworths, the reality of my situation dawning on me.

MY LIFE WAS WRAPPED IN SINGLE USE PLASTIC.

I understand why the initial switch was made by mass corporations from paper to plastic. It’s transparent, so you can see the state of fresh produce when it’s being transported. It’s more durable than cardboard, and it’s waterproof, and it’s not prone to hazardous breakages in the same way that glass is.

But there are other alternatives that have been designed. Sugar cane polymers, that weird algae water bubble thing we all saw on Facebook.

Why does so much of our stuff still come in plastic?

Why don’t we recycle the plastic we use?

During those first 24 hours, I felt like a secret agent twisting their way through a corridor filled with lasers. That is to say: anxious, frustrated, and like wayyy sweatier than anyone around me was probably comfortable with. And then, almost magically, it got easier.

Don’t get me wrong, everything was still wrapped in plastic. But I learned how to find alternatives, and how to deal with them – even if they weren’t as convenient as my old choices had been.

I chose to drink table water at restaurants, rather than ordering lemonade that had been poured from a bottle and served with a straw.

I pre-planned what I was eating, where it came from, and how it was served. I avoided things like takeaway sushi, and I used paper bags to package my own produce.

The more environmentally-friendly choices I made, the less difficult it was for me to make those choices. That was something I sort of vaguely knew about (the campaign to ban plastic on campus talk all the time about educating for choice), but it was a very different thing to experience first-hand.

It was also the strangest part of this challenge for me – I definitely felt the pressure and difficulty of being plastic-free much more in the week before I started the challenge than the week I actually did it. Apart from the first 36 hours, this challenge wasn’t quite as challenging as I thought it would be.

Another huge bonus of this whole experience was that I became much more aware of my general waste and consumption than I had been. Forcing myself to live without plastic meant that I wasn’t just mindlessly consuming – I was thinking about all of my purchases, and making an active and informed choice.

I realised that I just didn’t need to use as much stuff as I had thought.

Amazingly, it turns out, I’d forgotten the very first lesson I’d ever learned about environmentalism:

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

It sounds ridiculous, I know. But I’d forgotten that reducing the amount of waste I produce is infinitely better for the environment than recycling what I use.

I’m not a huge fan of the minimalist movement, for various reasons. But the idea that we should be active agents in our consumption and waste is hard to fault.

We can, and we should, do better.