Last week I got to meet Susan Rößner, a woman who has been living plastic-free for several years, and who manages the wonderful website “Monomeer”, an online business that sells loads of daily essentials in plastic-free packaging (an interview will appear later on I hope!). As we discussed over a coffee at the university café how she started on her journey to a waste-free lifestyle, she said something that really caught my attention. Looking through the windows of the shop, she lamented at how, even though most of the people around us have a fairly high IQ (being at university and all), they are still making the foolish, uninformed choice to pick up plastic coffee cups, plastic lids and plastic spoons, gulping down their chai lattes in five minutes and then tossing it all in the bin.
Why does this happen? There is plenty of information out there on the internet, showing people how plastic damages the environment, the problems of finite resources, the need to change the way we live as a global community if we are to survive as a species. Children are taught in school about climate change and how our current lifestyles are destroying the Earth, emptying her all useful resources and refilling her with rubbish and toxic materials that will eventually cause our own demise, and yet the majority of people seem to turn a blind eye to the fact that we are devastating the only home we have with our current disregard.
After asking around my friends and coworkers, the main reason seems to be convenience. People buy plastic because it is absolutely everywhere: on our foods, clothes, toiletries, gadgets… everything is wrapped up in plastics and distributed all over the world. This has made plastic normal, an everyday household waste that ends up on the rubbish pile. And companies are not going to change this, because no one is complaining. Of course, it is convenient to have this material that is waterproof and can vacuum pack food to send it millions of miles across the globe, where it can be chucked into a microwave and “ready to eat” in 2 minutes. But think about what that also means about the food you are choosing to consume. Unless it says otherwise, food that is wrapped up in plastic is likely to be full of preservatives and grown with pesticides, because it is being mass produced in factories to be carted around the globe and delivered to supermarkets where it will sit on a shelf until someone throws it into their shopping trolley… and the contents needs to “look fresh” as long it takes to do that.
To add further to the problem, this normality of using plastic has led to almost all companies doing it, which means there are not a lot of alternatives on offer. When you can buy all your groceries in one place, why would anyone spend the time hunting around to find food that is wrapped in paper, glass, or even better, no packaging at all? It is this apparent lack of convenience from a waste-free life that scares people away. I’ll admit, when I started my waste-free journey, it was a nightmare trying to find anything I could eat, however with time and perseverance I managed to locate plenty of products and foods that suit my lifestyle, often for the equivalent price if not cheaper than what I found in the supermarkets. What’s more, since I have been living like this, I have not got sick as often as I used to, which I really believe is because of a healthier diet that is fresh food, avoiding preservatives and any artificial food enhancers. And if I can do this in somewhere as small as Konstanz, those of you in bigger cities can start doing it too. By changing the way we shop we can influence the market demand for more sustainable packaging and less frequent use of plastics or chemicals on and in our food. But these changes will not occur if everyone continues to buy stuff as if the planet means nothing to us.
Excessive plastic use is not just because we see it everywhere, but it is ingrained into us from a young age that we should be buying new things all the time, constantly spending to be in fashion or on trend, whatever that means. This comes from society, the media, and also from governments that are built entirely on capitalism, and need people to spend money to keep the economy going. However this method of running a country is ruining the world, it encourages people to waste resources by creating and buying cheap, mass-produced products that are used for a short time before being thrown out into landfill to be burnt into toxic materials or buried in the ground. We are told to look only at the immediate future and not consider the problems that in the coming decades. Though denial is at a record low, so many people still do not believe climate change exists. The fact is, constantly burning fossil fuels to make plastics (amongst other wasted products or as a fuel instead of renewable energy) is polluting our environment, and the effects are creeping up on us faster than we think. In Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, she predicts that we have until 2017 to make major changes to our lifestyles, economies and fuel investments, because that year may very well be the tipping point beyond which there is no turning back. Even if these effects don’t come into play in our lifetimes, they will most definitely affect those of our children. So why are we still not doing anything about it?
Finally, people are fearful of change. They are scared of something new, embarrassed about looking different, and afraid to be challenged for it. But so what if you take your own mug to the coffee machine, or bring your own shopping bags, or pack your lunch in mason jars? Others can judge you all they want, but they are doing so with uninformed, (perhaps purposefully) ignorant minds. On a bigger scale, yes we need quite radical changes to the way our governments, economies, transport, city designs and food production are all run, and there is now not a lot of time to do that in. But we have no choice if we are to survive, and everyone needs to step in to do their part, on all levels of society.
Convenience. The economy. Fear of change. Are any of these really worth not changing for the better, to save our home, the Earth that contains the entire history of our own existence, as well as of millions of species before us? I don’t think so. There will be no miracle to save us, no foolproof technology, yet people are living like the world is never going to end. But I guess that is the point: it won’t. The Earth has lasted through billions of years through constant temperature fluctuations and changes in the atmosphere. The real risk is for our own survival. We must drop our hubris and realise the mortality of the human race, because we are running straight into our own mass extinction. And Gaia will continue turning with or without us.