Sunday, March 16, 2008

Getting rid of plastic: why it's no use talking to me

Getting rid of plastic is a noble and necessary aim, and I wouldn't say a word against it. But I am fed up to the back teeth with articles like the ones currently running in the Sunday Star Times.

First, some poor woman flagellates herself about her reckless use of plastic. She then gets ticked off by a righteous greenie, who tells her how to mend her planet-destroying ways.

She mustn't use the insinkerator to get rid of kitchen scraps because it wastes gallons of fresh drinking water. Yes, that's true, it does, and I've stopped using mine (smug expression) for that very reason.

But that still leaves the problem of what to do with the smelly stuff. (Let's just note in passing that the more fresh food you cook at home - as recommended by that very same greenie - the more smelly stuff you have to get rid of.)

A compost heap is of course the ideal - and we did faithfully compost for years. But moving to an urban infill townhouse (again, greenie-recommended) with a tiny garden has put an end to that. So we put it in the rubbish, and to do that without ponging out the kitchen, we - like the hapless woman, in this case Rose Hoare - line the kitchen bin with a plastic bag.

Shocking, I know. So what does the greenie recommend instead? A worm farm - "perhaps on a balcony?" I have heard this "solution" before, and I have news for you: as the only alternative offered where compost is impractical, it is not going to be widely adopted. Ever.

It is simply no good making individual citizens - in fact, individual women, since I don't recall ever seeing chaps subjecting themselves to public tickings-off like this - responsible for privately solving a problem which they didn't cause in the first place.

Poor Rose is not going to rid the world of plastic bags no matter how many worm farms she sets up, any more than she is going to stop takeaway sushi bars using plastic boxes by printing out her work and eating it crouched over the usual tiny table in the sushi bar instead (And by the way, why is this woman so appallingly overworked that she doesn't even get to take a proper lunch break??)

The only sensible approach to getting rid of plastic is to throw the responsibility back where it belongs. The supermarkets, takeaway bars, yoghurt makers, et al are the ones who put all this stuff into circulation in the first place.

Then they leave us to tie ourselves in knots trying to avoid it - and feel incredibly guilty when we inevitably fail. And if there is one thing no modern woman needs, it's having another load of guilt dumped on her head.

Now that the cloth bags are really cheap, charging for plastic bags is a good idea. But I'm working on a plan to deal with plastic in a completely different way. It involves pausing just before I get to the checkout counter, carefully divesting everything in my trolley of all the surplus packaging, and leaving it neatly piled on top of the nearest display of goods.

If the supermarket insists on buying it packed that way, they can take care of it. If they don't like it, they can have words with the manufacturers. Meanwhile, leave poor Rose alone.


  1. Ummm. As an apprentice worm-farmer, I feel I may have to adjust readers' views about the potential yuckiness factor in this alternative to composting. Properly-managed worms are really non-yucky, and their 'castings', read: shit, and 'tea', read: pee, are FANTASTIC for roses and lemon trees and (fed from below) African violets... all the things that town house dwellers love to have doing well on their handkerchief lawns and patios and windowsills.

    This is not intended to be disparaging of small-scale gardening, and I admit the hefty qualifier of "well managed" as appertaining to worms: but they're also pretty easy... offer a worm food that s/he can eat, and s/he (they're hermaphroditic) will suck it up.

    What worms don't like: meat fat, bones, and too much citrus. (This means that the successful patio lemon-grower will generate more waste than the extended family can cope with - but there are answers: although you have to throw it away afterward, my granny did use to use spare ends of lemon rind to excavate the grimy corners of her windows. Go weep, ShowerPowerites!)

    Back to non-yuckiness: worms are really quite nice. I put my hands into their midst without a qualm, unless my fingernails are of Morticia-Addams-length and therefore potentially harmful to them. They're quiet and obedient and non-smelly. Honestly. Embrace worms. They do it for you.. and your roses.... and your lemons... and your window frames... (joke).

  2. And another thing.

    I realise that in my enthusiasm for sticking up for worms I have not actually addressed Elsewoman's point about plastic. What follows may be heretical, but: I think Plastic Has Its Place.

    What would we do without this light, impermeable, flexible or stiff (you choose), strong or weak (you choose), transparent or opaque (you choose) substance? Where would we be without supermarket bags that (as I can personally attest) disintegrate after a certain length of exposure to the ultry-violet, but which in-between-times are so useful for (I speak from personal, recent and harrowing experience) picking up dead rats that the cat has brought in?

    Perhaps we should adjust our vision of this marvellous substance and appreciate its qualities more. We may, quite soon, be telling stories about the Plastic ?Age? ?Period? when the stuff was so despised it was Thrown Away!!! Does putting the responsibility (for disposal or re-use) back on some hapless checkout operator offer a sense of value of the environmental price we have already paid for the glamorous privilege of seeing our goods presented in this gleaming package?

    I'll stop asking rhetorical questions now, and say that I could certainly do with less plastic in my life. It's no good for worms, and there's more of it than even my creative impulses to use it for masks, garden sculptures and pest control can swallow. But doing entirely without The Plastic Bag would be tough. Rats can go out with an organic shroud, I suppose; but it does feel less - shall we say elemental? - to have a polycarbon complex or two between me and the corpse.

  3. Although I have now moved to a larger garden (with a house) I have been using a bokashi composting system for a while. I even had it inside it is so non-smelly.You do need to bury it somewhere but its mini-composting at its best.

    I DO agree that plastic has a place but mindfulness is required

  4. And to make being righteous even more complicated you may enjoy the plastic bag link off Freakonomics Blog's Be Green: Drive by Steven D. Levitt

    Take, for instance, the debate about paper bags vs. plastic bags. For a number of years, anyone who opted for plastic bags at the grocery store risked the scorn of environmentalists. Now, it seems that the consensus has swung the other direction — once a more careful cost accounting is done.

    Though I prefer the "It is clearly better for the environment to walk to the corner store rather than to drive there. Right? arguments and comments

  5. Nice point about women's guilt. It does seem at times that all the environmental oughts are just one more thing to add to women's workloads. I like your solution to this 'ought' - put the stuff back where it came from.

  6. A suggestion for that unwanted plastic: wash your bags, gather up some coloured ones as well and cut them into narrow strips, as long as possible. Get a large crochet hook and use the skills taught to you by your grandmother to make a ring. Keep going and you will soon have a bathmat. You can be creative with the colours. And you have solved the problem of presents for next Christmas!

    If you don't believe me, Elsewoman has seen the photo of my daughter in a plastic bag dress, make from the rubbish of Northern Thailand!