The Plastic Rant


Why I am not a Good Little Consumer.

It’s a long one.  Sorry.  But this is important.  Please read and reflect.

I’ve been unhappy about the unsustainability of the world’s plastic consumption for years.  If you’ve read my “About Me,” you’ll know that I spent an inordinate amount of my childhood on my bedroom floor, playing with my toy horses.

Not mine, but the herd of another horse-mad little lady. Thanks to her Granny for allowing me to use this image

They were all plastic, of course.  Even then, as a smallie, I know that my herd of plastic friends would survive a long, long time.   I wasn’t so worried about the environment back then, but I was worried about missing my horses when I finally grew up (even if I had some real ones by then!) and I was worried about my poor little horses missing me in some way, lost and forlorn, buried in the middle of a dump.  Out there alone.  FOREVER!

Thank you Ryan J Gill for permission to use this great cartoon!

Well, maybe not quite forever, but for a thousand years or so…  My favourite toys are out there somewhere – Darkie, Blackie, Hi Jinks the shetland, Dancer and all the rest of the herd – probably unrecognisable fifty-odd years later, but they’re there in some shape or form.  As are countless other well loved toys.  And a myriad of other plastic items which served a useful purpose once upon a time.  And then there is the infinity of plastic items which served a less useful purpose.  Plastic straws.  Plasticised gift wrap.  Never-ending miles of cling film.  The heavy plastic film used to decorate gift boxes and flower arrangements, à la Love Actually.

At least a decade ago, I started to try to cut down on inessential plastic use in my personal life.  Shower gel, for example.  It’s a thing that makes no sense whatsoever to me.  It’s more expensive than a bar of soap and doesn’t last as long.  To make the best use out of it, you need to buy a plastic scrunge thingy as well, so you can squidge it out onto the scrunge and then give your grimy skin a good old scrub.  Frankly, shower gel is quite difficult to use without one of those puffy bits of fluffed up plastic.  You then keep that piece of plastic hanging around your shower cubicle for more than a few months, and suddenly it’s grimier than your skin could ever be, and can well be suspected or harbouring all kinds of nastiness.  So I’ve been a soap and water woman for a long time now.

Another thing to catch my attention at the time was the pump action toothpaste dispenser.

I can just imagine the board meeting where that idea was presented.

Packaging Designer : we’ve come up with a great new form of packaging.

Senior Management : do tell.

PD : it’s a pump action toothpaste dispenser.

SM : is the human race losing the ability to use their opposable thumbs to squeeze a tube and to roll it up as they use it?

PD : aha! That’s the beauty of this design.  It’s IMPOSSIBLE to completely empty this dispenser and waaaaay too much trouble to tear it apart to get at that last 5ml that’s stuck inside.

SM : … so for every 75ml of toothpaste we sell, 5ml will remain unused? …so people will have to buy toothpaste more often?

PD : YES! Exactly! We’ll sell 6.67% more toothpaste!!  (Yes, I did the Math)

SM : Here, have a raise!

Well, I’m sure it went something like that, anyway.

Photo Credit: whatleydude Flickr via Compfight cc

I quickly cottoned on to that fact that a pump action toothpaste dispenser was messy (ours always seemed to ooze when not in use) and uneconomical, so I reverted to tubes.  Sadly, even the humble tube of toothpaste has now been plasticised (with some notable exceptions) and is more difficult, although not impossible, to empty completely.

On the same theme, there was a particular face cream which I liked, the manufacturers of which discontinued the humble jar and replaced it with bottle with a large plastic pump on top.  Towards the end of its life, I found that if I levered the top off with my Swiss army knife, I would get an extra 7 – 10 days worth of cream.  Extrapolate that over all the sales of that cream and consider just how many face-cream using women are doggedly stubborn enough to go to the same lengths as me – some, but not many, I’m sure.  And work out the profit margins involved with all of those un-stubborn ladies who replace the bottle before it’s actually empty…

So yes, pump action dispensers are a rip-off, unless you are dispensing something from a container which is too heavy to lift and pour, like a barrel.  And even then, how do you get that last half litre out of the barrel?

That was my own tiny plastic limitation drive, long before videos of floating islands of plastic and turtles with straws up their noses started to circulate on the internet.  But, in reality, I was doing way, way less than I could or than I should.  Water bottles, for example…

When we lived in Cereste, both the LSH and I found that the tap water disagreed with our digestive systems.  We pretty much had to buy bottled water – a lot of the time we even used bottled water to make tea and coffee.  We continued this habit when we moved to Reillanne.  It was just a habit, one of many plastic habits, I am ashamed to admit.  But we recycled all our bottles, so that’s ok, isn’t it?  Or is it?  More on the notion of recycling later…

Coming up to last Christmas, I was inspired by the actions of my London Daughter, who has gone to almost zero plastic, and a facebook friend who announced that she was going to go zero plastic as a New Year’s resolution.  She was looking for others to take up the challenge, for moral support, I guess.  I replied with “I’m in!” and broke the news to the LSH as we drove to Chamonix for New Years celebrations.  To my surprise, he whole-heartedly embraced the idea.  So much so, that he insisted that I didn’t buy a plastic bag of organic aubergines that evening, even though they were cheaper then buying two un-packaged, non-organic aubergines.  That evening, I began to see how difficult this task would be.

I’ve had to accept that a zero plastic lifestyle is not currently possible.  Instead, I’m voting with my buying power.  If there’s a product in a plastic container and the same type of product in a glass or tin container, I’ll go for the latter.  Mayonnaise is an obvious example, but some things are much more complicated.  Like bread.

Living in France, the Land of Bread, you’d think we’d have no problem picking up an unwrapped loaf at the local boulangerie.  And indeed, this is a viable option for most people.  But we are not Most People… neither the LSH nor I can tolerate gluten, so we need to eat gluten free products (We’re also dairy free, by the way.  Just to make life a real joy in France, the land of bread and cheese).  Neither of our local boulangeries do a gluten free loaf, so we have to buy the mass-produced stuff, which is invariably double wrapped in thick plastic, to prevent cross-contamination.  Sure, I understand that.  Many people with Coeliac disease are so sensitive that the slightest trace of gluten is a problem for them.  Cross-contamination is a real issue, and double wrapping has the added benefit of keeping the bread fresh – gluten free products have an annoying tendency to turn into chunks of cardboard when exposed to air.

Rather than sucking it up and saying oh well, we’ll have to buy the double wrapped stuff, I tried making my own gluten free bread from scratch, but everything I made was inedible.  Brick-like, with the texture and taste of sawdust.  I finally found a bread mix which I’ve tweaked to make a tasty white loaf.  It comes in a single plastic bag inside a cardboard box.  Each box makes four loaves, so I’ve cut plastic use there by almost 90%.

I try to bake sweet things more than I used to.  I make an awesome lemon drizzle cake, which I’ve adapted to make lemon muffins.  I’ve made an attempt at a savoury biscuit, which was “edible”, and a cookie substitute, which wasn’t bad.  Rice flour, sugar, coconut oil and lemons are all available in non-plastic packaging.  The only plastic waste generated by my baking is the tiny amount of film wrapped around 5 paper sachets of baking powder.

In order to cut my plastic consumption, I’ve had to adopt a “Do I Really Need this?” attitude when I’m shopping.  Gluten free savoury crackers – ooooh, they’d be nice with that pâté I bought in the butcher’s…. but Do I Really Need them? Can’t I eat the pâté on toast, or wrapped up in salad leaves?  Back on the shelf they go!  I’ve extended “Do I really need that?” more and more.  From household cleaners, to yoghurt, to horse gear, I am becoming an Bad Consumer.  Nope, don’t need those horse treats.  Apples or pony nuts work just fine.   ShowerPower spray? Lets try vinegar and washing up liquid instead (it works!)  Soya yoghurt for my fruit bowl in the morning?  No, I can do without or buy the sheep’s yoghurt that they have in the waste free shop next time I’m there.  Sadly, crisps/chips are my biggest downfall.  I Do Really Need that salty goodness.  So I haven’t given them up yet, although I’m trying to eat less.

We’re very luck that a zero waste shop has opened in nearby Manosque.
We can buy a variety of culinary oils and vinegars, rice, pasta, grains and pulses, sugars and flours, all without packaging.  In addition, there’s washing up liquid, rinse aid for the dishwasher, soaps, shampoos and shower gels (oh look, we’re back to shower gel!)  So we are using that shop enthusiastically, and hoping and praying that it survives.

Shopping for others is, in general, a time when I falter.  Like when shopping for our Munster Are In The Semi Final party.  We bought crisps, olives, peanuts and various other nibbles, all of which came in plastic containers.  Another typical  example would be with my mum (who is staying with us).  She loves her biccies, but all shop-bought biccies are wrapped in plastic.  I’m not going to deprive her of her sugar fix, so of course we buy biscuits.  But she’s interested in what we’re doing (probably thinks we’re a bit mental, but oh well, what else is new) and is now thinking about unnecessary plastic packaging when she’s shopping.  Score one for the environment!

We are five months into our Plastic Reduction kick and there has been a big change in our shopping habits.  The supermarket shop has become a thing of the past – we shop local almost all the time, apart from a visit to Manosque every week or two to get dog food (in plastic, I’m sorry to say, but I re-use the bags as bin-bags) and swing by the waste free shop.  We are eating more fresh fruit and veg, the waste from which goes into our compost heap beside the potager.  There has been a huge reduction in the amount of general waste leaving the house, it’s down by at least 50%, and possibly closer to 75%.  So far, it’s been a successful change to our thought processes and to our lifestyle.

Before I finish my rant, I want to talk about recycling plastic.  If you recycle all your plastic, then there’s no harm in it, right?  I’m not so sure…

First of all, NOT ALL PLASTIC IS RECYCLED.  I would advise everyone to look into what types of plastic your local recycling company will accept.  This varies from area to area, and country to country so you have to do your own research on this.  It is much too difficult to find this information, and I am certain that this is contributing to a huge amount of “bad plastic” entering the system, which has to be filtered out further down the line.  I downloaded a free app (Le Guide du Tri, you will find it in the App store) which tells me what I can and can’t recycle here.  It’s good, but a shock to see that so many of those plastics that I thought were recycled actually head for land-fill.  Yoghurt cartons, all plastic wrap, those plastic punnets that strawberries arrive in by their thousands, these and more are NOT RECYCLED here in Provence.

Next, consider the ecological footprint of recycling something plastic.  A milk bottle, for example.  Let’s take it from the moment you rinse out that milk bottle.  Think about the energy expended in collecting, purifying and delivering that water to your house.  If you’re in an area with water shortages, think about whether it’s eco-friendly to use water to wash out packaging for recycling.

You go to the local recycling point.  Maybe you can go on foot, maybe you need to take a car?

You carefully sort your recycling, and leave, feeling happy that you’re doing your bit.

Or are you?

At this point in the system, I believe that many countries are way ahead of both Ireland and France, the only recycling systems I’m well acquainted with.  Here in Alpes de Haute Provence, we chuck glass into one container, “packaging” into another and “newspapers and magazines” into yet another.   So you’ve got tin cans, milk cartons, aluminium and scrap paper going into the “packaging” bin, along with all kinds of plastic, a huge chunk of which is not recyclable.

Anyway, you divvy up your recycling as best you can, and eventually a big truck comes along to take it away.  But just think about all those diesel-burning big trucks bringing waste to a sorting centre, where there’s some kind of power-consuming conveyor belt which trundles away while the waste is sorted.  Then there’s the people who actually sift through it.  They have to be kept warm/cool/given fresh clean air while they work.  They have to get to and from work somehow.  More energy.

Once it’s sorted into the “good plastic” pile, our plastic milk bottle heads off to be recycled.  Possibly overseas.  One way or another, it’s more energy-consuming transport.

And then it gets shredded, melted down and turned into something else.  More energy.

And the bottom line is, the plastic which made up that milk bottle will continue to circulate in the environment for a good thousand years.  It would surely be better if it had never been made.

Is this really a sustainable system?

It’s far, far better to vote with your purchasing power.  Which is why I have turned into a Bad Consumer, and why I urge you to become one, too.

Finally, here are my tips for Bad Consumerism (thereby reducing your use of plastic) :

When you have a choice, always opt for the non-plastic container.  Sadly, you will often have to pay more for the privilege, but if you start to adopt the “Do I Really Need This thing that is wrapped in plastic?” approach to your shopping, you’ll recoup some of that extra cost in no time.

Watch out for hidden plastic – I bought some tins of organic tomatoes, to find that the tin has a fine lining of plastic inside.  Apparently tins used for acidic products are all lined with plastic to prevent the acids from eroding the metal.  What can we do?  By cartons or glass containers?  I don’t have the answer, sadly.

Watch out for packaging, like my bugbear the pump action dispenser, which prevents you from getting at all of the product you’ve just spent your hard-earned pennies on.

Always carry a shopping bag with you (ironic laughter from the LSH at the one!).  But hey, try!

Spread the message – tell the shopkeeper what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.  They listen.  They talk to wholesalers.  The message WILL get through.

Tell your friends and family.  Sure, they may think you’re crazy but they’ll start thinking about it too.   Look at my mum – 84 years old this year, and changing her buying habits too.

Buy local and seasonal, as much as you can.  I know I have it easy here in Provence, and it’s going to be far more difficult for anyone who lives in a big city, but if London Daughter can get a box of organic veg delivered to Canary Wharf, then it must be possible elsewhere too.

Shop in your local Farmer’s Market if you possibly can.  It takes dedication and planning, but it’s possible in many areas, even in big cities.

At the very least, buy your fruit and veg loose.  Complain to the supermarket or greengrocers if you see this sort of ridiculous carry on.

Photo Credit: {Guerrilla Futures | Jason Tester} Flickr via Compfight cc

Ditch the handwash, shower gel and shampoo bottles and source solid alternatives, online if you must, but if you have a Lush branch near you, you’re sorted!  Their products are great – and not tested on animals!

If a waste-free shop opens in your area, USE IT! Support the people brave enough to push this strange notion of a plastic free world.

It will take time to change your habits and learn to actually see plastic as you shop, but it will happen eventually. Don’t give up.  There’s already enough unnecessary plastic in the world.

Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight cc

PS Before someone else points it out, buying something like this will blow your plastic reduction goals out the window…

As will doing any construction work around your house…

But what’s the alternative?

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