By day, I build and run waste processing infrastructure in Perth, Australia. I’m the CEO of the Western Metropolitan Regional Council (WMRC). I spend a lot of my time doing engineering, politics, lobbying – all of the things you’d expect with anything that is concerned with Big Serious Stuff. And in doing this, it is easy to overlook that waste is a deeply personal affair.
Waste is, at its core, a set of personal habits that aggregate to create a social problem. What we discard is, as Gay Hawkins put it in The Ethics of Waste, how we constitute ourselves.
Plastic Waste — A Gift to the Future?
One of the personal habits that has become a global challenge is plastic waste. Plastic is very convenient and versatile. As a result, it is ubiquitous. It also lasts a very long time in the environment. Indeed, in The World Without Us, Alan Weisman argues that plastic may be one of our longest lived gifts to the future. That gift will continue to kill sea life for hundreds of years, with animals confusing the plastic for food, entangling themselves and drowning or steadily filling their stomach with indigestible plastic until they starve to death.
So what to do about all of this plastic?
We could lobby for a ban on (at least non-recyclable) plastic. We could lobby for all plastic to be biodegradable, so that even if it does wash into the ocean, it becomes a food source rather than a killer. We might even try to capture all plastics from the ocean now, and recycle it into new plastic or fuel, as Method is doing with its Ocean Plastic bottles.
All of these measures would work, but they are ultimately dis-empowering for the citizen.
We need to deal with plastic personally. Sure, take all of the broad-brush measures mentioned above, but also create a space in your personal life to phase out plastic. To prevent plastic waste from happening in the first place.
Introducing Plastic-Free July
Founded in Perth, Plastic-Free July is deeply informed our city’s good fortune of having some of the most beautiful beaches on earth. These are the beaches I get to enjoy on a morning walk with gentle wavelets lapping around my feet, or swim in after work on a hot summer’s day. Unfortunately, they are also the beaches where a plastic bags wash up alongside me. Or where my dog finds a dead bird starved on plastic bags. Or where a drink bottle bobs along over the reef. Plastic pollution is both confronting and immediate.
Take the Plastic-Free Challenge
Simply take the pledges to modify their your behaviour to introduce no new plastic into your life during the month of July — even for just a shopping trip, a day, a week, or ideally, the entire month. The point is to make one aware of how much is out there, how one might reduce it, and how it is so difficult to reduce. It is to introduce mindfulness in relation to plastic.
In taking the challenge, you will learn a lot about yourself.
I am terrible at going plastic-free. But even I learned the benefits of buying food in bulk with reusable containers, and even freeing items from their plastic confines in the store (and I’ve even dreamed of handing the plastic back to the clerk but I haven’t mustered up the nerve quite yet).
And every time I forgot to take my reusable shopping bags, I either tottered out of the shop with groceries piled high in my arms, or added another bunch of plastic bags to my dilemma list.
Small steps that add up to a movement
And so the lessons are learned. Gradually and gently, with a supportive virtual community around you, everybody helping out, everybody giving little tips for learning. And all of these little behaviors lead to a broader change. To paraphrase Gandhi, you are the change you want to see in the world!
So, ultimately, the goal of Plastic-Free July is not to pretend that your personal eschewing of plastic will diminish the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. On its own, it won’t. Instead, the goal is to empower you to be mindful about preventing plastic waste, to make your changes, to give your peers the opportunity to gently question their own behavior. And it is precisely from these small steps that a movement grows. A movement of “us” that adds weight to the big changes “they” should make.
And if we can’t exercise our power as a citizen to stop the scourge of plastic, what power do we have?