We all know about society’s over-consumption of plastic. We’ve heard again and again that it takes up to a millennia for plastics to bio-degrade (1), and consumers worldwide are using approximately 500 billion single-use plastic bags per year (2). And the issue of micro-plastic in our oceans in the past few years have gained awareness via social media. With all this data perpetually smothering our faces on a regular basis, it really begs the question why aren’t governments providing effective immediate solutions on a macro-scale to combat society’s rampant plastic consumption? If plastics are so costly in terms of energy consumption and environmental impact, then action has to be undertaken promptly, and in this article are practical solutions as to how you can build and begin successful projects.
Sure, we have recycling plants, wonderful appropriate technology like Ubuntu Blox, that re-uses plastics to create useable bricks for house construction, Upcycling, bio-plastics and the like — truly, these are all practical and amazing ideas and technologies, but they have minimal impact on, when looking at the broader scale, the impact of plastic consumption on our planet and measures aren’t being implemented fast enough on a broad scale.
Social paradigms are certainly the major issue. Plastics are convenient, cheap and durable – so much so that they have become deeply engrained in the psyche of the consumer. The solution for shifting the paradigm and reducing consumption is twofold: local councils and governments need to introduce incentive schemes to entice consumers to reduce their personal consumption; and, education programs need to be expanded and improved upon.
Incentive schemes work by providing consumers with options in which one of the provided choices works greatly in favor of the consumer, with the better choice giving the consumer a chance to either gain or save cash. A good example of an incentive scheme was back in 2006 when the Spanish government encouraged householders to install solar on their rooftops, paying premiums for generated renewable power that exceeded ten times the cost of fossil fuels. The plan was, over a ten year period, to gradually reduce the premium paid for solar and thus the sooner you installed a solar panel the more money could be made by selling the power back to the grid. Of course the public reacted by buying vast amounts of panels and the scheme in that sense worked a treat, though it did fail eventually ‘as the cost of running the country’s electrical system exceeded the revenues generated…’ (3) The Spanish government intention was excellent, though execution poor, and what we can learn from Spain’s attempt to convert to green energy through incentives is that they are very effective in motivating the public providing that there is realistic fiscal planning and projections.
Incentive schemes personally benefit the consumer directly, and trying to wean people from convenience as great as plastic requires money to be at the heart of the initiative. If, for example, supermarkets start giving 5% discounts to grocery purchases when consumers provide their own shopping bag, then overnight we would witness a drastic shift in consumption. The PlasTax was introduced in Ireland in 2001 which charged consumers for the use of plastic bags at checkouts. The Department of the Environment in Ireland released statistics showing a 93% decrease in individual plastic bag consumption annually after implementing PlasTax (4) and this is one example of many in which taxing plastic bags over the counter quickly reduced the amount of bags purchased. Incentive schemes are the quickest ways for large scale plastic consumption to be reduced and both ideas of either charging for bags or discounting the total cost are what councils on a macro-scale need to be introducing.
Apart from plastic bags, reducing packaging around products seems to be the largest barrier of all. How to stop plastics being used in packaging without introducing some plastic tax that will inevitably be passed on to consumers? The answer here lies in education.
In the west, awareness is high in regards to the damaging nature of plastic and the importance of recycling, due to strong education programs, environmental lobbyists and the like. However, in the east environmental education rarely exists and if it does the necessary waste management doesn’t. Poorer Asian countries are becoming increasingly dependent on plastics and unlike the west have little comprehension as to why the consumption of plastics is bad, or even why burning plastic is bad. Working and teaching at an orphanage in India revealed to me firsthand how little cultural awareness there is around this topic – and teaching children why burning plastic is bad is a challenging task when it is the social paradigm; and for the students who understood the necessity for proper waste disposal, the facilities didn’t exist in the local town to do so. India as a whole imports vast amounts of packaged materials and has no means of disposal for the most part — other than the River Ganges.
Education in different parts of the globe therefore requires different strategies. In the South, education programs in schools need to be mandatory and implemented swiftly – realistically though it is highly unlikely for countries like India to change in the time needed before impending environmental catastrophe strikes. Paradigms take generations to shift, Governments are either slow to take action or are corrupt, or both, and economic development doesn’t happen overnight. Thankfully Permaculture projects and education farms like the Panya Project or Rak Tamachat in Thailand are bringing awareness locally not only to the students but are having a beneficial impact on the surrounding communities. Lawton, Mollison, Holgrem, etc. have all been heavily involved in community development in the east, and these are the most effective strategies of education that are available; depending upon governments in such places will not suffice. Circumventing policymakers and taking immediate action on a local level is the best solution at hand.
Simply put, under-developed or developing nations need education through schooling systems and particularly micro-projects to be established first before any top down solutions will be effective. The near opposite is true, on the other hand, for developed nations.
Nations that have established recycling systems and environmental education programs have higher rates of plastic consumption per person but also have the appropriate methods of disposal. Incentive schemes deal with personal consumption, and the next step that needs to be taken is for environmental conscious individuals to educate their local councils directly, themselves. Developed countries are doing many things right but, frankly, politicians need a swift booting up their behind in the form of social activism for waste management to evolve from being something that everybody half-heartedly does to a conscious action with environmental awareness as the driving motivation. It isn’t so much the general public that needs more education, but local councils – and the general public are the ones that need to become the educators.
Coles Bay of Tasmania banned plastic bags over a decade ago, led by a local businessman Ben Kearney, also the president of the Coles Bay Tourism Association, after a 2 year long campaign. The campaign itself started small, lobbying firstly to retailers and then accommodation outlets, and has been a shining example in Australia of a grassroots successful campaign in banning plastic bags.
The population of Coles Bay at the time was under 200, though the town itself was a popular tourist destination. Yet regardless of the permanent population this model can be used on a suburb by suburb basis, or even street by street. For campaigns like this to be successful they have to start small and from there they create a ripple effect in raising awareness which is exactly what the Coles Bay example did. Tasmania since has flourished with independent markets, festivals, take-away shops and schools banning the bag.
Articles from Plastic Free Times and the Guardian have a coherent step-by-step breakdown of how individuals can create successful lobbying groups and are well worth a glance. If investing yourself in a project is too much of a commitment, the least that can be done is to email your local council and ask local business for their support – letters build momentum and are a strong way to voice your opinion especially if backed by a crowd.
Still, the issue of packaging hasn’t been addressed yet and is the biggest contributor of plastic waste. Developed nations have the option of bulk buying outlets, food co-ops, and local food boxes. Food Boxes are a great example of receiving groceries, often organic, on a weekly basis that provides ample food for an individual or a household and it’s relatively cheap. $40 for a big box of organic fruits and veggies, bread and dairy is truly affordable and competitive even with large supermarkets, and often the box can be delivered to your doorstep. If your local area does not have a food co-op, it is easy enough to start one with a few people on board – simply buy in bulk and split evenly amongst the group. Or, if you live in a share house situation, buy for the whole household. All the above options radically reduce plastic consumption and especially food costs. It’s also important to remember each dollar spent elsewhere other than a supermarket chain is a serious vote and social statement in its own right.
The goal and strategy of each nation will differ and no doubt will occur at different speeds. Each town will be transitory in moving away from plastic but nevertheless it is an addiction that has to be cured. In the west, we need to encourage our politicians through lobbying consistently and persistently to implement incentive schemes that directly target consumers. The individual here is the educator, activist, and leader. At the same time we must make active choices in consumption through the use of food co-ops, organic grocery stores and the like which benefits the environment and leaves the wallet feeling a tad heavier.
Developing nations on the other hand rely upon awareness being spread through education programs and environment projects, starting at a grass-roots level. If on a trip overseas, committing yourself to a few weeks at an orphanage, permaculture site or school is truly beneficial and has a lasting positive impact. Running or participating in a Permaculture Design Course is a great way to engage in social work and to learn practical gardening and design tools. Or furthermore take the initiative to start a small garden at a school and run some classes on the impact of plastics on the environment. Developing nations look to the west for guidance on a local and national level; as individuals involved in permaculture we need to engage ourselves continuously in small projects as well as encouraging our own governments to make the right environmental choices.
Developing nations will follow the path we pave wherever that path may lead to – so it is crucial we further our own progress towards ‘plastic independence’ and in doing so we can, together, prevent Mother Nature’s seemingly inevitable retaliation to humanity’s carelessness.