In part 1 (1) of this article series, we looked at the extent of the plastic waste problem in the world right now, and some different actions being taken to cut down on plastic use. Part 2 (2) explored some of the plant-based alternatives to non-biodegradable plastic which are currently in development, as well as the exciting news that a species of bacteria has been discovered which can break down even petroleum-based plastic.
Plastic use is substance abuse?
Delving deeper into this issue, we next look at our relationship to plastic itself. Banning plastic items or replacing them with biodegradable alternatives may help to heal our environment somewhat, but it seems that our compulsion to use this material on such a mass scale and then discard it, regardless of what happens next in the plastic’s life cycle, is indicative of a deeper psychological issue than that which can be addressed by merely taking the plastic away or making it out of a different raw material. How can we encourage a healthier attitude towards plastic and what might practical responses to this look like?
Plastic isn’t fantastic?
As we looked at in parts 1 and 2, plastic is a material which acts in quite a different way to biodegradable materials. It can be used to make water-resistant products and if it is treated like a biodegradable material (i.e. thrown into the ground) could last in its current form for hundreds or thousands of years. Yet if this material is so long-lasting, why are we so intent on discarding plastic items on a mass scale?
Part of the problem seems to be that our attitude to plastic, especially plastic packaging, is the idea of “single-use plastics” – which are absolutely necessary for the short amount of time it takes to cover a food item, but can only be used one time, and after that we must never see them again, because we don’t like them anymore.
We seem somehow to be simultaneously dependent on this substance and to regard it as ugly; so no wonder we produce such excessive quantities and then throw it away. To address this issue perhaps we need to redefine our relationship with plastic so that, at a fundamental level, we are using this material – and all materials of our planet – in a holistic and respectful way.
Part of the issue with our relationship with plastic seems to be that we regard it as “unnatural”. This may seem like a small point, but it perhaps has far-reaching psychological connotations, and therefore physical manifestations. It could, indeed, be seen as a symptom of the more wide-reaching idea that we ourselves are somehow “unnatural”.
This splitting of ourselves from the natural world – conceptually and verbally, since in a physical sense we are of course part of the natural world – can be seen to have caused an enormous loss within the psyche of modern “civilised” humans (see for example 3, 4, 5). Many permaculture practitioners have spoken of the detrimental effects of “civilised” ideas, such as self-destructing systems like those employed within the modern farming industry(5).
The idea that beings other than humans are in some way inanimate or unfeeling seems a really crucial one which causes us to feel very much alone in the world. As I explore in my ‘Permaculture and Ecopsychology’ (3) article, we have forgotten that our souls do not simply reside within our heads. As psychologist CG Jung said,
“Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos, because he is no longer involved in nature and has lost his emotional “unconscious identity” with natural phenomena. These have slowly lost their symbolic implications. Thunder is no longer the voice of an angry god, nor is lightning his avenging missile. No river contains a spirit, no tree is the life principle of a man…No voices now speak to man from stones, plants, and animals, nor does he speak to them believing they can hear.” (4)
This loss of communication with the world around us is arguably one of the main reasons we feel so willing to engage in destructive and violent behaviour towards it.
Perhaps you are wondering what all this talk of disconnection and psychology has to do with plastic. It seems to me that, just as if we can awaken the idea that the trees have a soul and are therefore part of an interconnected web of communication with our own psyches, and therefore perhaps be less inclined to engage in deforestation, so also if we can find the ‘soul’ of plastic, perhaps it can help us treat this material with more respect and care.
But I’m not religious?
Perhaps the word ‘soul’ is putting off some readers. I do not think this shift in perception requires any special belief system. As Jung explored, we do not have any scientific way of proving the existence of gods or immortality, but these ideas have been a part of our human culture, arguably for longer than we have had the words to articulate them, helping with our psychological development and sense of place in the world, and even nowadays, even if we do not “believe” in such ideas, they are present in our psyches as the archetypal symbols which soothe or disturb us during our nightly dreams (4).
What ecopsychology can help us to explore is this idea of ‘soul’ not as something conceptual and unobservable for which you need a belief system, but as a felt connection which we already always have – a sensuous communication with the world around us which is directly observable, if only within your own body and psyche.
How this might look in the world
Plastic comes from the same place that we do, from our planet. It was once living, breathing animals and plants, and can still be said to ‘breathe’, perhaps not in the same rhythm as human breath, but still containing a part of the pulse of the universe. In re-visioning that plastic is a natural part of the world, perhaps we can be better equipped to use it in a way which is safe for the surrounding ecosystem.
Rather than seeing it as an inanimate object which must be thrown “away”, we can try to find places within the global ecosystem where it might naturally fit without causing harm to other parts of the system.
Permaculture design is about balance and so part of this revisioning would almost certainly have to involve us creating less plastic in the first place, to maintain equilibrium. Then, it is clear (as explored in parts 1 and 2) that throwing plastic into the sea or the soil is not very healthy, and neither is burning it. So we need a different place for it.
Perhaps this place would be somewhere where plastic has naturally already gathered in huge abundance, such as the Great Garbage Patches of the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans (6). At the moment these are seen as lifeless and ugly scenes of horror. If the plastic-decomposing bacteria could be introduced to these islands, however, they could eventually be transformed into floating mounds of beautiful greenery, rich in abundant life (7).
Artistic responses and permanent culture
One crucial aspect of the plastic waste problem seems to be of a cultural nature. In the years prior to the introduction of the plastic bag ban in Kenya UNEP supported dialogue at many levels of society, and following the ban, “Kenyans are slowly adjusting to life without plastic bags”. Despite this, small sellers have been reported as saying there is still no cheap alternative to plastic packaging for food for immediate consumption (8). Perhaps we require a change in cultural values in order to fundamentally alter our relationship with plastic. One way to encourage this could be through art. I intend to explore artistic responses in a further article.
Finding your own new ways to relate to plastic
The ideas contained in this article are intended as sparks, which can hopefully help to kindle some inspiration towards practical action. How our change of attitude to plastic will end up looking in future seems as much a mystery as what our dreams will look like tonight; but it seems very clear that the change itself is both necessary and inevitable.
Featured image: Reuseable plastic bags and basket made from recycled plastic, from Pixabay
- Ashwanden, C, 2019. ‘Plastic Waste part 1- Some ways we are kicking our plastic habit…’ Permaculture News, 21/7/19. https://pmnlive.wpengine.com/2019/07/21/plastic-waste-part-1/
- Ashwanden, C, 2019. ‘Plastic Waste part 2 – Finding plastic substitutes.’ Permaculture News, 3/8/19.https://pmnlive.wpengine.com/2019/08/03/plastic-waste-part-2/ – retrieved 16/8/19
- Ashwanden, C, 2019. ‘Permaculture and Ecopsychology – Coming Home to Our Souls.’ Permaculture News, 9/8/19. https://pmnlive.wpengine.com/2019/08/09/permaculture-and-ecopsychology/ – retrieved 16/8/19
- Abram, D, 1997. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World. Vintage: New York City, USA.
- Jung, C. G., & Franz, M.-L. V, 1964.Man and His Symbols. Doubleday: Garden City, N.Y, USA.
- Hemenway, T, 2010. ‘How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth, but not Civilization’. Talk given at Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, North Carolina, USA and uploaded 9/2/13 to Films For Action: https://www.filmsforaction.org/watch/how-permaculture-can-save-humanity-and-the-earth-but-not-civilization/ – retrieved 16/8/19
- Lovett, RA, 2010. ‘Huge Garbage Patch Found in Atlantic Too’. National Geographic, 2/3/10. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/3/100302-new-ocean-trash-garbage-patch/ – retrieved 16/8/19
- Ashwanden, C, 2019. ‘The Haunted Beach’. Abundance Dance Garden, 24/5/19. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2019/05/24/story-the-haunted-beach/ – retrieved 16/8/19
- UNEP, 2018. ‘Single-Use Plastics: A Roadmap to Sustainability’. UNEP: Nairobi, Kenya. Available as a PDF here: https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/25496/singleUsePlastic_sustainability.pdf?isAllowed=y&sequence=1 – retrieved 16/8/19