Plastic: Superhero, evil genius, or a good old-fashioned scapegoat?

Scooters. Phones. Toothpaste. Glasses. Roller skates. Fridges. Ankle Foot Orthoses (mobility aids, usually known as AFOs – so inevitably, my family only ever use the term UFO. In fact, I just had to Google the proper name…) Bicycles. Hearing aids. Cars. Lego (said in a growly, so-excited-the-hyper-just-screams-through kind of voice. The only way to say it properly; trust me.) Plastic is everywhere. It makes everyday life more accessible. It is a key ingredient in making modern living as (relatively) cheap as it is. It is used to make a marvellous mosaic of machines and games that have no purpose other than to just be fun. The Paleontologist, in particular, would not want to live in a world where 280-step Lego rollercoasters were not in existence. Of course, she would probably have picked up far less swear words too, but nobody’s perfect…

I give you Lego Jurassic World. With a snow mobile in the background, because frankly, why not? This is normal decoration for a dining room, right?

But plastic is the villain in every good story about the oceans, city parks, farms, even Mount Everest. Bags that sea creatures mistake for tasty jellyfish nibbles, or nappies that will still be around a hundred years after their wearers have themselves grown old and died, or teabags, for goodness sake – is nothing sacred? We have all been part of the creation of a culture of throwaway values, of putting convenience before worth.

I have been trying to cut down on plastic – particularly single use plastic. I have, of course, put as much plastic into the kerbside recycling as possible for some years (increasing dramatically when I realised I could rinse it out in the dishwasher instead of doing it by hand 😳) Recently, I have increased my efforts: toilet roll now magically appears on our doorstep, wrapped in paper and made from bamboo; milk arrives in glass bottles; and it turns out it is possible to get through a period without plastic. Well, except the ibuprofen boxes and chocolate wrappers. Oops…

The problem is that cutting down on plastic does not just mean saying no to throw away Costa cups and regifting Enchantimals. (No, I hadn’t heard of them either, until The Cowgirl got given some for her last birthday. Half skunk, half girl, and a build so skinny they make Barbie look rotund. So of course, the children love them.) Cutting down on plastic really means cutting down on the things that make it possible to work, have fun, have kids, have a hobby, all at the same time. It means forward planning, and being willing to go to different shops for different things, rather than just doing a Morrisons shop online and accepting that peppers and aubergines will arrive in polythene netting encased in shrinkwrap. It means aiming for a picnic bag that puts Mary Poppins to shame, filled with metal straws, collapsible cups, cloth handkerchiefs and bamboo cutlery. It means having the disposable income to invest in reusable options, and the disposable time to put in the groundwork, find the alternatives, make cleaning products at home, grow your own food.

As real life kicks in the questions get harder. Should I avoid plastic altogether, buying new non-plastic storage containers, or is it better to keep using old ice cream pots and takeaway tubs, which at least mean they are getting more use than they were intended for? How about going to a plastic free shop? Should I go there to do my shopping, even if I have to drive miles and end up wasting a huge amount of time and fuel? I always intend to buy vegetables without packaging, but then I have a week of mocks to mark and end up buying ready-cut vegetables in even more plastic than usual. Can you get medicines without plastic; and even if you can, should you? Children make their way round zoos and aquariums, entranced by the occupants and engaging with fantastic interactive displays educating them about the impacts of plastic waste on the environment; then they stock up on Haribo and Fruit Shoots for the drive home.

A few weeks ago, I helped my mother clear out her loft. Buried near the back, under 30+ years of slate dust, were a few bags of the toys my brother and I had outgrown a lifetime ago. We put them onto Olio, and after the usual confusion of not quite managing arranged pick-ups, they were passed on to someone intending to share them between her son and his nursery. When she saw them, her response was “They’re gorgeous. Almost too good to be played with.”

Almost too good to be played with? Toys that were second-hand 35 years ago and have been abandoned for years in a way that fills me with guilt (Toy Story has a lot to answer for) are still remarkable for their quality? What have we done? We all, as consumers, have a part in this. We have accepted as the status quo toys that become worn after 6 months – but that’s ok, because after that they will have been forgotten anyway, and something else will be in favour. Our phones last 18 months if we’re lucky, but that’s great, because the blistering pace of progress means we’re already eager for faster processing and better cameras after half that time. With a daughter so keen on excavations, I can’t help wondering: if there is still humanity on this planet in 500 years time, what will they find if they excavate a 21st century dwelling? What of our lives would be on display in museums of the future; and is that the picture we want them to form about us? It is a baffling contradiction that the things we consume break so easily, yet are made from materials that take centuries to degrade.

I don’t know how to fix this. I think it’s time to start making these links out loud, and talking about them more. It’s time to get back to looking for a form of protein The Paleontologist enjoys that doesn’t come wrapped in single-use, non-recyclable plastic. It’s time to acknowledge the power and responsibility we all have in these things, and use that power wisely and collectively. And after that? I think it might be time to sit down with my super-smart children, over a snack that doesn’t come double-wrapped in plastic, and work out together how we can possibly make this a better world to live in.


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