Three months ago, major supermarkets around Australia stopped providing single-use plastic bags, following a ban in several states. This decision attracted strong criticism by some who argued that all it would do is force consumers to buy plastic bags at the checkout, generating more revenue for the supermarkets. Others, however, showed strong support for the decision, even signing petitions for other retailers to do the same.

Up until a few months ago, I would have happily considered myself to be in the first category. I’ve always been a bit cynical towards major retailers: at the end of the day, they’re only after an extra buck, right? But after doing another Mums At The Table challenge where I had to go “zero waste” for one week, I’ve become a lot more environmentally conscious.

My zero-waste challenge began quite haphazardly. I was excited to start and didn’t do very thorough prior research (as a student, skim-reading and Ctrl+F play a big role in my life, and zero-waste challenges are no exception). I had already witnessed the zero-waste trend in popular culture, read a couple of articles that confirmed that plastic waste was a huge environmental problem and watched some YouTube vlogs by prominent zero-waste personalities who vilified single-use plastics and ate everything out of coconuts. So naturally, I decided to do the same (minus the coconuts. Unfortunately, they weren’t in season). I took a look in my fridge and pantry, listed all the items that were wrapped in plastic and avoided them at all costs.

But let me tell you folks, if I could do my time again, I would have done a lot more prior research—avoiding plastic was insanely difficult.

Walking through the supermarket and avoiding plastic is like going to the beach and managing not to get sand in the crevasses of your car seats—it’s effectively impossible. I was limited only to things contained in paper, glass, aluminium cans, or fruit and vegetables (a large proportion of which came in plastic film, netting or punnets anyway). I couldn’t buy necessities such as bread, rice, milk or butter because they were all contained in plastic.

So there I was, one day into my challenge, stranded in a supermarket that was suddenly so foreign to me and desperate to find something to eat. I eventually found myself in the tinned vegetables section buying lots of beans and corn, and managed to scrounge a few different fruits and vegetables. Basically, I was going to have to eat almost completely non-processed foods for a whole week. Great.

It wasn’t until four days into my challenge that I stumbled across a special screening of the film, A Plastic Ocean. Realising this was the most perfect coincidence ever, I decided to go along. The film talked about the damage plastic waste does to our oceans, marine wildlife and also to humans.

Most notably, footage was shown of a boat sailing out into pristine, azure waters, a place you’d associate with a honeymoon paradise or the movie Moana. They lowered a special sieve device into the water and after leaving it there for a 20-metre distance, raised it up again to reveal hundreds of microplastics. These tiny, less-than-fingernail-sized pieces of plastic break off from larger pieces and perpetually float in the water, usually until eaten by wildlife who mistake it for food. This happens because plastics never actually decompose; they simply break down into smaller and smaller pieces over time, without ever disappearing.

This fact hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t believe that even the most pristine areas of the world were contaminated, and that I was actively contributing to this problem. The rose-tinted glasses I’d been wearing my entire life fell off my face and smashed on the floor. But this was just the beginning of many revelations.

Having lived a relatively typical middle-class Australian life, I’ve attended many birthday parties, family functions and church events throughout my years, and eaten plenty of processed and takeaway food. In other words, my life has been filled with lots and lots and lots of single-use plastics. This had never bothered me before because once my rubbish was in the bin, it was out of sight and out of mind. Never before had I considered that innocently, albeit ignorantly, using a plastic fork once and throwing it away could kill fish, birds and even humans. 

. . . I can ensure that families in developing countries don’t suffer because of me.

The film showed footage of little dead sea birds scattered across beaches by the hundreds, their stomachs filled to capacity with microplastics. They died because they couldn’t fit any food into their stomachs due to all the plastic already inside and starved to death. Just when I thought my conscience couldn’t take any more, the film showed families in developing countries living on “islands” of plastic waste, crippled by health problems as a result of the chemicals leaching from the plastics. These communities struggled with birth defects, infertility, skin diseases, asthma, hormonal issues, weight gain, eye problems, cancers and even death.

I felt helpless, paralysed. What could I do to help the people? The animals? Obviously, my plastic consumption was contributing to their suffering and I needed to stop! But I also couldn’t live zero-waste for my entire life! I needed to survive, too, and that involves clothes, shoes, water and food, all of which have plastic in them in one form or another.

Just as these questions were circling around my head, the film addressed something that I naïvely hadn’t considered during my zero-waste week: recycling. Here I was, struggling to navigate the supermarket, when all I had to do was educate myself and learn more about recycling. In school, this was never emphasised or taught, so I only had a vague understanding of what could actually be recycled. And ah boy, did I have some learning to do!

I soon learned that everything from yoghurt containers to shampoo bottles, and even soft plastic wrappers and plastic bags, could be recycled! Suddenly, I felt empowered instead of guilty and determined to leave a much smaller environmental footprint.

That being said, plastic can only be recycled between five and eight times on average, meaning that eventually, it can still end up in the ocean. And, items such as certain toys and whitegoods can’t be recycled, so it’s important to be mindful when shopping. Accordingly, I went out and bought a reusable coffee cup, some reusable utensils and reusable bags so that I wasn’t unnecessarily creating plastic waste. Buying a compostable toothbrush is next on my list.

Throughout this challenge, I realised three very important lessons. Firstly, just because everyone produces plastic waste doesn’t mean I shouldn’t feel compelled to make a change in my own life. The average person produces 2.25 kilograms of waste per day, which equates to nearly a tonne per person, per year. That’s a lot, and by making more conscious lifestyle choices, I can ensure that families in developing countries don’t suffer because of me.

Secondly, I realised that zero-waste lifestyles tend to place the onus on individuals to make changes, rather than companies. We are encouraged to buy certain consumables and boycott other consumables, but I don’t think it should have to be this way. I think the onus should be on the companies. I think governments should be legislating changes that prevent companies from using plastic and other non-compostable materials unnecessarily. After all, there’s only so much that individuals can boycott (especially mums, when disposable nappies and plastic toys are often the only option).

Finally, this challenge has made me realise that while ignorance might be bliss, ignorance also threatens to destroy the world we live in. Supermarkets such as Woolworths actually deserve huge congratulations. They’re making a positive change when so many other companies aren’t, and they are encouraging both ignorant and environmentally-conscious consumers to make positive lifestyle changes.

If you’re not sure where you stand on this issue, I encourage you to educate yourself: watch the documentaries and learn how to recycle. Don’t make the naïve mistakes that I did! And together, we can ensure the world we live in will remain beautiful for our children, grandchildren and then some.

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