The real problem with plastic bags

 © Jenn Shallvey

© Jenn Shallvey

At my local harbourside pool for a swim I saw a man commit an act of disrespect to the environment. Innocent, naïve and unaware I am sure he did not even realise his infraction. 

As I waited at the reception window to return my locker key he walked past me. He walked purposely but slowly, dressed in grey suit pants, a striped business shirt, coifed in silver streaked hair neatly combed following his swim. 

The wind whipped up a mini whirlwind in front of the man depositing a gray plastic shopping bag around his feet and ankles.  I watched and wondered. Would he ‘do the right thing’ and grab it before it blew away? Surely he would. The outdoor rubbish bin was steps away.

No. The bag was a nuisance to him, a barrier in his path to get back to work. He kicked and dislodged the plastic particle to be and let it float away behind him. Not even a glance back to see where it landed. 

I was tempted to yell out at him but did not act in time. Instead I ran to catch the bag before it landed where it was surely headed – into the harbour – only metres away.

The lady behind the reception window witnessed the whole event. We both shared in our dismay over the lack of awareness, action and contribution of one person. Compounded, this attitude makes the effort to ‘keep Australia clean’ just one bit harder and further requires charitable efforts of others to make up the difference.

Contrast this non action with another person’s action.  One lady lives near me on a busy street.  Rubbish regularly makes it’s way to the nature strip. As part of her personal initiative she carries a bag with her on walks and picks up rubbish. I have bumped into her a few times and I am amazed how quickly her bag fills up before even walking 500 meters from her place to the shops.  

Two different people, two choices, two different outcomes.

Where do you sit in this spectrum?

I would love to say I am a model eco warrior citizen but sadly not. I am more in the middle, probably like you, good at some actions and not others. I am not perfect nor is anyone. So despite my emotionally frustrated response to the man above’s inaction I accept that people all have different levels of awareness and action.  

Why?

You have to go to the person, their culture, background, upbringing, current life circumstances, values, beliefs, state of mind, etc. So many variables that we are not able to discern from a simple observation of behaviour. The variation in spectrum between choice of two ways is far more complicated. I am not trying to justify nor provide excuses for behaviours that collectively may be at issue. No I am seeking to understand and accept people where they are at and how to work with them to move forward. 

For example, consider distracted man above. This man is not someone I know. I therefore do not know his state of mind, what else might be going on in his life. Perhaps he dreaded going back to work and had a lot of worries on his mind. The bag was something in his way that he innocently ignored lost in his own thoughts.  Perhaps I have been too harsh in my quick passing of judgement.  I am an observer, not interviewer in this moment. 

What challenges me then is not so much this man and his inaction, for whatever reason, it is the exponential impact of many inactions of the same nature. What do you do when there are multiple plastic bags adrift and flying into the harbour? If you know that this is happening you do something, right? 

It depends. For some we may consider it someone else’s job. For others ignorance helps us avoid the inevitable frustration when faced with the reality.  Opinions vary over the exact nature of the real problem, the cause and sources and who is responsible for fixing. There are as many views as people. 

On one hand there is a combination of ignorance, not caring and an ‘it’s not my problem, someone else will fix it’ prevalent attitude.  It starts with something as simple as rubbish on the ground. That is why this point matters. If we are too blasé to pay attention to the immediate environment at our feet what will we do beyond our own space?  Not much. 

Not much will mean likely not wanting to know what is happening on a collective global level with our waste. Not much will mean passing the responsibility on to the next person. Not much will be ignoring the ‘elephant in the room’ that is our world wide waste challenge.  Out of sight, out of mind does not work in the end.

I admit to being asleep to this problem for a long time. Even now it can be overwhelming to contemplate the challenges we all face. Like you and most of us we are raised and influenced to consider doing our part. We learn that one individual can make a difference. Yes. And this difference can go either way.  I admire the individuals leading change in whatever way they can already.  I applaud the silent teams of volunteers making a difference just doing what they can because they do care.

On a more mainstream level there seems to be a need still for incentive combined with collective required action. It takes a lot to change ingrained habits without the immediate need. I remember when as a teenager our town introduced curbside recycling. . As an adult I now appreciate what it must have taken to get such an initiative in place.  Before this program no one we knew recycled except one family on the street. This one family were diligent about collecting and driving to the local sorting centre well before they were asked to. Why was it then that a whole street collectively cared little even when we had an example a few doors away? 

Then early in my career as an auditor I saw through the operations of two companies the connection of waste and consumption. The first company handled waste management for a major US city/region. Even with our team set up in a portable trailer in the garbage truck parking lot I loved the work. I saw the heart of a business that people took for granted. I saw people working every day to keep a big city running and clean. I also saw the scale of what was transferred collectively. When we only worry about our own rubbish or bin we don’t truly appreciate where it all goes. 

The other company was a container leasing company. At the time the focus was all about accounting for assets. But I also realised how much we collectively transport and move containers filled with ‘stuff’ around the world. Standing at the docks surrounded by containers stacked stories high you feel small, you feel the dominance of the materials around us. These materials eventually become something consumed, then rubbish. Ok not all but a lot of what is shipped around the world is what we use.

The two situations did impress upon me scale. In my very young early career days though it did nothing for my environmental awareness. I stayed asleep. I asleep within myself and so asleep to the world around me.  [That is a conversation for another post].  On one level I saw the importance of two businesses for our world to function. I also could see the collective impact of many.

So this issue of ignorance is an easy one when we live in a consumer driven society. It is also easy when businesses exist to match our need for consumption and disposal. It is all interconnected, not separate.  The individual end consumer responsibility is only one end of the equation. As a society we are drifting more and more towards disposable consumerism.  The statistics are staggering and easily found online. Rather than quote articles I invite you to explore.  Water bottles, single use plastics, fast fashion, disposable coffee cups, electronics, construction waste are just a few examples.  Recent documentaries and television shows highlight the crisis growing that we do not want to see.

We have industries built up and thriving because of the creation of these products. With a focus on a need to deliver results to shareholders such businesses are not going to change unless the consumer choice changes or legislation requires change. This is happening, slowly. The plastic bag is a good example. Due to pressure from growing numbers of concerned citizens and responsive councils we are seeing the start of bans. A great symbolic gesture that is only one end of a bigger challenge. Those bags might be replaced but the contents inside are still mostly products contained in plastic. This is the irony.

I remember when the phrase ‘think global act local’ became popular. In the wisdom of this statement we are inspired to do what we can in our own backyard. But what happens when what we do is send our problems to someone else’s backyard? We are disposing of rubbish that has to go somewhere. It is the somewhere that is out of mind.  For some places there is no out of mind as the rubbish is all there. Locally and globally there are different initiatives that reflect the culture, people, business and government influence. What might be incinerated in one place is still dumped in another. What is recycled in one place is still rubbish in another. 

Environmental awareness is only as good as your choice to be exposed to, educated and oriented towards the impact. In this respect I am better and better with awareness. I pay attention, read, watch. Yet even with this awareness my own personal contribution and action remains individual.    

On the positive side I was raised at least to be responsible about not littering. I would rather carry a bag of rubbish home before leaving it for someone else to collect.  When I remember, I carry a water bottle and reusable coffee cup. I recycle what I can at home and aim to make conscious consumer decisions.  

Yet before you think I am trying to be all sanctimonious I also confess my challenges. I still use plastic containers, shop for sustainability but easily fall prey to convenience.

So I step back and contemplate this big and small conundrum. What to do? What can I do? What can you do? It is one thing to feel good because we remember our non plastic bag at the grocery store. It is another thing emptying a recycling bin filled with used plastic containers of all the products we consumed in a week.  Convenience wins only in the short term.

In our pursuit to move to less waste, more conscious consumerism and sustainability we are challenged on many levels.  

Why? 

Because the problem is not the man who ignored the bag nor me or you for not 100% committing to no plastic. The real issue is a society wide, cultural one. It is a shared problem that requires a shared solution.  We are a wasteful world. We consume much without true and genuine regard for where it might end up. Yes there are a small group of noble citizens around the world leading the campaign to change this fact. The mind numbing reality is though that we have a problem. The problem is not about denial. The problem is caring.

Do we really care?

Caring is a sensitive word. If we care about self we care about others. If we care about others then we care about the environment. If we care about the environment then we care about the earth. To me it is a interconnected matter. Our evolution in regards to the waste challenge depends on how our society, communities of businesses and consumers work together. This is not an us vs them situation. It is a we situation.

I am writing this post as a start. Why? Well party because my husband got tired of me complaining about the state of the world and said do something about it.

I reflected and asked myself what can I really do that goes beyond sorting my rubbish into the right bin? What can I tangibly do beyond sharing a post on social media or signing a petition? 

Well I can help others who want to take leadership and create change. This is what I can do. I can provide support. I can facilitate conversations. I can bring people together to learn from each other, discuss ideas and take action. That is for me an action - providing support, inspiration and encouragement.

I also believe that it is important to help people transition with kindness and compassion not judgement and shame. My own initial reaction above is case in point. It is easy to get on a bandwagon and then say hey look at those people not on it. Instead it is about helping everyone move from one side of the bridge to the other.

What do I propose?

A community conversation that brings together people of all interests and backgrounds.  

A focus on what the real issues are that we face as a community.

An acceptance that where we are at is where we are at and that there is shared responsibility.

Suspending blame and focusing more on going forward finding new ways and solutions.

Looking to a future where we can transition to new ways of protecting the environment.

Respecting the differences in viewpoints.

Rising above partisan and commercial interests. 

Collaborating to create a way forward that is real and lasting not just a feel good one day a year moment.

Helping leaders to step forward authentically from their heart not their ego to make things happen.

Coming together with multiple viewpoints, including experts, to constructively change the way we handle waste, our environment and community.

I think there needs to be a conversation that gets people together that are like you and me. People who go about their day to day lives working and living. 

Yes there are many examples of individuals and organisations doing great things right now. I want to acknowledge these people as well, lift them up even further to help inspire more people.

People are making a difference. Yet too many are not. Too many are not because there is a massive problem with plastic growing in this world, consumable waste, food waste. You name it. 

It is no longer someone else’s problem. It’s a challenge for all of us, all of the global community. This fact is becoming slowly and gradually more clear to average person just going about their business. 

So I invite you to have a conversation.  Let me know if you are interested. 

I will continue to explore this space and see where it leads. Somehow, somewhere.