Monday, 15 August 2011

The plastic abstinence dilemma

I have a dilemma.  A very modern dilemma.  I have been so diligent in using reusable shopping bags for my groceries (and other shopping) that I now have no plastic bags left with which to line my garbage bins.  I'm not at all sure what to do.

As a person conscious about waste, the environment, minimising my footprint (sometimes hard when your feet are used for Fred Flintstone's stunt doubles) and reusing where possible, I've adjusted what I use and how I use it.  So instead of plastic bags, I have dozens of the reusable supermarket bags.  Now that they have taken over my life I'm getting better at remembering to actually take them with me to the supermarket.  They are probably contaminating the air I breathe with some evil pollutant that will be linked to some as yet unknown health concern....STOP IT!

When I had a supply of plastic shopping bags I used them to line the bins in my house.  This saved me from having to buy (plastic) bin liners and meant I was reusing or "repurposing" (who comes up with these words?) and I thought that was reasonable.  On top of that, I work to minimise the waste that I put into landfill anyway.  I have a reusable coffee cup.  I have a reusable water bottle.  I'm conscious about the packaging of items that I buy.  I recycle, time my showers, catch public transport or walk as much as possible and have low energy light bulbs.  I switch things off at the wall and wash my clothes in cold water and only use the dryer when it is absolutely necessary (which is rarely if I plan).  When I lived in a house I composted everything that could be composted.  I even have a knitting pattern that shows how to knit a shopping bag using plastic shopping bags as the "yarn"!  I haven't been able to wrap my head around that; it seems a shame to put all that effort into something that will disintegrate - now that the plastic bags are biodegradable.

Now I've reached this point where I need something to line my bins I seem to have two choices:  buy plastic bags to line my bins or carry my groceries home in plastic bags for the next few months so I can build up a stash again.

I don't think I can bring myself to do either thing.  After all this time of plastic abstinence, the thought of leaving a shop with my purchases in a plastic bag is impossible to contemplate.  How would I walk down the street with this mark of shame visible to the world?  The glares and judgement from other people at the supermarket check out would be too much to bear. And paying for this weapon of mass destruction just seems ridiculous.

This domestic dilemma is playing out against a backdrop of residents in my apartment block who do not/can not/will not recycle correctly.  The reason I care about what other people do with their garbage (apart from the general social well being concerns) is that we have collective giant wheelie bins - 6 shared amongst 28 apartments.  The local Council regularly sends information about what things can and can't be recycled - I even have a fridge magnet - but my neighbours regularly lovingly wrap their stack of newspapers in a plastic bag before placing it in the recycling.  I have suggested to the body corporate that some education in a variety of languages is needed, but I despair.  How is the Government ever going to succeed in explaining the carbon tax as part of the strategy to address climate change, when people can't even sort their rubbish and put the recycling in the bin with the yellow lid?

I was heartened tonight to hear that electricity consumption in Australia has recently declined.  This is being attributed to a combination of rising power bills, switching off and switching to renewable energy sources like solar.  Fantastic!  If price has motivated a change in behaviour, then the market can actually work, I thought.  But of course it's not that simple.  We live complex lives with an increasing need/desire/demand for consumables, including electricity and fossil fuels.  Unless people are lying in bed in the dark all day to save on heating and lighting.

To stop myself walking around in circles and feeling bad that I'm not doing enough, I try to live my life based on an ethical framework and good intentions. I'll advocate and educate, but I'm not into judgement - except when someone is smoking near me.   I can't solve the world's problems by myself.  I can't even work out how I'm going to line the bins in my house.  Any suggestions?


  1. Last time I was at the supermarket the checkout person asked if I wanted her to put my shopping in plastic bags before putting it in the reusable bags. Some people must do that, or surely she wouldn't ask? Bizarre.

  2. Yep - it's a funny one. I use my reuseable bags up to the point where I don't have bin-liners, then I get plastic bags from the shops. If I plan, I can forget to take the reuseable bags just often enough to have a ready supply of bin-liners.

    An alternative would be to buy paper bags as bin liners, although a quick look on the net and I find that paper seems worse than plastic ( - mind you, I have not validated the source of this info.

    I think the answer is in your own post. The reason you can't take the plastic bags home is the social conditioning you've had applied (shame), not some immutable universal law. The fact that you are conscious of the decision itself is proof that in whatever you choose you will be doing the best that is available to you.

    What your consciousness will lead to, who knows? Bulk home delivery of unpackaged goods, communal food supplied direct in your apartment block by Coles?

    Probably not before your recycle bins are in order.


    PS. please feel free to correct any grammatical issues before approving.

  3. Greg - thank you for that link. It certainly highlights the complexity of these dilemmas we face. Who would have thought that disposable plastic turns out to be better than biodegradable plastic and paper when manufacturing, water use, greenhouse gas emissions, life in landfill etc are taken into account.
    I think your point about consciousness is correct. The best we can do is be mindful of our choices. Guess I'm off to the supermarket today unencumbered by reusable bags. Or to hide my shame, I'll be the person placing my plastic bags clad shopping into my reusable bags!
    Oh, and no editting of your post needed.

  4. Merryn - I have also witnessed that behaviour and wondered about it. I have been offered a plastic bag to put washing powder in so it can then be placed in my reusable bag. I've even had a stand off at the check out when the person serving refused to put my purchases in the bag I had brought. What's that about?
    I've now concluded it's how we hide the shame of taking plastic bags!