IMPERFECTION AND PESSIMISM IN THE SINGLE-USE PLASTIC WASTE ECONOMY
11th April, 2022
'THE ISSUE IS TOO LARGE TO MAKE A DENT!'
MOVING WITH IMPERFECTION AND PESSIMISM IN THE SINGLE-USE PLASTIC WASTE ECONOMY
I knew the questions were coming, because I was once in the same boat with them about five years ago. I began working in the thick of advocacy on climate action, environmental justice, and possibly took on a personal vendetta against aqua polluters. The zero-waste movement in my urban community and work sector had just begun and everyone wanted to suddenly ditch their plastic toothbrushes for a sleek, brown bamboo toothbrush. Conversations with vegan and 'tree-hugger' friends involved stories of beautiful milestones in achieving their monthly zero single-use plastic targets, upcycled DIYs (do it yourself), compost success and watching them beautifully remove steel containers to takeaway food, refill their reusable bottle, repack cutlery, dote colorful simple cloth bags and look like a bawse owning up this new, reformative lifestyle.
As a young millennial, I fell in love with all of it. The simplicity, mud-pastel colours and subtle classiness in adopting such a lifestyle against the then loud backdrop of hot-pinks and neon plastic everything and everywhere was refreshing. I wanted to look and do the same things, not because I very clearly understood the movement back then, but because my friends looked like upgraded human beings, had unnerving confidence beyond prying eyes of people wondering why they were repacking food in a steel containers and looked healthy and wonderful.
So I started the zero-plastic lifestyle as a mission. I read a lot and was confident this was a cake-walk (even though friends had warned it wasn't) and had no idea what was to come.
The world of bamboo brushes had not yet figured out how to make non-plastic bristles that were scalable. I was so excited to open my first bamboo toothbrush and was greeted by the tiny plastic bristles that came along. Returning it made no sense since it was clearly written in the description I had overlooked. The questions came— is the zero-plastic movement just another greenwashing industrial tactic? I checked the eco-product brand and they checked out quite clean and were also in the middle of an anti-industrial pollution campaign.
Questions sprung up for several other things— of handmade organic soaps with local, natural oils that would knowingly come wrapped in clingfilm, shampoo bars that did not ever work on curly hair, wooden Q-tip buds that were always out of stock or exponentially priced and restaurants that did not let you refill water in your useable bottles.
Pessimism was peak when you had ten cloth bags, selected from careful design preferences (and serotonin boosts post those purchases) and would still manage to forget them each time enroute to the market. This was supposed to be a happy, simple and easy transition.
I probably reached a point during a hectic work phase where I gave up on the whole idea. The pandemic was here and I knew it would be the end of all things zero-plastic options. However, what followed like the pandemic, was unpredictable and unexpected.
Beaches were being filled with new types of single-use plastics. One time blue-plastic masks, plastic sanitiser bottles, sachets, Styrofoam, bubble wrap and combination and cocktails of it all. In Goa, and other rural areas of the world, supplies were limited and finding produce or essential items was uncertain. The last bit of ration and essentials were drying up. Stuck in the apartment in a village, in a lockdown with the world battling a fast-spreading pandemic, my mind went into a mode that I can only describe as a Pinterest DIY board that keeps adding new pins with no end in sight.
Everything began upcycling itself. I needed pots for growing house herbs like coriander and a broken bucket became a pot. Baking soda that never saw the light of day after that one baked cake+left over soap scraps became temporary cleaning supplies. Coir ropes became coasters and 'jugaad (makeshift)' scotch-sprite. Boxes became containers. Newspaper became bags and art supplies. It was a festival (with myself and isolation).
Like the imperfect human responses in every civilised part of the world to the pandemic measures, the zero single-use plastic journey for many— businesses, individuals, experts and even governments, were imperfect. Handmade soap makers riding on a billion dollar industry, could not find economic alternatives to clingfilm that held the natural oils without sweating (melting) the soaps during deliveries. Individuals couldn't understand which plastic needs to be swapped and why. Governments kept trying to ban plastic bags at retail.
The ground reality was so magnum that a single individual's swap would appear to make zilch difference. The beach clean ups got longer, and we seen more footwear, toothbrushes, diapers, blue plastic masks, straws, bottles, medical supplies of everything and bucket loads of plastic, many unrecyclable with available technology (apart from incineration), much more than we did before the pandemic. The only comfort here was knowing that the one bamboo toothbrush still lying at the sink or bag that saved 20 polyethenes in one market-day or xyz upcycled items lying on home shelves and gardens, and that multiplied of my beautiful friends who started their imperfect journeys way before me, was most likely not going to be on the beach I was nitpicking and cleaning. (should totally add beach skilled beach safaiwali in LinkedIn profile)
And as I kept doing more and more of it, it was hardwork-hope, like the final stage of compost after it's process, it let us continue the journey in mild comfort and learn from it's imperfect times and mistakes.
The bamboo brush was still strong surprisingly (later found out they had mentioned that in the label too) after 375+ days until I lost her while shifting apartments after the second lockdown. The next one came with coir bristles and was 100% plastic free. Shampoo bars were better suited to curly, wavy hair and shop keepers asked you if you needed a bag (plastic/cloth/the ones that look like plastic but say are not) before giving you one. The world had moved and learnt, although at an unequitable price to marine life and to communities dependent on the ocean that suffer from the ever-growing single-use plastic waste economy.
The lessons are permanent but not cake-walk, nor was the journey, which is still a work in progress in learning and adapting. Pessimism comes like waves because we can find solutions and change sooner and we don't. But there is hope always, of one more human who influences a million or just ten people and could make a dent. And even if the odds of hope aren't close to any measure of change, we shall curate a DIY and cultivate/grow/ferment/compost, some hope. Because there is a new generation— of humans and wildlife that does not deserve to swim in our waste, let alone have pieces of them running through their veins. To hope and imperfect journeys in reducing our plastic footprints.
See you next week!
If you have reached here, congratulations! Feel free to check out our ocean friendly living courses and our simple range of products for affordable transitions.