More Questions than Answers

The sixth in the series of blogs by Liz Longden.

I’ve been feeling more and more hopeful about the plastics campaign in the past few weeks. I see my friends talking on social media, even starting campaigns of their own. Bollington, a very similar town to New Mills and about six miles away, is starting to do the same and asked Transition New Mills to go and talk at their inaugural meeting.
Although it still feels like wading through treacle sometimes, increasingly it feels like plastic pollution is being taken seriously. So far, so marvellous. However, the more I know, the more I realise I know almost nothing.
When I first started to think and talk about these issues, I had what I suppose was a fairly simplistic view. Just replace single use plastic with something else and all will be well. Now I know that it is all a lot more complicated than that.
For instance, our councils have to decide how to organise their waste collection to maximise effectiveness within the constraints of their budgets, and although it’s easy to see them as simply obstructive, I am sure they are coping with issues we know nothing about, and they have to stay within a legal framework I am just now beginning to get a handle on.
Then you have to start thinking about consumption of resources. If you stop using one polluting consumable, but just replace it with another, what have you actually achieved?
Suppose we all start using huge amounts of PLA, plant based plastic, (compostable if you have the right composting system,) what will be the consequences in terms of the land needed to produce the plants to make the plastic? I don’t know. How do I find out? I don’t know.
We are asking people to stop using plastic shopping bags and start using bags made from other things, for instance, cotton. The cotton has to be grown, (water, land, fertilisers) and processed, (water, energy, probably pollution) and it has been estimated that a cotton bag would need to be used 143 times before it is environmentally ‘cheaper’ than a plastic bag. Are we doing that? As above.
Suppose enough of us realise we can’t sustain the mindless consumption of ‘stuff’. Well, people are making that ‘stuff’, and it’s how they make their living. Who decides whose job or business survives? What is available for the less well off in our society if the cheap clothes and toys disappear from the marketplace? As above, I don’t know.

So often, human society seems to create a problem when they were trying to solve a problem. So that when plastic bottles were first routinely available, they were hailed as a real benefit in cutting down transport costs for bottled drinks. Twenty years on, we now have a huge proliferation in the sales of bottled water, soft drinks, energy drinks, cheap alcohol, and I would dearly love to know how much we spend transporting them. Now we have the problems of obesity, dental decay, and what to do with those seven billion plastic drinks bottles used every year in this country alone.
These are huge problems. I can talk about them, research the issues, try to influence people but in the end the only persons behaviour I control is my own. But I have come to the realisation that there is no such thing as an action (large or small) that has no consequences. Some of the consequences will perhaps be the ones that you intended, but there may be others that are less desirable, even if your intentions were of the very best. I am learning to develop the mindset of ‘what will happen if….’ and to take that thinking a lot further into the future than I have previously. Scary stuff.
So lots more thinking and research needed. But some things at least are perfectly clear to me. Plastic industries are huge and powerful, and have every intention of continuing to grow. We cannot continue in our dependence on single use plastic in the way we are. I will keep on asking questions, talking, blogging, asking, talking, blogging. And in the meantime, we have some simple and straightforward guiding principles: Refuse. Reduce. Re-use. Recycle. Every day. I don’t think we can go far wrong with these. Cheers.

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