Andreas Späth

My month without plastic. Fail.

2011-02-09 07:10

Inspired by the folks at, February was going to be my plastic-free month. Epic failure ensued approximately three minutes into Day 1 as I sleepily watched myself squeeze toothpaste out of a plastic tube onto my plastic toothbrush, went on to have cereal out of a plasticised sachet, packed my sons’ school lunches in Tupperware containers and drove to work in my car, the interior of which, on close inspection, appears to consist almost exclusively of plastic.

And so it continued all day long. From pens and computer keyboards to coffee cups and the bottle of milk and a loaf of bread I bought last thing in the evening for the next day’s breakfast. Plastic everywhere!

You might say that I wasn’t really trying very hard. There are plenty of others, after all, who’ve done pretty well in weaning themselves of the stuff. But although I’ve long been aware of using lots of plastic in my everyday life, I had no idea exactly how difficult it would be to go without it.

You might also say that I was being a bit hard on myself. Perhaps my reading of the plastic-free ground rules,

1: No buying or acquiring new plastic.

2: No cooking with plastic or storing food in plastic.

3: Minimise all other plastic use,

was prohibitively strict. Whatever the case may be, I quickly decided that I was simply not ready to live without plastic yet and downgraded February from plastic-free month to plastic-awareness month.

A bit of a cop out, I know, but better than nothing, right? After all, without being fully conscious of the extent of the problem, how am I ever going to eliminate it or at least reduce it substantially? So now I stumble through my days making mental notes every time I - literally - come into contact with plastic and think about how I could possibly do without it.

But why even worry about plastic? There are several very good reasons why cutting back on its use is a good idea:

• the majority of plastics are made from non-renewable oil and natural gas, the production of which causes extensive soil, air and water pollution - think Deepwater Horizon for the latest instalment of regular oil spill disasters around the globe;

• some plastics contain highly toxic chemicals, including hormone-disrupting phthalates and bisphenol A;

• plastic is produced in astonishingly excessive quantities worldwide, much of it to be thrown away almost immediately, while only relatively little is recycled;

• long-lived plastic fills waste disposal sites and when it eventually breaks down, it pollutes ecosystem food-chains and the oceans, which contain floating plastic patches the size of islands and tiny plastic particles circulating through the entire water column.

So there’s plenty of motivation for my plastic-awareness month to help curb my personal plastic addiction. I already recycle and freecycle and I only buy plastic bags when absolutely necessary. I’ve recently invested in a sturdy drinking bottle for tap water and am on the lookout for everyday goods wrapped in biodegradable, minimal or no packaging.

People weren’t always so utterly dependent on plastic and I don’t have to be either. Buying more fresh and local produce, for instance, reduces the need for much packaging that’s otherwise necessary for long-term storage and long-distance transportation. I realise, of course that what’s really required is a wholesale transformation in my attitude and lifestyle – and not just when it comes to plastic, but also the other resources which I constantly consume without much thought.

All things considered, while my attempt at living without plastic for a month may have been rather pathetic, if the exercise has made me more aware of my personal relationship with valuable resources and the environmental and health hazards they carry, it hasn’t been a complete failure. Perhaps it’s even been a necessary first step to help me live on the planet more lightly.

You try it: just for a day, every time you open a tap, ask for petrol at a filling station, plug an appliance into a wall socket or flip a light switch, imagine what you’d do if nothing happened.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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