Consumer “choices” and the difficulty of avoiding plastic

“The scale is difficult to fathom. How did we go so quickly from the creation of plastic to it choking us (and much of the ocean)?” Master of Political Economy Candidate Persephone Fraser explores questions of plastic pollution and consumer responsibility.

Image by Mali Maeder via Pexel, CC0 License.

We haven’t always used plastics. Their wide use has been a relatively recent development. While in my lifetime the only way of buying groceries, or for that matter basically anything, has involved plastic bags and packaging, for my grandparents that isn’t the case. Plastics came into popular use in the 1960s, which means for many the radical transformation of the production, packaging and transportation of goods has occurred in front of their eyes. This also means there are alternatives to the way we are doing things. In fact, what today seems like innovations toward a circular economy, are often throwbacks to ways of doing things that were typical up until the end of the Second World War, when plastics began to take off. Think milk in refillable glass bottles or buying dry goods from drums. To put it in perspective, the patent for the celluloid tube, which came to be the plastic bag we know today, was only filed in 1965.

The proliferation of plastic allowed for the developments in social mobility that occurred after the Second World War with the cheap and fast production of consumer goods. It has also lead to the incredible pollution of our oceans and their inhabitants, which has culminated in a plastic ‘continent’ the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean, while plastic production contributes to the carbon pollution that is transforming our climate, and once broken down into smaller parts, plastic ends up in the food we eat. According to Jenna Jambeck from the University of Georgia, “Our estimate of 8 million metric tons going into the oceans in 2010 is equivalent to five grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world”. The scale is difficult to fathom. How did we go so quickly from the creation of plastic, to it choking us (and much of the ocean)? A large part of the problem is that about half of the plastic produced is single use, with items like plastic bags on average only used for 7 minutes, according to Greenpeace.

While a trip to the supermarket today leaves the impression that the incredible momentum of the creation of plastic waste is unavoidable, keeping in mind how recently we did without it reminds us there are other options. Plastic, and in particular single-use plastic, is not necessary. It is, however, very difficult to avoid entirely, because of the way the discussion around waste has been deliberately framed as a matter that can be resolved by consumer choices and diligence.

As Heather Rogers and Elizabeth Royte both argue in their work, early attempts to legislate on the production of plastic packaging resulted in perhaps the first case of corporate ‘greenwashing’. They argue that in response to the proposed 1953 Vermont legislation for mandatory deposits on disposable beverage containers and a ban on non-refillable beer bottles, corporations including Coca-Cola and Pepsi co. funded the establishment of the Keep America Beautiful organisation and advertising campaigns, which through the creation of the concept of littering (as opposed to pollution) in the “Crying Indian ad” and others, shifted responsibility from producers to consumers, and made it a matter of individual moral behaviour.

While even in the 1950s the impact of the pollution caused by single-use packaging was evident, state intervention in the way products were packaged didn’t occur. Instead, the emphasis was placed on consumer choices, and the classic neoliberal doctrine of market-based solutions, and it remains the case today. It has required enormous public pressure in Australia for the removal of plastic bags that have taken place or will take place in most states and territories by the 1st of July. The notable exception is the New South Wales government, who has said that the two big supermarkets’ policies of stopping plastic bags are sufficient. Coles and Woolworths for their part, have said they will stop using plastic bags in NSW along with the rest of the country because a great majority of the public have called for it, however, they will continue to use ‘produce bags’, the thinner plastic bags you find in the fruit and veg section. This long overdue first step is at this stage glaringly superficial, as is bound to be the case without adequate regulation.

The irony is while the emphasis remains on consumer responsibility to resolve the issue, no real alternatives to the use of plastic is being made available to us. At the ordinary supermarkets available to most Australians, avoiding plastic in the produce or checkout areas may be possible, but for virtually everything else it isn’t. Every effort counts, and in Plastic Free July we should all make the small sacrifices of the conveniences that have such huge environmental implications, like the 7 minute use of a bag that will take hundreds of years to break down, if ever, but many of us will be finding out just how difficult it is to entirely avoid plastic packaging without companies being regulated in the ways they package products. For example, sanitary items, meat and dairy to name a few.

To avoid challenging the mode of operation of business, the solution to the mounting waste crisis for decades has been recycling. Recycling is an ‘end of the pipe solution’ though. It tries to deal with the consequences instead of addressing the cause, and changing the related practices. And, recycling too, has suffered from a lack of regulation, as without required quotas, companies continue to buy virgin materials, which are cheaper. The state itself buys virgin sand for road bases, rather than the recycled glass it produces. Instead of considering ways to reduce waste, Australia had long shipped recyclable material to China, a policy that has been stopped by the new “National Sword” policy there, and resulted in a mounting crisis for the recycling industry here.

With the state of our oceans, the climate and the Australian recycling industry, big change is long overdue, but if you’re finding in the aisles of your supermarket that a responsible consumer option isn’t available, I’d suggest acting with your phone and not your wallet, and applying pressure on your local member for the kind of regulation that could create real change.

Persephone Fraser is a Master of political economy student at the University of Sydney, with a background in political science and philosophy, who is interested in sustainability, obstacles to change, and how existing power structures influence public perceptions and policy.

This blog is a part of SEI’s Student Blog Series, which features original content by Honours, Masters and PhD students at the University of Sydney who are undertaking research on environmental issues and topics. If you are a current postgraduate student at the University of Sydney who would like to participate in the series, click here for details.