It’s Plastic Free July at the moment, a campaign run by a charity in Australia. According to the website, it’s a “global movement that helps millions of people be part of the solution to plastic pollution… Will you be part of Plastic Free July by choosing to refuse single-use plastics?”
I have two reactions to campaigns like this one. The first is ‘all power to your elbow’. The more people who refuse single-use plastics the better. The second is almost an equal and opposite reaction, which is ‘not this again’. Systemic problems are not fixed with simple tips and easy swaps.
I watched the video for Plastic Free July (see below) with a sinking feeling. Here are our animated vector people refusing disposable cups and plastic water bottles. We see them buying vegetables without a plastic wrap at the supermarket, and going to the farmer’s market. And I’m happy for them and the difference they’re making to their simplified green and blue world – but none of those are things I can do.
I never bought disposable coffee cups or plastic water bottles in the first place, so there’s no bad habit to stop. (I make excellent coffee and have a tap.) My local supermarket doesn’t sell fruit and veg without the plastic, and there’s no farmers’ market in Luton. So I don’t see myself in this project and there’s no role for me in this vision of the solution.
If that’s true for me, how many other people is it true for? People who can’t afford the middle class luxuries of a takeaway coffee every day. Those who don’t have refill shops and independent grocers, and are stuck with whatever the supermarket sells. Or people of colour, who won’t see anyone who looks like them in the video – a bit of an oversight from a campaign that aspires to global reach. Or households who have just run out of toothpaste, and don’t have time to research plastic-free alternatives online and wait for it to arrive in the post.
I wonder if, aside from reminding a few relatively wealthy people to do the obvious things they know they should already be doing, these campaigns might actually exclude as many people as they include.
A bigger problem here is that this is very superficial, because it engages purely at the level of consumer choice. That only gets you a tiny way into the problem, because it’s industry choices that matter.
Take that toothpaste, for example. Plastic packaging for toothpaste doesn’t persist because everyone chooses to buy it in plastic tubes. The only choice on offer to most of us is between brands, not between packaging materials. It persists because the dental care companies choose plastic as the easiest and most convenient solution. It’s industry that needs to change.
Like I say, I don’t want to diss the efforts of campaigns like Plastic Free July. I’d very much like them to inspire people and succeed. So here’s what I’ll be doing to take part – and perhaps they could recommend it as a campaign action next time. I’m going to pick five products that we use everyday around the house. Instead of looking up alternatives, I’m going to write to the companies that make them and ask what they’re doing to reduce their use of plastic.
Plastic Free July estimate that over 300 million people have connected with their campaign in some way. Imagine what would happen if Colgate got just one million emails from their customers asking about their packaging. I reckon we’d see a change, and it would be a change for everyone, not just middle class people with the alternatives to hand.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re responsible for the plastic crisis. You are responsible for your own buying decisions, but the plastic crisis is bigger than the sum total of everyone’s consumer choices. If you want to make a difference, push responsibility back towards the manufacturers.
Don’t (just) fight the plastic, challenge those producing it.