What is it about July that inspires abstinence?
This winter we’ve had the lowest rainfall in decades, amidst record breaking warm day time temperatures. It seems the weather gods have abstained from sending us any rain.
And there’s Dry July, the campaign to abstain from drinking for the month to support people living with cancer. There have been nine Dry July campaigns since its inception that have raised over 28 million dollars1.
But it’s also Plastic Free July2, a global movement that is imagining a world without plastic waste and encouraging people to not buy anything made from plastic for a whole month. It’s been around for a few years but this year the campaign seems to have taken off and the media is reporting on it. Coincidentally, because they are not part of the Plastic Free July campaign, this was also the month chosen by Woolworth’s and Coles to ban single use plastic bags.
We knew the ban was coming. There have been signs in the supermarkets for months and it’s been reported by the media as well. Mainly because NSW is now the only state that has refused to put a legislative ban on single use plastic bags. I guess we haven’t had to. Why regulate something that is going to happen anyway? The other states have done the administrative work and now these businesses have to comply. And because they make their policy nationally not locally, we get the ban too.
But it might have happened sooner if we’d legislated it. And it would apply to all shops not just the supermarkets that have chosen to do it. And like the container deposit legislation that’s now in place, it would have suggested a pro-active environmental agenda. But democracy is complex. In all the great civil movements, it’s the people, not the parliaments that have led change. Legislators formalise the mood of the nation, they don’t usually create it. And that can be a good thing. After all the alternative to democracy is dictatorship.
But no matter how the ban has happened, I’m so glad it has. And although there’s a long way to go before we get rid of plastics, or recycle them entirely, we’re finally thinking about the turtles. And the hundreds of thousands of other marine mammals and seabirds that ingest, or get entangled in, the eight million tonnes of discarded plastic that enter the oceans each year’3.
But this transition to no more plastic bags has not been simple. Having to remember to bring an alternative bag when shopping is an enormous effort for the part of our brain associated with memory function. But maybe, like doing Sudoku puzzles, remembering to take plastic bags to the supermarket might stimulate the hippo campus, sparking a positive cognitive neuron response in that part of our brain, and triggering a collective decline in Alzheimer’s. However these positive effects might be forfeited if, when you forget your bags, you indulge in an angry rant directed at supermarket staff.
But perhaps remembering our bags is just too hard. Perhaps we should put our faith in fashion design. If we made clothes from plastic bags we wouldn’t have to remember to take them with us to the supermarket.
But there is hope. This July I have witnessed the resilience of ordinary people. On the first day of the ban, I witnessed an elderly couple at my local supermarket with a suitcase, something you might use if you were planning to spend six months in South America. They diligently filled it with their week’s supply of groceries and then carted it home across the park. Because I was following them, I noticed that they stopped to eat a packed lunch on the recycled plastic seats by the fountain. Could this be the beginning of a new era of resourcefulness amongst the population of Sydney? Alas the man behind me in the queue negated the good vibes by yelling, “Good on ya. Fucking stupid idea,” at the poor woman behind the cash register who’d told him he’d now have to pay 15 cents for a plastic bag.
Later that week I had lunch with my sister at a lovely seafood café on the Hawkesbury River and we discussed all things plastic. Is our food full of it? Is it really shrinking penises? And why didn’t the supermarkets actually ban all plastic bags not just the thin ones?
“Now they’ve got those thick white bags that will last even longer and cause more pollution. They should just sell the green bags and that’s it. Ninety nine cents big deal,” she exclaims passionately. I get her point of view and I agree with it. But at least a hungry turtle won’t mistake those 15 cent bags for jelly fish. And I’m just so gob smacked that this has finally happened that the critical part of my brain now resembles a stunned mullet. I feel that this move is a harbinger of hope and we might actually do something in the near future about the environmental problems we’re facing.
Hope has been a dormant emotion recently. I guess that’s the survival mechanism part of my brain at work; that ancient, animal function commonly referred to as the ‘fight or flight response’. I’ve been choosing flight, or avoidance. It causes despair, a close cousin of cowardice. But now I think, maybe it’s just July; the deepest month of winter, the month of hibernation and abstinence. Maybe hope is still alive? I mean, a year ago, would you have actually put your money on a plastic bags ban? But it’s happened. Quick, let’s move onto a ban on new coal mines!
But perhaps I’m just experiencing the manic energy born of sudden exposure to warmth and light caused by unusually warm days. Is this how a grizzly bear feels emerging from its winter sleep? And will this energy soon morph into hunger? For plastic. Because, as French philosopher Simone Weil once said, “Imaginary good is easy.” When you get down to the day to day reality of doing real good, it can be bloody hard. Only this morning, as I finished the last slice of bread and emptied the crumbs from the plastic bag it’s baked in, I searched in my stash under the sink for one of those jelly fish bags. I’ve been collecting all our soft, scrunchy plastics for delivery to the supermarket recycling bin. These soft plastics are turned into play ground equipment, park benches and other plastic items too big for turtles to swallow. But there were no single use plastic bags left in my cupboard. I’d recycled them all when I should have been hoarding them.
What am I going to collect my soft plastics in? What am I going to line my bins with? What am I going to use to tightly wrap the disgusting left overs that have been in the fridge for months? Plastic is very good for disposing of not just our rubbish but all of the ugliness of our convenience addicted consumer lives. An entirely single use plastic free world is possible. There are solutions. But how many brain cells will it require?
And then I looked at the calendar and realised that July was almost over and I could abstain from thinking about any of this for another year.
1 Dry July campaign – www.dryjuly.com
2 Plastic Free July – www.plasticfreejuly.org
3 Ocean Pollution Fact sheet – sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents
Images: Dead Albatross With Stomach Full of Plastic – www.environews.tv/world-news/video-watch-what-one-plastic-straw-can-do-to-an-endangered-sea-turtle/; Plastic Bag Dress –www.instructables.com/id/Dress-from-plastic-bags/; Hawkesbury River – noelex.org.au/broken-bay-nsw-anchorages/; Simone Weil © the estate of Simone Weil