January is a little bit rubbish, isn’t it? After all the excesses and frivolity of December, January takes a swipe from all angles. We’re bombarded with messages to eat healthily, stop drinking and set life goals. It’s a month of tax returns and finally facing the list of jobs and projects we’ve been putting off till after Christmas. I am not January’s biggest fan, you might have gathered.
I normally self-medicate my way through by means of acquiring ‘stuff’ in the sales. This starts on Boxing Day, when the women of my family head out on a pilgrimage to the local shopping centre, and continues until my allocated budget runs dry.
I couldn’t summon the enthusiasm for it this year. I started well; despite the fresh snowfall on Boxing Day, I declined my kids’ invitation to build snowmen and instead headed out with my mother in law and sister in law for The Grand Shop. My heart clearly wasn’t in it though. I found the odd thing here and there, but my interest waned fast. I just wasn’t sure that I needed any more stuff.
The run up to Christmas had been all about ‘stuff’. I have young children and they both have birthdays close enough to the big day that it feels like the end of every year is spent managing the floodgates against a tide of plastic toys destined to a life spent stuffed under the bed.
I bought presents for our family – mine and my husband’s, I bought presents for other people to give to the kids – for birthdays and Christmas. I bought sweeteners for Beavers leaders and ballet teachers. I even did Santa’s shopping for him. I bought food and more food and crackers containing useless plastic toys and some new fairy lights because, you know, you can never have too many.
By January, possibly for the first time in my life, I was all shopped out. I started fantasising about throwing things out, gathering up great big armfuls of stuff and just making it disappear. One day while the kids were happily occupied with some new game or other, I seized an opportunity to head into their room. I grabbed some toys from the back of their wardrobe and stuffed them into a bin bag before they noticed what I was up to.
It became an obsession. Once I’d filled a few bags I went straight to the charity shop to dispose of them before they could be found, or I had the chance to change my mind. I repeated the process for a few days until I had purged the feeling of excess. In truth, I’m not entirely sure what I even put in there.
The other thing that happened in January is that I became more aware of all the talk about our plastic consumption, and more specifically what happens to all the plastic we consume. Papers suddenly seemed filled with headlines about our manufactured waste. In December last year, China announced that it would no longer take the UK’s plastic waste, leading to fears that some regions would be forced to cease its plastic recycling efforts.
Programmes like Blue Planet and campaigning by The Marine Conservation Society and others has meant that the impact of plastic on marine life has finally hit our radar. This has presumably been going on for years, but it seems to have suddenly hit the headlines. Or am I just becoming more tuned in to it?
It seems naïve now that I think about it properly, but I’ve just seen my personal waste, in whatever form that takes, as an unfortunate by product of my living. I’ve just not paid attention to what happens to that plastic bottle when I throw it in the recycling bin. I did feel a moment of remorse when I tacitly committed to using disposable nappies for both my children; but honestly, not enough to even look at the possibility of switching to any of the numerous reusable options at any point during our five years of continuous nappy use.
Surely parents of small children are exempt from having to think about environmental issues? There’s far too much else going on…
I don’t drop litter, and I make a concerted effort to recycle where possible, I take my unwanted ‘stuff’ to the charity shop, I walk my kids to school. I even make my own bread! That all makes me a good person, right?
The reality is that the way most of us are living our lives, even the best among us, just isn’t sustainable. Our culture of consumerism and convenient living is destroying our planet. And we kind of need our planet.
It’s not just us as individuals that need to take stock. There’s a reason we consume so much plastic. Even the most well-intentioned eco warrior amongst us would be doing well to live in a truly sustainable manner. I’ve read numerous accounts recently of people attempting to ditch the use of single-use plastics for a month. The Marine Conservation Society has been running ‘The Plastic Challenge’ since 2013 and has now declared June to be the month we should all be following suit.
One woman spoke of breaking down in tears at the butcher’s when he refused to weigh out her meat without placing a plastic sheet on his scales.
There’s a reason it’s called a challenge. Manufacturers make it really, really hard for us to actually buy anything at all without encountering a bit of single use plastic. My kitchen is full of plastic packages: fruit and veg in plastic bags, often also sitting on little plastic trays; pasta, rice and other dry goods invariably arrive in a plastic package; butter, cheese, meat, yoghurt – all wrapped up in plastic.
And that’s before we even mention convenience food. Try getting lunch on the run without touching plastic. Impossible.
And yet, we have to try, surely. If we don’t start demanding more sustainable options from our retailers and manufacturers, then they will undoubtedly keep supplying us with the same stuff.
But let’s not just blame other people for what we’re doing to the planet. What about all that ‘stuff’ I was talking about earlier? How did I come to own all that in the first place? Because we live in a society driven by consumerism. And that has to fundamentally change if we are to actually make a difference.
So what am I proposing? Well, I’m not about to commit to going plastic free or finding some formula for measuring my carbon footprint. I’m not an all or nothing kind of girl. Those who do succeed in going waste free seem to get through a lot of baking soda, lemon juice and homemade deodorant. That may work for them, but I’m more about achievable changes that I have a fighting chance of making permanent.
I’m also not completely sold on the idea of plastic being the baddie. It’s pretty useful, and durable. And surely something that can be re-used day in day out is better in the long run that some of its disposable ‘eco-friendly’ competitors.
I’m going to make this the year that I change the way I live. From buying less stuff, to thinking about the packaging on the products I buy, to finding ways to extend the life of the stuff I have and choosing products based on the impact it has on the world we live in. I’ll be road testing some new (to me!) products (bamboo toothbrushes anyone?!) and sharing my successes and failures along the way.
I’m not promising this will be the most factual blog you will read on the topic of waste reduction, but I hope it will encourage people to see that if I can have a stab at it, the chances are, you can too.
I’d love to hear your ideas about some of the things I try; suggestions for alternative products, ways for re-using otherwise redundant stuff, stories of your successes (and failures) of reducing your physical impact on the world. I think it’s great we’re all talking about all this at last. Talk is the first step on the road to change, right? So who’s with me on making the odd little change here and there?