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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Plastic - where green intentions and frugality collide?

Aurora @ Island Dreaming


I finished organising the yard this week. This involved collecting all of our stray plant pots, discarding any broken ones; and taking the rest inside for a good wash. The majority of them are plastic; and every year more and more are thrown out as they are degraded by sunlight and the elements. I am astounded at just how much plastic there is in my garden. Nearly all of our large planters are plastic, bar a tyre stack – and even that must comprise a proportion of plastic additives. All but a handful came to us second hand, mostly pulled from skips and rubbish piles (I even found a huge planter dumped under a bush in the local park). Our garden chairs are plastic, the washing line is plastic, as are the dustbin and the water butt. This week we took in a serviceable plastic storage chest that was destined for landfill; a handy place to store all of that other garden plastic.


Plastics are irreplaceable in some capacities – I am glad for medical plastics and plastics in the electronic goods that make my life a little more interesting. But over the last few decades we have managed to substitute plastic for a wide range of materials that were doing excellent jobs, for no other reason than plastic is cheaper - at least at the manufacturing and shipping end - and seen to be low maintenance. At the consumer end, the price tag may be smaller than the metal or wooden or glass product sat next to it (if indeed there is an alternative to the plastic), but does that make plastic the frugal choice? The stainless steel washing up bowl that my mother has kept for the best part of 30 years has cost her far less money in the long run than the or five or six (minimum, I am guessing) plastic bowls she would have got through in that time. The bowl will probably be going strong in another 30 years with no maintenance.

The golden rules of waste management – reduce, reuse, repair and recycle - fall apart at 'reuse' when it comes to plastic. Single use plastic food containers may be pressed into service for a short while storing leftovers - but when my plastic garden chairs break, they will be going straight to landfill. No part of them will be reusable or repairable; the reason that plastic is 'low maintenance' is mostly because we perceive it to be cheap enough to throw out and replace regularly. The plastics that our kerbside recycling scheme does accept will be recycled into an inferior quality plastic that is unlikely itself to be recyclable; and ultimately it too will go to landfill, never to fully biodegrade.

Our addiction to cheap goods with short life cycles (admittedly not an attitude we reserve only for plastic products) has resulted in huge swathes of land being devoted to landfills and every ocean on earth hosting nation state sized floating garbage patches, stretching across the surface and downwards into the depths. On UK beaches, where I would have found beautiful pieces of sea glass washed up on the beach at the high tide mark - beachcombing being a truly frugal delight - my son will be lucky to find anything but abundant toxic plastic fragments. I think that this situation is unlikely to change soon. There is still huge incentive for manufacturers to be mass producing plastic versions of nearly every object under the sun. During an economic downturn, when people have less money to spend, this is especially the case. 

So what can you do? You can follow the lead of one woman and her positively heroic journey to rid her life of plastic; most of her 80 strong list of actions fits in nicely with frugal living goals and you will probably find that you are doing a lot of them already. My own approach is going to be to extend the life of all that ugly plastic that I already own and re-purpose it to the extent that I can. But what happens when the time comes to replace these things? How long should we expect for our posessions to last - a few years? A decade? Our whole lifetime and beyond? And how much are we really willing to pay?

9 comments:

dixiebelle said...

Fantastic post, Aurora! We are replacing any items we need to buy that we might have normally bought in plastic, trying to get long lasting glass, ceramic, metal and wood instead. Yes, plastic has it's place in the modern world, but these longer lasting items we are 'investing' in now, I hope will have their place in my childrens and grandchildrens worlds...

Joyful said...

Great post! Thank you for the link to the inspiring woman who is on a journey to cut out plastics in her life. I believe it was she in a video I saw some time ago who inspired me to look at the plastics I use in my own life. I've since made some baby steps in reducing my plastic consumption and I have a long way to go yet but every small thing we do, multiplied by many people who do it, will add up to great things. Thanks again.

louisa @ TheReallyGoodLife said...

Great post.

I'm not as hardcore as Beth but I'm trying to cut down the amount of plastics I use in certain areas - for example, many of my garden containers are plastic too because that was the cheapest way to get set up and needed to buy a lot of containers en masse, but as they need replacing on a gradual basis, I'm replacing them with alternative materials. It is more expensive but as it's stretched out, it doesn't hurt quite so much.

writingweb said...

This is a very thoughtful post! The garden is insidious when it comes to plastic. I hate that most of the pots for transplants are in plastic pots. And you're right: even if they can be recycled, they're being turned into more disposable products, for the most part! It's also tricky to safely extend the useful life of something plastic. They do degrade over time and leach, so it's important to find that balance and not over use them.

emilysincerely said...

Great post. Thanks for the link to Beth's journey about plastic. I know I have made several changes from plastic to glass in the kitchen. And I am all about re-using things before they go in the trash can - like all the plastic pots. When neighbors buy plants throughout the year, they know they can bring the empty pots to me - I will re-use them. You are right, eventually they degrade, but I feel I have given them several years or re-use before they hit the recycle bin. Everywhere I look I see something plastic. A lot to think about. Emily

Aurora said...

I hope that I will have useful items to pass down. I have wanted a casserole pan for a few years and was going to buy a cheap cast iron one. I am now saving up for one with the longest guarantee available. Ditto storage jars, ceramics and anything else we may need. But it would be so much easier to go and buy a stopgap product to tide us over. It is a very difficult mindset to get over.

Sadge said...

I take plastic pots and flats back to my local greenhouse. They clean and reuse them. I reuse the little six-packs for starting my tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants over and over - cleaning and nesting them together afterward to store until the next spring.

Misti said...

After awhile we started switching to clay pots. More expensive but much more reusable (unless I dropped one!) and more aesthetically pleasing. Unfortunately we left most of them behind when we moved as it wasn't practical to store them in a POD for a year.

Chris said...

This is one of those areas you can support a local craft person or artisan in.

I use to like buying those flat pack pieces of furniture, because it was so easy to transport home rather than a bulky piece of furniture. But I always hated the plastic and styrofoam packaging I had to throw out afterwards.

Now I only buy second hand furniture, or if it's new, it comes direct from a woodworkers shop. No packaging to throw out and I get to support a local industry. :)

If you can find a local pot thrower, who throws pots for a living, imagine all the plastic/styrofoam packaging you'd save from going into landfill too.