Wednesday, 16 March 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?