Today, plastic is in the news nearly as much as President Trump. More individuals, institutions and countries than ever before are waging war against this new enemy. Whether we are now boycotting all packaging and disposables, drinking out of reusable bottles, or just saying no to straws, there is a definite sense of collective effort in reducing our careless reliance on plastic. The sheer amount of waste humanity can - and needn’t - produce has finally started to weigh heavily on us. And we are no longer only concerned with treating the visible symptoms - cleaning up beaches and filling up our recycling bins once a week. The conversation has shifted to why we need, or don’t need, plastic in the first place.
I know of a group of youth who, with great altruism and energy, were determined to improve their neighbourhood by cleaning up the park. They began by picking up litter in great sackfuls. But day after day, the litter kept appearing. So they approached the council and arranged for new, colourful bins to be installed. Sill the litter continued to blow around the park, thrown there by careless hands. And then, the youth realised that what was needed was education: so they organised a talk and informal workshops in the park, as well as flyers to give to neighbours at their doors. After this, change started to happen. As consciousness was raised, the litter reduced.
Because isn’t the whole thing about consciousness anyway? If we cut down on plastic because it is part of a national campaign and has added personal incentives thrown in, are we really understanding the problem and trying to address it? Being charged for plastic shopping bags or receiving a discount if we bring our own coffee cups into cafes, while tangible, will only go so far if a wasteful approach to life persists.
It is all too easy to become preoccupied with the material manifestation of waste, and forget the human attitudes and behaviour that cause it. Yes, we need to clean up our oceans and streets; there is no denying that the situation has become grave. But alongside this is a very pressing need to re-examine our selves - our lifestyles and habits - in order to really make a difference. It is we human beings that need to change, if we are to see change around us.
When we are wasteful, we use something of value in a careless or purposeless way - including things like our time, energy and abilities. Not just plastic. While it’s true that we create mountains of rubbish and dead zones on our precious planet, we also throw away vast amounts of human potential every day too, resulting in a sort of parallel pollution of the individual and society. How tragic it is to see the talents and exuberance of children ‘wasted’ because there is such an emphasis on entertainment and passive consumerism today. How much youthful altruism is ‘wasted’ because it is instead channeled into self-gratification. And how much regret and frustration the average adult feels because he has apparently ‘wasted’ significant chunks of his life.
Waste, of course, can be a subjective term when it comes to human endeavour: a child playing freely, a young woman on a yoga retreat, an elderly man reading books all day - their value can all be interpreted differently. But I think each and every one of us knows deep within when we are wasting time, and when we are doing something valuable with it. And it is this inner compass of ours, this understanding of the value of things that - if acted upon - will ultimately change the way we live. Plastic is just the tip of the iceberg - the easy thing to see - but fixating on it without acknowledging what lies beneath is actually distracting us from addressing the real (behavioural) causes of waste.