Plastic Matters in Sydney
Plastic is ‘highly visible’ in food packaging, plastic carry bags at the check-out and the many applications of plastic in the food and beverage service. Due to these consumer experiences, plastic is often linked with notions of disposability, convenience, and low financial cost. Our interactions with them are for short periods of time, and often taken for granted. Similarly, since plastic has found its place in every-day consumer products, and the banal and mundane functions of daily life, plastic often fades into the background, ‘invisible’ until attention is brought to it.
Commonly, we understand the things we buy, use or get given as ‘objects’. Dichter points out that the objects we own reveal a great deal about ourselves, and that studying objects is a useful way to find out about people and gain insight into, as he puts it, “the soul of man” (Dichter 2004: 91). Traditionally, the study of material culture has focused on ‘objects’ and their relationship with humanity. However in this case, my interest lies not the object itself, but the material it is made of – plastic. Having a design background, I became interested in the impact that this material has on the culture of Sydney.
Bottles and Health
Bundanoon is a country town, southwest of Sydney, and in July of 2009, the town was the first in Australia (possibly the world) to ban the sale of pre-packaged, bottled water. Wingecarribee Shire Council installed several public water fountains, and the town’s retailers removed bottled water from their shelves. This response was sparked by commercial interest to extract spring water within the Bundanoon precinct (Roderick, 26 September, 2009). The townspeople found the idea of an international company taking their water, processing it on a separate site, and then selling it back to them in their local shops ridiculous. Local businessman, Huw Kingston is quoted in Southern Highland News: “If we were saying we were against water extraction, the logical step is to say no to the end product” (Murray, 9 July 2009). Huw led the petition against Norlex and the ban of bottled water in the township. Since 2009, several schools and universities across Australia, which are small towns in themselves, have adopted similar bans in a stance against the environmental impacts of bottled water (list of schools and universities are on www.gotap.com.au).
In 2008, research into use of public water fountains was commissioned by Do Something, a not-for-profit organisation that works to create positive social and environmental change. The study found that 85% of Australians do not trust the water that comes out of old-fashioned water fountains (Manly council website). Concern over water quality and cleanliness has led to a reduction in the use of public water fountains. As a result, water fountains have disappeared from public precincts over the years. Do Something’s study also linked these statistics to the increase in Australia’s use of bottled water. In conjunction with Do Something, the Manly council chose to take a stand against bottled water. Manly council has installed over twenty public water stations along Manly Beach and surrounds, to encourage a culture of re-filling and re-use. I have personally re-filled my drink bottle in Manly, and appreciate the convenience.
The Manly water fountain initiative was trialled with six water stations, before installing more, upon its popularity and success. Manly Water estimates that from August of 2008, when the stations were installed, and the time of review, May of 2009 the six water fountains prevented the purchase of 150,000 litres of bottled water. This potentially translates into a quarter of a million plastic water bottles removed from the waste stream. The council also reports that there is a 15-29% decrease in volume of garbage collected in the area where the water fountains are, presumably due to the drop in the consumption of plastic bottles (Manly council website).
Four years ago, I started carrying around my own refillable drink bottle. I still have the same one. I bought it because I had joined the gym, and it became a necessity. The gym has conveniently placed water stations throughout, and the idea is that you can take a sip there, or fill up your bottle and go about your work-out. Of course, the gym also sells bottled water at the front reception, but who would spend $3, when you could get chilled, filtered water for free? I also received a free drink bottle with their ‘welcome pack,’ but I couldn’t use it. I didn’t like the ‘plastic’ smell. And I wanted to avoid the ‘plastic’ taste that I had experienced in the past. In the interim, I maintained the option of refilling one of those disposable spring water bottles, which I had saved several weeks before. However, I was hesitant to continue with this practice as I had heard you shouldn’t re-use them – that chemicals in the bottle can leach into the water, which obviously would be bad for you.
Whilst checking into the gym a couple of weeks into my membership, there was a new line of drink bottles on display. I was attracted to the shiny silver one – not plastic! (Well the lid is plastic, but the body is metal.) It was only $5, so the smart thing to do was to commit. I had to commit to a new way of life. I started bringing my bottle with me wherever I went, not just to the gym. I fill it at home before a day of shopping and hope that I find a place to re-fill — which is often hard. Some takeaway places like McDonald’s and most coffee shops don’t mind filling your bottle as long as you’re paying for something else. I have my bottle on me in class; I use it throughout the day at work. And I even use it whilst I’m at home.
Both Manly and Bundanoon highlight the environmental debates prevalent in our society today. We are challenged to reduce our environmental impact by changing our consumption habits and in particular, by cutting out plastic. Plastic is a very large part of our material reality, yet we often do not give it a second thought. Plastics are currently used in the value chains for a majority of manufactured products in the world. They have been on the forefront of product innovation and development for more than 150 years. Plastic has found its place in nearly every sphere, field and profession. Our modern technological and social ‘advancements’ would not be as they are, without the help of plastics. Plastics have helped fade class distinctions and raise living standards. Ironically, plastic was first sought out as an ‘environmentally friendly’ solution, it stopped the slaughter of elephants for ivory, it increases manufacturing efficiency, and reduces costs. However in our minds, these positives are outweighed by the negative environmental and health impacts of plastic we have heard about in the media.
Like many of the people I’ve interviewed, I don’t actually think about plastic all that much. Yet on the occasion I do, my thoughts are both negative and positive. Plastic bags, bottles, disposable plates and spoons come to mind… The hundreds of Lego blocks my brothers and I would build up and break down, as children. I am reminded of plastic Coke can rings strangling albatross, penguins and sea turtles. I laugh about the huge collection of plastic bags my mother stores in the garage, which I’m sure dates back to a time even before I was born. And as I have grown up and matured in a world with plastic, I honestly can’t imagine a world without it. I could really identify with Susan Freinkel’s book, Plastic, A Toxic Love Story (2011, Pg 2):
It wasn’t clear to me just how plastic my world had become until I decided to go an entire day without plastic. The absurdity of this experiment became apparent about ten seconds into the appointed morning when I shuffled bleary-eyed into the bathroom: the toilet seat was plastic. I quickly reversed my plan. I would spend the day writing everything I touched that was plastic… Within forty-five minutes I had filled an entire page… I’d never thought of myself as having a particularly plastic-filled life. I live in a house that’s nearly a hundred years old. I like natural fabrics, old furniture, food cooked from scratch. I would have said my home harbours less plastic than the average American’s – mainly for aesthetic reasons, not political ones. Was I kidding myself?
I too have furnished my home and bought my appliances seeking to create a look and feel, in which I generally avoid plastic. However, I can say that it is hard to avoid plastic completely, many objects disguise their use of plastic very well and in some instances I actually prefer the plastic option. When I made the commitment to my re-usable drink bottle, I was definitely aware of the positive environmental impact I was making by consuming fewer plastic bottles, however it was not the only factor in my decision making process. I weighed up usability, practicality, cost and aesthetics. I also asked myself if I could do it – was I able to make room for remembering, maintaining and re-filling a bottle in my life? Disposable bottled water have become a popular convenience, especially as public water fountains have slowly disappeared. Whether we deliberately avoid or are ignorant to the presence of plastic, plastic has become essential in our day-to-day lives. We have come to rely on this material. It has become so ubiquitous that we are often blinded to its omnipresence in our lives. Yet ironically, on the other hand, plastic is a glaring point of contention in environmental debates about bottled water, plastic bags, and waste management – all of which skew our overall perception of plastic.
My respondents identify the place, look, feel and even a sound of plastic. They recognise that objects have a mix of materials, can distinguish between them, and employ a ‘litmus test’ – flicking and tapping to positively confirm the presence of plastic. We further explored where plastic is accepted and rejected – where, when and why. I found it interesting to discover a link between notions of disposability, convenience, and its impact on other products when presented in plastic. We see that plastic is not acceptable in certain forms. Strong resistance or expressions of distaste is evident when my respondents were offered an engagement ring made of plastic. There is discord between the temporality, convenience, ‘cheap-ness’ and ‘fake-ness’ of plastic, with objects of high value and status. We find a disconnect with the value, wealth, status and purity, required to qualify as a bottle of wine, a car or tea-pot.
Freinkel (2011) claims that plastic is modernity’s partner, with which we have a love–hate relationship. Many of my respondents feel the tension between modern conveniences and the ten minutes it takes to drink a takeaway coffee, and the apparent tens of thousands of years it takes to break down its packaging – making it a mathematical, environmental and moral problem. This tension between convenience and culpability is what Freinkel describes when she says we have a love—hate relationship with plastic. We enjoy the conveniences, the advances in technology and the efficiency that plastic presents, but hate the responsibility and environmental consequences that come along with its use. Plastic has shaped a ‘disposability’ and ‘convenience consumerism,’ which has warped into a ‘hyper-consumption’, an unsustainable practice threatening our planet.
Despite the fact that my respondents are often blinded to the amount of plastic that surrounds them, they are quite aware of the environmental costs of plastic. Though they may not articulate this awareness in extreme consumption and disposal practices, my respondents have expressed a latent concern about the environment and social mores surrounding plastic bags, bottles and plastic’s inability to biodegrade. Plastic has been almost demonised in the media, and by proxy we become bad people by using it. This causes a strong sense of guilt in using plastic. Bundanoon’s ban on bottled water, the ‘green bag’ campaign and Manly’s installation of water stations are examples of plastic being caught up in the greater appeal for humanity to consume resources and energy in a more considerate way. Cutting back on the use of plastic bags and not buying bottled water are just two suggestions to do so. My respondents all espouse the need to recycle and the danger of plastic bags in our waterways, but concede that convenience often weighs heavier in their decision making process.
What I discovered in my ethnographic research is that we desire a discharge of the environmental debt, which we accumulate in the use of plastic. My respondents attempt to discharge this debt by re-purposing plastic bags for the lining of rubbish bins, and re-cycling in specialised collection bins. In spite of these practices, remnants of guilt remain – as if my informants feel that what they are doing is not enough. However, my respondents concede that convenience usually outweighs their social conscience, and choose not to do much more. Mathematically and morally things still may not completely cancel out, but we have yet to find a convenient alternative.
Adler, R & Coster, H, 1956; Plastics in the Service of Man, Pelican Books, Baltimore
Appadurai, A 1986; The Social Life of Things, Cambridge University Press, New York
Australian Government Productivity Commission; Chemicals and Plastics Regulation Research Report, Feb 2008
Belk, R W. 1988; Possessions and the Extended Self. The Journal of Consumer Behavior
Dichter, E 2004; The Strategy of Desire, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick (Originally published in 1960 by Doubleday & Co)
Freinkel, S. 2011; Plastic A Toxic Love Story, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne
Roderick, L, 26 Sept 2009; Bundanoon Gives up Bottled Water, Illawarra Mercury
Murray, R; 9 July 2009, Bundanoon Bans Bottled Water, Southern Highland News
GoTap – Accessed June 2012
Manly City Council – Accessed June 2012