From modest beginnings in Perth in 2011, Plastic-Free July is back with #ChooseToRefuse and #PlasticFreeJuly challenges. Last year over 2 million people from 177 countries participated (14,000 people in 69 countries in 2016) to raise awareness of the plastic waste problem and nudge behaviour change.
The challenge is to give up single-use plastic for July, or at least pledge to cut out the main polluters – plastic straws, plastic bags, coffee cups, take-away utensils. This can dramatically change your understanding of how much waste is built into our lives. And, recycling – far from being the answer – is a moral hazard.
Since China’s refusal to take the first world’s “recycling” refuse last year, Malaysia’s environment minister Yeo Bee Yin is sending back to Australia, the US, the UK and Canada 3,000 tonnes of non-recyclable waste diverted there. President Duterte has also threatened to forcibly ship 69 containers back to Canada if Canada does not arrange to take back the poor-quality plastic.
By not building into the production and consumption process the systems needed to deal with the waste that are a necessary part of extractive and growth economies, developed countries have been caught with their pants down pooping on developing nations that gladly charge meagre amounts to allow developed nations to export their inability to plan for a wasteful existence.
Developed countries’ approach has been one of take-make-use-dispose; companies extract raw materials, transform these into products using inputs like labour and energy, transport them to customers who use them and throw them away, creating increasing volumes of near-permanent waste of little ongoing value or utility. Waste in this non-circular system is a built-in design fault that continues to grow alongside Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
This is a linear system in a finite world. Although over the last 200 years the global population has increased six times with dire rhetoric that the earth cannot sustain such growth, in fact, productivity increased 700 times over that period. Many will argue that we can continue to increase productivity and provide for an ever-increasing economy and population while decreasing the waste and destruction of the environment that sustains us.
However, our current approaches to growth, together with the mathematics of compounding interest, are clearly resulting in natural limits being reached that even the least observant of us cannot fail to notice: climate change, discernible marine garbage, declining fish stocks, loss of habitats and bio-diversity, and the air pollutants that stop us exercising outdoors and put our frail citizens on respirators.
The inability of developed nations to manage the recycling crisis, among other failures, cannot be overcome quickly enough even with our existing technological brilliance and wealth. These are signs that we have reached limits – not just limits in the earth’s capacity to transform our waste into resources, but limits of reductionist scientific thinking, limits of vision imposed by never daring to criticize the ideology of growth and profitability believed to be the ultimate good under all conditions.
The foundations of our consumptive (double entendre intended) way of being requires rethinking. Plenty of clever people are reimagining what the future might hold for citizens, communities and the land we live on to deliver both human and ecological abundance: New Zealand presented its 2019 Wellbeing Budget last month which looks beyond GDP to quality of life and the environment, and together with Scotland and Iceland, is a founding member of the Wellbeing Economy Governments initiative; Costa Rica hit the top of the Happy Planet index in 2009 and 2012 by investing in communities, the environment and preventative medicine.
Social movements and a democratic groundswell are visible – large and small: The Food Movement, Veganism, Macau’s own No-Plastic-Please, along with Plastic-Free July…. Participate in any of them, see life differently, and become part of a vision for something better.