Penguins, Paua and Plastic – New Zealand’s Plastic Problem

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One of the bags of plastic rubbish that we filled on the wild, windswept beach on Mana Island.  Collectively our plastic consumption is a huge problem that needs urgent action.

I don’t know about you but I am on a journey to a more sustainable and plastic free future.  Encouraged by my kids I started to look around me and I was dismayed at the plastic I found.  We are hearing much more about the problem of plastic these days.  People are talking about banning plastic carry bags, cafes are opting for biodegradable coffee cups, the Queen has decided to ban plastic drinking straws on her estates.  We hear regularly about the effects of plastic in the ocean, and we keep hearing about the great plastic island floating in the Pacific. Children are learning about it at school through things like Enviro Schools, and parents are encouraged to pack plastic free/packaging free lunchboxes. At the same time we (as a country) are grappling with how to recycle the plastic we consume – particularly now that China has decided not to continue taking all our recycling.

We kiwi’s get through a lot of plastic each year.  Take single use plastic carry bags as an example. Did you know that it is estimated that we get through a staggering 1.29 billion single use plastic bags every year?  New World and Countdown have both announced that they are going plastic bag free.  Pak’n Save already charges for bags.  Our local New World has started stocking reusable produce bags recently.  But this is really only the very beginning, because plastic is everywhere.  Supermarket bags are only the tip of the iceberg.

When I say plastic is everywhere, I mean everywhere.  When I started this journey to reduce my plastic consumption over a year ago, I knew there was a lot of plastic coming into our house each time I went grocery shopping, but I underestimated just how hard it would be to avoid it, even for a short time.  I challenge you to take a minute next time you are in the supermarket and wander up and down the aisles looking for things that are completely plastic free.  It’s hard, even things where plastic packaging is completely unjustified are swathed in it.  The cucumbers are in plastic wrap.  Lettuces and spring onions come in plastic bags.  At the bulk bins there are plastic zip-lock bags.    We put our produce into single use plastic produce bags.  Even glass jars with metal lids are likely to contain a plastic lid lining or seal of some kind.  Tins are often lined with plastic.  Toothpaste may come in a cardboard box, but it is still in a plastic tube with a plastic lid.  Many cardboard packets contain hidden plastic trays or bags.  The list just goes on and on. Fruit comes in plastic bags or hard plastic punnets.  I emailed Yummy to ask if the stickers on their fruit are biodegradable. They replied that they are not.

Actually the plastic problem affects much more than the supermarket bought items coming into you home.  Clothing is also often made from synthetic fabrics that lose plastic microfibers into our rivers and oceans every time you wash them.   Oceanic plastic pollution is beginning to affect the food chain too.  Many of the fish we eat have consumed plastic. It affects fish in New Zealand waters. Studies have even found it in dried fish.   Alarmingly, zooplankton have been filmed eating plastic micro fibers.  Next time you look at your plastic dish brush and decide it is looking worse for wear with broken bristles.  Have you ever thought where the fragments of those broken plastic bristles have gone?  The answer is straight down the drain and anything fine enough to pass the treatment plant, goes straight into our waterways and ultimately the ocean.   Try a plastic free alternative next time you replace your dish brush.

Often plastic is used for no obvious reason, for example, the other day I purchased some free range chicken at my local New World.  It came in a plastic tray, and was covered with plastic cling film.  Air tight and water tight, there was no chance of stray meat juice escaping from this packaging.  When I got it home I was frustrated to discover that once the cling film was removed there was another heat sealed plastic film covering the tray.  It was perfectly intact, airtight and leak proof.  Why two layers of plastic?  Here’s another example.    Earlier this year I bought a pack of two erasers. They came on a cardboard backing enclosed in plastic like batteries do.  Inside were two individually plastic-wrapped erasers.  I have no clue why erasers have to be double packed in two separate plastic layers.  Perhaps it should also have come with a plastic sticker on the package saying “sealed for your protection”!  Things like this (and non-biodegradable stickers of fruit) make me really angry.  We just don’t need this kind of plastic packaging, but it is very hard to avoid.   I don’t think many people are thinking about the sea or the food chain when they become unwitting consumers of plastic as they feed their families. For most people the plastic problem is out of sight – out of mind. Some times you need a jolt to bring you up short and help you to face reality.  For us that jolt was Mana Island.

Last month we were privileged to be able to take our two youngest children on a Kiwi Conservation Club trip to Mana Island.  This science reserve is not open to the public, you have to be a volunteer or work on the Island to visit.  It was a really wonderful trip.  There were about 17 enthusiastic kids and about 15 parents all heading out on the boat to learn and contribute our time and energy.  Our work for the morning was a beach clean-up.  Looking at the beach when we arrived I saw lots of paua shells, sea weed, driftwood, and the grey rounded beach stones and sand that you expect on beaches around Wellington.  I didn’t see any obvious sign of litter or plastic.  It just looked like a wild, windswept, empty, clean beach – but I wasn’t looking closely.  We walked back to the ranger station with DOC Rangers Otis and Caitlin who pointed out penguin tunnels and tracks criss-crossing the vegetation.  Then the group was divided into older and younger kids and the older kids went off to track down takahe inland with the Rangers.

The younger kids broke into two groups with two huge sacks each.  One group headed south, and our group headed north.  I was a bit skeptical about how much we would find on that beach, since it seemed pretty pristine when we arrived.  I wondered how long it would take the children to tire of this activity and start to complain.  Picking things up is not usually an activity that kids are enthusiastic about.  Ask any teacher or parent, and they will tell you that picking up anything causes all kinds of reasons why they shouldn’t have to do it!

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Our group beginning the beach clean-up.

But these kids embraced this beach cleaning activity with enthusiasm and gusto.  The parents were just as keen.   We all wandered along the beach eyes down scanning the stones and paua shells for signs of plastic.  It took a few minutes for me to spot my first piece of plastic – a yogurt pottle caught under a bit of driftwood.  It was white and I almost mistook it for a sun-bleached shell.  Then, suddenly everyone seemed to be finding things.  The kids made friends while they searched, imaginatively using sticks as ‘plastic detectors’. The sacks rapidly filled with a huge assortment of plastic.  Chocolate bar wrappers, old shoes, a dolls leg, fishing line, sunglasses, plastic rope, water bottles, pump bottle lids, milk bottle lids, soft drink bottles, water bottles, ice-cream containers, margarine containers, meat trays, cigarette lighters, felt pens, plant pots, straws, McDonalds ice-cream sundae cups, single use takeaway sauce containers, cable ties, plastic farm animals, plastic strapping, bubble wrap, cling film, a toothpaste tube, fragments of plastic so brittle it broke apart in your fingers, and so many yogurt pots I lost count.  We found a huge piece of plastic about a meter across that was branded with the name Talley’s.  This long list is only a fraction of what we found.  Nameless bits of plastic that couldn’t be identified were everywhere.  This plastic litter was concealed between beach stones, under driftwood, and caught under low beach scrub where the wind and waves had tossed it.  Those penguin tracks we saw when we arrived often contained windblown plastic flotsam and jetsam.  I have never been so ashamed of my plastic consumption as I was on that beach.  After just one hour we had filled our sacks full to the brim with plastic.  If it is hard for us (who know what plastic is) to spot plastic on what seems to be an ordinary beach, how can we expect birds and fish to avoid it?

It was an eye opener.  My kids enjoyed every minute of it.  It felt good to be picking it up, like we were undoing just a little bit of the damage we have caused with our plastic consumption. My bird crazy 7 year old said wistfully that she wished we could have walked around the whole Island and “cleaned all of the beach”, not just a little section. My 5 year old son insists that we pick up the plastic he sees on the way home from school each day.  In a 15 minute walk from my house to the school I can easily pick up a supermarket bag of plastic rubbish.  I do this regularly.  On Mana Island the rubbish floated there, but around our towns it gets there because people drop it, sometimes within sight of a rubbish bin.

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The final rubbish collection. Far more than I dreamed we would find.  If we can collect this on a small section of beach in a little over an hour, imagine how big the plastic problem really is.

I am so frustrated by needless plastic packaging. I have very little say over whether I get it or not, most of the time it is close to impossible to find an alternative in the mainstream shops.  I’m also frustrated by how hard it is to find plastic-free alternatives to things like toothbrushes when I’m in the supermarket.

We have to do something!  We have to do it fast too.  Our clothes, our shoes, our food, our kids toys, our bags, our dish brushes, our straws, actually our whole lives are now enveloped in plastic.  But you can make changes.  Repair, reuse, reduce, recycle.  Say no to plastic.  If every one of you who read this blog contacted a company who is using needless single use plastic and let them know you aren’t happy, or contacted a company to ask if they have considered an alternative to plastic packaging, then together we could let these companies know that we want change.  They won’t change unless you and I – the customers – demand it. Every action (no matter how small) has real power to effect change.   Look for alternatives, let companies know you want change, and for the sake of our environment, pick up any plastic you see, before it ends up on a beach like the one on Mana Island.

 

SUST Blog – What is ethical?

What do I class as ethical and why? Put simply, being “ethical” is all about not sawing off the branch you are standing on.  For me sustainable is ethical because it is important to protect and safe guard our future.  If something is unsustainable then it cannot continue endlessly.  Many of our planets resources are finite.  Once they are gone they are gone.  They can’t be utilised again. Likewise, reducing plastic consumption is ethical because the damage from plastic waste (in our oceans for example) is obvious.  It is frightening to realise that the plastic bottle top in the gutter will outlast you, by a long way.  The single use plastic we throw away each day will outlast all of us.  It will still be here in our grandchildren and great-grandchildren’s lives.  That plastic bottle top might not be visible in ten years but it will still be there, floating out at sea, in a landfill, or as microscopic bits in the soil.

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We are educating our kids from preschool to secondary school to care for the environment and the people we share the planet with.  Are we walking the same walk?

To our knowledge this planet is the only place in the universe that has both the ability to sustain life, and life itself.  That makes both us and our planet unique.  I believe that “ethical” is a choice that looks to the future, of our human civilisation, our planet, and the life that inhabits it.   These things are what we will pass on to our children.  Our children are educated at school about climate change and environmental awareness. They are encouraged to be planetary and global citizens who care about the world and all those in it.  The disjunct between what we teach our kids and practice ourselves is huge.  The dis-junction is even greater when you compare what our kids are learning and what the government is doing.  If we wait for someone else to take the initiative, then we will be waiting a long time.  If we want to see a positive change then we need to take individual action.

Socially responsible options are ethical (such as fair trade).  That should be obvious, but for many people it isn’t top of their minds when they shop.  Choosing products where human beings and the environment have been protected from exploitation makes sense for everyone.  Why would you choose exploitation over freedom?  The same goes for animal friendly products.  Exploited animals can’t exactly mount their own protest.  They rely on us to make ethical choices wherever we possibly can in order to protect them.

How to make an ethical choice?  Well it turns out that isn’t as simple as I thought.  Having said that, the good news is there is lots of advice out there and a lot of it is common sense! On this blog journey I hope to unravel some of the complexities I’ve run into and make it easier to make truly ethical choices.  I plan to share what I learn with you.  In the meantime here are some things to bear in mind.

  1. Do your own research. If you want to know if something is ethical, research it.  If you can’t find anything out then ask them. Look into the main trusted eco-labels or certifications in New Zealand (and globally) eg Fairtrade.
  2. Always look for concrete claims that actually mean something, for example “made from 100% recycled plastic” actually tells you something about what the company is doing and how it is sourcing materials. Even if the claim seems meaningful, look for a certification to back up their claims. A claim that says “100% recyclable” won’t tell you much about what the company is doing, whether it is ethically disposed of comes down to the consumer not the company.
  3. Beware of irrelevant or vague claims that mean nothing. For example “eco-friendly”, “natural”, “good for the planet” “chemical free”.  An example of irrelevant labeling is a pack of toilet paper that is labelled biodegradable!  Words like “degradable” can also be suspect.   After all most things are degradable even plastic, it just takes geological time periods to do it, and the by-products of degradation may be toxic.  Be cautious of terms like “organic” unless it is certified as organic by an independent organisation e.g. GOTS.
  4. Beware of “greenwash” or “ethical-wash”.  Greenwash is the practice of making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product, service or technology in order to present an environmentally friendly and responsible image to the public.  The same approach can be used to promote a false image of a product or company in terms of human rights and ethical working conditions. For example some companies claim their products are ethically sourced but provide no certification or proof of this.  Alternatively, they provide a whole line up of certifications no one has ever heard of.  Another trick is to market a product based upon its plant based ingredients while the fine print lists a long line of artificial ingredients with no sourcing data.
  5. As a consumer you need to feel confident about your rights. You can and should make complaints about companies you think are being deceptive. Did you know that anyone can make a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority in NZ and those companies then have to substantiate their claims?  The Commerce Commission, which administers the Fair Trading Act, can prosecute companies it believes have a false or misleading claim. The commission has investigated companies about their green marketing and has taken cases to the courts.

At the end of the day I thought this blog post about ethical choices would be empowering.  I guess it has been, but mostly it has felt overwhelming.  You can find a product that is plastic free and compostable.   But that same product is more than likely made in a factory in Asia with no ethical certification to indicate a concrete commitment to social responsibility.

You can find a range of products that are certified for various things, but not all certifications are equal.  It feels extremely daunting trying to wade through the various certification schemes to find the best ones.  After all, I am just an ordinary average person trying to get a handle on all this for the first time myself.   Most disturbing for me is how hard it is to get real information about human rights practices from some companies.  They will attempt to brush aside my concerns with vague assurances that the working conditions meet their own personal moral standards.  How on earth to judge when presented with this state of affairs?  I am beginning to see that perhaps individuals asking questions directly, and being prepared to shift their purchasing to more ethical companies is the only way to make a lasting impact.

For me, I am committed to reducing plastic and choosing socially and environmentally responsible products wherever I can.  And I am committed to making my spending choices known by personally contacting companies.  I am committed to trying to make sure that the person sewing my clothes, printing my books and making my food has the same rights and opportunities that I do.  If our positions were reversed, I would hope for someone to do the same for me.

 

SUST Blog #1 – Beginnings

Hi!  My name is Katie, and this is my first ever blog post.  It is both exciting and daunting.  I am a Kiwi, born and bred here in the land of the long white cloud.  I am a Mum to three amazing human beings.  The SUST blog is a way for me to try and make a positive change in this world of ours.

How did I get interested in this ethical eco plastic free stuff?  Why does it gnaw away at me?  Why do I feel unable to walk past that piece of plastic blowing along the street?  Why do I feel distressed in the supermarket when I look at the bright colourful aisles where practically every item is wrapped in plastic?  When I am shopping for clothing how can I avoid clothing that is not ethically made?  These questions eat away at me.

This journey started for me when my children began to take notice of the world around them.  Naturally it started at ground level. Most parents will be familiar with this stage.  It is the stage when every pebble, stick, flower, leaf, feather, and acorn must be picked up and taken home.  Everywhere we walked we accumulated these natural treasures.  But also they noticed every plastic bottle lid, empty takeaway box, coke can, and broken pen as well. I would explain that some things were treasures and some things were rubbish. As they got a little older, they wanted to put the rubbish where it belonged (in the rubbish bin) and asked why other people didn’t put their own rubbish in the bin.  Every parent understands how conversations with kids in the “why?” phase can tangle your brain in logic knots (even those without children have heard about it).  I struggled to explain so they understood.  They insisted we had to do something about it ourselves.  And they were right.  We do have to do something about it ourselves.  Single use, throw away plastic is something we all have a responsibility to do something about.

My children were the reason my eyes were opened.  They changed the way I viewed the world.  They changed it permanently.

I decided to try becoming a more ethical house for the season of lent.  I resolved (prompted by my children’s desire for urgent action) to make more ethical shopping choices and try doing without plastic packaging for a month.  I had a few reusable shopping bags that I already used at Pack N Save. I knew it would be hard, but I had no idea just how hard it would be.

On the first day of being an ethical and more plastic free house, I rocked up to our local New World with my reusable shopping bag.  Just a quick trip to get a few things for the kid’s lunches and the evening meal.  I stood in that shop and my eyes were opened even further.  There were virtually no Fair Trade options for the things on my shopping list.  I had forgotten about the produce bags for fruit and vegetables. Then I began looking at the plastic.  Just about everything I wanted to buy was either plastic or wrapped in it!

With a rising sense of desperation, I purchased fruit and vegetables loose, without any bags.  I chose a couple of Fair Trade items. I got bread in a paper bag from the in-store bakery.  I chose glass bottles of pasta sauce.  I got pretzel’s, almonds and raisin’s from the bulk bin and put them in paper bags from the bakery section.  Then I was stuck, and reluctantly I put a few ordinary items in my basket.  At the checkout I nearly forgot my reusable shopping bag but remembered at the last minute.  Afterwards I went home and struggled with my conscience.

I had never in my wildest dreams imagined how challenging it would be to become less dependent on packaging.  I was shocked to see for the first time how few alternatives there are to plastic products.  I was deeply troubled to see how few items are branded Fair Trade.  I began to think about the future my children would be inheriting.

My 7 year old daughter is in love with birds.  She is particularly smitten with New Zealand’s unique and wonderful birds.  Her favourite is the Kaka.  She begged for a stoat trap for her 6th birthday to protect a breeding colony of Kaka in the Coromandel and was thrilled to be sent a photo of the first flat stoat that it caught.  She is bothered by the sea birds that die each day with tummies full of plastic instead of fish. She wants to save them all.  I want to help her.

I have been keen to support Fair Trade products for a long time. But when my 14 year old daughter volunteered to help find an ethical brand to go in our church newsletter each week, I began to realise that there are choices out there.  It’s just so hard to find them in the Mall or at the supermarket.

My 4 year old son asked me to put a rubbish bag in my handbag.   He wants to be able to pick up the rubbish left to blow in the streets at eye level for little people like him, walking home from kindy.  So far I’ve kept forgetting….. but tonight I put a plastic supermarket bag from our dwindling supply in my handbag.

SUST is designed to help us all to change the way we do things by making choices easy.  My goal is to try and help people to move toward the goal of leaving a feather light footprint on this planet and our society.  This blog is a way for me to try and make a difference, not for me but for my children, and my children’s children.  I want them to know I cared.  This blog is a journey, and I don’t know where it will take me.  This is the beginning…….  Watch this space.

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