Plastic Free July
When picking up rubbish on the banks of the Yarra, I chat with Michael Guthrie, one of the skippers of the Punt.
I asked him why he had decided to go plastic free in his life – not just in July.
The decision started overseas – literally over the seas.
I ran aground in rubbish and barnacles in the middle of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and San Fran. I went and investigated, thinking the rubbish would part. It didn’t. It might have been a kilometre deep.
The boat just stopped. And it’s a 48 tonne vessel.
When you run aground you start to think.
When I traveled in Vietnam and Cambodia I realised there’s actually no rubbish bins. People just throw it in the river to get rid of it. I was living in the Himalayas and they waited until the monsoonal rain came and they just tipped the rubbish into the creek.
I came back to Australia and realised I’m part of the problem. I want to become part of the solution.
I learned that Australia has 2nd most rubbish per capita – 650kg per year per person of rubbish. America is the highest.
And I thought wow – that’s a lot of rubbish!
The difference between us and places like South East Asian countries is that we have trucks that take it out of our sight so we feel good about that.
How did this go about influencing your behaviour?
I saw that and I felt it was wrong. I got sick of plastics cutting my engines in various boats. They’d get into your water intake and you’d have to shut off your engine to clear the problem.
And then I started researching it a bit more and found out about the chemicals that are in plastic, how it breaks down, and how we get rid of plastic.
I realise we can’t get rid of plastic.
It breaks down to smaller than the eye can see and the plankton eat it. We put it in the rubbish dump but then we have aquifers under the earth which take it eventually to the ocean.
We’re taking chemicals out of plastic and putting them into our food.
It doesn’t make sense to me.
I look at a lot of what you buy in a shop – a lot of it is covered in clingwrap.
Its not on for me any more.
I also want to be healthy and not loaded with chemicals.
I’m walking along this (river) bank and thinking ‘you’ve got to be able to put a value on rubbish especially the plastic.’
And then it dawned on me that we’re taxing the wrong thing. We’re taxing the product and not the packaging.
Why have plastic? Why not find an alternative?
There are things like that clam shell packaging, I just don’t get why we have to have it.
We’re killing where all the rest of us want to live.
That I struggle with – totally.
How did that lead you to modify your own behaviour?
The first thing I did was I made a decision.
What do I actually need in plastic? And the answer came up with nothing. I like to have convenience when I go shopping – more convenient products always seem to come in plastic.
So the first thing I did was to find another way of shopping. There are a few shops that supply food in bulk. I now shop there and take my own jars and containers.
I not only try to go plastic free, I try go packaging free. Why have disposable stuff?Why have single use paper bags?
I’m also living in the world but I’m not contributing to new plastic in my home.
A couple of months ago I realised that I don’t actually need a car and the planet doesn’t need me to need a car, so I sold it.
The definition of need has changed for me.
I went through my thinking processes and came to the conclusion that most people have a default thinking ‘What is the most convenient thing to do right now?’
I came to the conclusion that’s the wrong way of thinking. Now I think:
‘What is the most ecologically sustainable thing I can do’
And that’s my choice.
Thanks Ross. Yes, when we see the consequences of the careless use of plastic in the marine environment, it is strongly motivating to tackle the problem at its source.
Grant Headifen, USCG Master Mariner
We were sailing in the "pristine" waters of Thailand a few months back and we encountered throughout the entire area a matrix of something plastic floating in every direction at 100m intervals. Thailand is such a gorgeous place to visit - encouragement of governments to keep up their tourism $ by keeping their country clean would be a good start and provides proper motivation.
Thanks Grant - you have observed the pervasiveness of plastic in the ocean at first hand. We are challenged by our ideas about 'pristine' when the reality contradict them.
Michael's big view, and his world experiences are impressive. It is alarming to think of rivers and streams of plastics whirling to the sea from all over the world . Great commitment to practical action. I am trying harder for No Plastic July - but let some packaging slip int my supermarket shop yesterday - it's so commonplace you forget to recognise it - then doh! ..... An EPR scheme sounds like the way to go.
Yes, that's why I like the 'no excuse for single use' idea which picks up on straws, plastic plates and cutlery and all the stuff we absolutely don't need. You, who picnic in fine style, know this.
Was lovely to come across this article and read Michael's story. I think you have summed up the situation perfectly with the description that our default thinking is convenience. We need behaviour change as well as legislative change such as EPR's and national container deposit schemes, plastic bag bans etc.
Thanks Rebecca agree we need a range of interventions and approaches - there is no single solution. Refusing single use plastic seems like an easy place to start
Dr Ross Headifen
We need more people like Michael to understand the amount of and the consequences of all this plastic in our lifestyle. We do not need plastic packaging. Our economy was set up 100's of years ago where the cost of a product was the manufacturing and distribution cost plus the profit margin. It was never a thought that we ought to pay for the 'proper' disposal costs of the item too. In the 50s and 60s when we introduced single use plastic packaging we ought to have then and there put on a plastics tax to allow for this waste packaging to be collected and properly disposed of. But we didn't and now any mention of such a Enhanced Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme has politicians quivering their shows and the plastics industry crying foul and paying $millions to fight any such thoughts. But it has to come if we want to make it into the future.