Wriggling free of the wrapping

A lot of plastic is recycled, but even better would be to avoid using it in the first place....
A lot of plastic is recycled, but even better would be to avoid using it in the first place. Plastic Free July provides the opportunity to do so. Photo: supplied.
It's time to unwrap your enthusiasm for taking on that ubiquitous scourge of modern life: plastic, Gina Dempster writes.

Gina Dempster
Gina Dempster

Plastic is an amazing substance and it's hard to imagine a world without it. What did we make things  such as wire insulation, helmets, ski boots or drainage pipes out of before plastic? But plastic is so cheap and ubiquitous that we're trashing the planet with it.

We are addicted to single-use plastic. Companies are wrapping kumara in it, single prunes and apples, things that don't even need to be wrapped because they come in their own natural protection. Yep, we've gone kind of crazy over plastic and our addiction is getting worse.

The Guardian reports that a million plastic bottles are now bought around the world every minute.

In the first  10 years of this century, the world produced more plastic than in the whole of the previous century. You can see the evidence in your supermarket trolley. Last week, I handed over my reusable bags to the packer. Then I unloaded my trolley, which seemed to be full of plastic-wrapped food. Looking at all that pile of plastic didn't make me feel good, but what can you do at 5pm on a busy weekday night with a hungry family on the horizon?

A fabric Plastic Bag Free Wanaka bag, perfect for Plastic Free July.
A fabric Plastic Bag Free Wanaka bag, perfect for Plastic Free July.
Luckily, Plastic Free July starts this week. Plastic Free July is a global movement  that encourages people to do whatever they can to take home less single-use disposable plastic. It makes me apply my brain to the puzzle of how to live without single-use plastic (for a month), and gives me a push to go exploring. Every year I find a new way to cut down on the plastic I use all year round,  whether it's new places to shop, new ways to refill my own packaging or new recipes to make things at home.

But still, there are some foods that I haven't managed to find an easy way of buying without plastic, or alternatively of getting my kids to live without. Which is another reason that Plastic Free July is useful. It gives me a great reason to explain to my kids why some of their reliable (plastic wrapped) food sources, such as cornflakes and rice crackers, have run out this month. Maybe, after a month, they'll discover that they've survived fine without them. Like me, they might even end up with some new habits, and because processed foods are usually plastic wrapped, they'll probably be healthier ones.

Jem Curtis (11), of Wanaka, makes a July pledge to exclude plastic from his lunchbox. Photo:...
Jem Curtis (11), of Wanaka, makes a July pledge to exclude plastic from his lunchbox. Photo: supplied.
But is single-use plastic really that bad? It's the scale that's the real problem. In New Zealand we use 1.6 billion plastic bags every year, on average for just a few minutes. Plastic bags get entangled in bushes, they find their way into waterways where they are eaten or they break down into little polluting pieces. They fly, they float, their very nature makes them invasive. They're like a non-living pest species that lasts for hundreds of years.

We know the downside of plastic bags, but still, we all love a freebie. That's why a small levy would make a big difference. Overseas experience shows that charging your smallest coin will reduce usage by about 90%.  Nearly everyone takes them when they're free but hardly anyone wants to pay for them. A levy doesn't completely solve the problem, but it shrinks it massively.

It's great to see that mayors around the country are taking a personal stand, and are collecting signatures for a letter to central government asking for a levy on plastic bags.  Nearly half the country's mayors have signed the letter, including Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull (who was one of the mayors who launched the letter), Queenstown Lakes District Mayor Jim Boult and Clutha District Mayor Bryan Cadogan. With many countries and towns around the world either banning plastic bags or imposing a levy, it's past time we did something on a national level to reduce those 1.6 billion plastic bags.

Plastic Free July focuses on reduction too,  on an individual level. The waste hierarchy, which sets out the priority order in which to tackle waste, is ''redesign, reduce, reuse, recycle''. It's easy to think that recycling plastic is the answer, but at Wastebusters, we like to say ''if recycling is the answer, we're asking the wrong question''.

That especially applies to recycling plastics; the majority of which are only ''down-cycled'' one time into a different product before they end up in the landfill.  Yes, recycling is still a good thing to do if you have to use plastic packaging, but reduction is much better for the environment. Not using plastic packaging means that you don't have to throw it away, but you also don't have to make it and transport it round the world in the first place, meaning less carbon emissions. A case of double negatives making a positive.

There are as many different ways of tackling Plastic Free July as there are people doing it. You can start by refusing one type of plastic packaging that's been bugging you in your daily life.

Or you can take the Big Four challenge; and give up plastic bags, plastic bottles, straws and take-away cups for the month. They are the most commonly used disposable plastic items, and are easily replaced by taking your own or just saying no.

Or you can go big and try to give up all single-use plastic packaging. Shopping at farmers markets and bulk bin stores, making your own and asking if you can use your own packaging should get you a lot of the way there. It's a very rewarding experience, especially if you don't beat yourself up for failing. Treat the month as a learning curve, not a punishment.

But maybe the best thing about Plastic Free July is that it brings people together. Community groups all over Otago are organising events during July, from movie screenings to beeswax wrap workshops. Make the most of their energy and go along to have fun, meet people and support the work they're doing.

- Gina Dempster is communications officer at Wanaka Wastebusters.

Each week in this column, one of a panel of writers addresses issues of sustainability.




Alexandra: Boomerang Bags & Plastic Free July Central Otago events

• July 3: International Plastic Bag Free Day

1.30pm Boomerang Bag launch at Cooneys with Mayor Tim Cadogan

3.30pm Youth Base making Boomerang Bags session

6pm Sharp Pencils making Boomerang Bags session at Community House

• July 6: Sauerkraut and kombucha workshop, hands-on fermented food and drink workshop with Regina Forstner and Maria Shea

July 7: Boomerang Bags stall at Friday market

Wanaka: Plastic Bag Free Wanaka events

• July 22: Making beeswax wraps workshops at Wanaka Arts Centre, details on Plastic Bag Free Wanaka Facebook page

• August 6: Dilemma Bag pot-luck dinner for Plastic Free July participants at Wanaka Arts Centre, details on Plastic Bag Free Wanaka Facebook page

Queenstown: Sustainable Queenstown events

• July 2: Screening of Thin Ice movie at Sherwood, 5pm.  $5 entry, register at connect@catalystnz.org

• July 28: Women's Summit at Skyline Gondola, 7pm. Tickets $45 from sustainable.queenstown@gmail.com

Dunedin: Bags for Good & Senorita Awesumo events

• July 1 to July 24: Bags for Good logo competition including student category. Details on Bags for Good Facebook page, entries to bagsforgood@gmail.com

Sunday sessions with Senorita Awesumo (ages 10+)

For times and bookings, email senorita.awesumo@gmail.com

• July 2: Make your own set of produce bags ($25)

• July 9 and 16: Make your own set of beeswax wraps ($20/$40)

• July 23: Make your own tote bag and print your own message ($50)

• July 30: Screening of Bag It movie at Dunedin Curtain Bank, 3pm. Koha entry donated to Bags for Good


Plastic Free July tips

Join the single-use Plastic Free July challenge at www.plasticfreejuly.org.

• Start with the easy wins. Take your own or say no to the Big Four (plastic bags, plastic bottles, straws and coffee cups). That will cut out the majority of single-use plastic without too much pain.

• Free yourself from the plastic bag addiction by changing the way you line your rubbish bin. Try not lining it at all (works best if you compost your food waste), or use newspaper. Go to www.wanakawastebusters.co.nz for how to do it.

• Bulk refills mean you can reuse packaging over and over. Look for ecostore refill products, bulk bins and liquid refills such as tamari and apple cider vinegar.

• Cans are plastic too. The inside of most cans is lined with BPA, so if you want to get really serious, you can choose to avoid them too.

• Make your own. Processed food is normally wrapped in plastic, so making your own is a great way to reduce plastic packaging. Our household is going to try making oat milk, crackers and yoghurt during July ... what could you enjoy making that you normally buy in plastic?

Add a Comment

Local journalism matters - now more than ever

As the Covid-19 pandemic brings the world into uncharted waters, Otago Daily Times reporters and photographers continue to bring you the stories that matter. For more than 158 years our journalists have provided readers with local news you can trust. This is more important now than ever.

As advertising drops off during the pandemic, support from our readers is crucial. You can help us continue to bring you news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter