Plastic fantastic (2) – We have to think bigger. A provocation.

“It doesn’t make any difference” – I hear this sentence often when I talk about plastic avoidance in everyday life. While I used to argue that everything we do helps, I’ve changed my mind. I meet so many people who care about the smallest crumb of microplastic. At the same time, decisions are still being made elsewhere that outweigh million-fold these tedious plastic savings. That is why this text has now become a provocation: We have to stop mixing creams and to start thinking bigger. We have to become more aggressive, pool our energy, take action where greater benefits can be expected. Because we are running out of time.

I want to share an observation with you:

A user recently wrote in a plastic forum that she is trying very hard to avoid microplastics. Her husband then read up on the topic, calculated that microplastics only make up two percent of the plastic waste and stated: What she is doing is of no use. The user was then disappointed and asked the forum whether it really was pointless what she was doing.

What answer did the user get? All respondents agreed that every little bit helps. The user received tips on how she could still convince her husband and how other users had managed to convince their husbands. And everyone found two percent quite a decent figure. Half a year ago, I would have agreed with these users.

Not today. Today I think we should listen better to the user’s husband. What he meant was to not stop at mere plastic avoidance. Instead, it is important to make good use of our limited energy.

I have made the following observations since I started dealing with plastic waste and plastic avoidance:

  • There are a large number of people who do not care about this topic. However, nowadays there are now also an increasing number of people who put a lot of time, research and resources into their efforts to reduce their plastic consumption.
  • These people perfect their consumption and end up doing a lot of things themselves because they cannot find perfect solutions in retail and, what’s more, they often have a guilty conscience.
  • Most of these people focus their efforts on their own household.
  • Hardly any of these people are also involved on a different or higher level.
  • Most of these people are women.

This whole plastic-avoidance and zero-waste gig is a pretty feminine affair. 90 percent of the members in the forums are women. We strive, get bogged down, go into the minutest detail and want to be perfect. The forums abound with instructions on how to sew soap bags to make use of the very last crumb of soap and the like. Men are different. Men don’t bother with such small things. Men think bigger, for men it is about whether something pays off, whether it is practical or whether it is effective. Women are concerned with whether they feel good or bad about their actions.

Where am I going with this?

I think that, because it is mainly women who are involved with zero-waste efforts, this movement continues to remain so small and so poorly focussed on our (time) efforts reaping a large-scale effect and paying out.

And now I’m going to play devil’s advocate and ask the heretical question: Is all this time that goes into all these sewing shops and postings well-invested?

I don’t want to talk anyone out of her or his commitment. I just want to give food for thought.

Here is another example: I think that the people who take part in these zero-waste and anti-plastic blogs are all pursuing the same goal, namely to create a world with less plastic. These people commendably start with themselves and put a lot of effort into it. At the same time, however, the city of Munich is considering covering all of its school sports grounds with artificial turf, because it lasts longer, requires less maintenance etc. Artificial turf pitches have become the second largest producer of microplastic in Germany. All of the meticulous efforts of the zero-waste volunteers in our country probably save just as much microplastic as just one such sports field produces in a year. And at the same time, all the people who don’t care about the topic continue to consume unchecked.

This results in the following situation:

With the highly perfected view of your own household, there will never be a greater effect than achieved from your own actions. However, all the energy invested remains constrained within its own limited sphere of activity.

And that is neither efficient nor effective.

We are talking about the correct consumption of resources. Anyone who is involved with zero-waste activities would like to use fewer resources. But at the same time, they waste their own resources like a heated tent in winter.

At one of my plastic lectures, a man said to me that he found all my commitment very commendable. But he also asked whether all my energy could not be better used elsewhere. I could have been offended. But the man had a point.

It lead me to think: None of us have a lot of spare much time. Everyone has enough to do. But we all want to do something about plastic. So why don’t we use what little time we have so that it achieves significantly more? Why are we thinking in terms of soap bags and not about holding large corporations, that produce millions of disposable bottles a week, accountable for their actions? Why don’t we develop a concept for something bigger when we mix a hand cream ourselves? Why do we not gather together to express our outrage at the doors of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, why do we not coordinate to make our orchestrated demand heard, our demand that we finally no longer want microplastic products? Why don’t we insist that we have the right to healthy products that don’t unduly burden our world? Why don’t we demand that we must be able to carry out plastic-free shopping without sacrificing hours of our lives every week? And now I’m getting to the core of the issue: Why do we compensate for the inaction of politicians and manufacturers by crocheting our products ourselves, brewing our own soap, mixing up cleaning agents and much more? That is not our job! But precisely this is a typically female act: We feel responsible for compensating for deficits in our environment. This is what we always do.

Oh yes, that is a genuine provocation, I know.

What I want to achieve with this provocation is this: Take a bird’s-eye view of your path. Consider. What can you do that does not cost you more time and energy than what you are doing now, but which brings greater effect? Together with whom? Where can you call, ask, suggest something? Something that will affect more people, will cast a wider net?

I do not want to discourage anyone in their efforts. I myself am journeying on my own path. I only noticed plastic waste in Svalbard at first. Then I started picking it up. Then reported on it, wrote about it. This was followed by the project with the Alfred Wegener Institute, with which we scientifically quantify waste. And now I’m giving lectures all over the country about plastic waste. I’m doing what I can.

But sometimes it is good to look at the map from above and not just at the path in front of you. And I realize now it’s time for another step. Reporting and talking about it will soon no longer be enough for me.

What will be my next step?

What will be your next step?

We are many and we all want the same thing – we can change things if we stop muddling about in our own little worlds.

Stop thinking in terms of soap bags! Our world is big and we have to think bigger!