Sunday, 29 April 2012

A Plastic State of Mind

This is post number 100 - woo hoo! So I thought I'd bring you the fantastic Plastic State of Mind video by Ben Zolno. A take-off of Empire State of Mind (by Jay-Z and Alicia Keyes), it's been around for about a year, and I've seen it on a couple of other blogs, but the more people who see it - and enjoy it and, hopefully, are inspired by it - the better.

Plastic State of Mind - OFFICIAL from Ben Zolno on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

A Manifesto (of sorts)

I wanted to update this blog today, but I’ve been struggling to decide what to write about. Should I talk about the oil that goes into manufacturing plastics? Or one of the many impacts of plastic pollution, maybe one that isn’t so often broadcast on the news or the internet? Should I talk about what the word ‘plastic’ means, or has come to mean? Or what about the ironic stupidity of our culture in making something that is designed to last forever, but made for the express purpose of throwing it away after one use?

The Plastic Diaries
For any readers who are new to this blog, perhaps I should tell you that it started because I was worried about plastic, the fact that it’s everywhere, the fact that while many of us know that plastic pollution is a problem, very few people do (or try to do) anything about it. Plastic, and all the hazards associated with it, has, for the most part, become an accepted part of life. Yeah, we’re destroying the oceans, but it’s not like we can do anything about it, really, is there? Not unless I want to give up all my home comforts, sacrifice modern living. When I say plastic is everywhere, I mean it: look around the room you are sitting in right now. What can you see that contains plastic or is made of plastic? Or, let’s flip this question around, what can you see that is not plastic, or did not come wrapped in some form of plastic packaging? Because, actually, that’s probably an easier question for you to answer.

One day, I sat down, and that’s what I did: looked around the room, looked in my bag. Sitting in my little bedroom, tucked away in the south of Cornwall, typing this, without even getting up from my chair, I see: my computer, my lamp, my tv, my digibox, my fairy lights, some dvds, some cds, a biro, my mobile phone. It’s all pretty basic stuff, and I wouldn’t have any of it if there was no plastic. Heck, chances are I probably wouldn’t even be sitting here if there was no plastic, because modern medicine would just not exist. So it’s pretty cool stuff. We can bend and manipulate it into a million different objects, we can make it hard and durable or soft and pliant. Incredible. So, in many ways I love plastic and, oh boy, does it serve its weight in gold at times.

Invisible Costs
But therein lies the problem. Plastic should be worth its weight in gold - at least. But its cheap. The word ‘plastic’ has even become synonymous with the word ‘cheap’. Alongside its infinite adaptability, this is one of the reasons, I think, that it’s the most widely used material in the world.

But there’s a whole lot more to plastic than these two things. Wrapped up inside that pretty little package is a bunch of stuff that we don’t see: the chemical poisons that constitute part of its make-up, the environmental consequences of its disposal, the environmental consequences of the sheer volume of plastic that we dispose of on a daily basis; the resources, oil and water and energy, that go into its manufacture just for us to discard them a day, a week, a month later. None of this is taken into account in the monetary value we put on plastic. If it was, most of us wouldn’t be able to afford it, not in daily terms, not for just that sweet or chocolate wrapping. And if it was, the plastic companies wouldn’t be able to exert such control over our consumption the way they do today - because if it cost us in monetary terms what we give up to be able to hold it in our hands, we wouldn’t be buying it and using it so regardlessly.

This is a theory that is being used by a lot of environmentalists today: that we should be paying for more than just the materials we hold in our hands, that we should also be paying for the consequences that result from the manufacture and use of that material.

I had dinner with some friends the other night. K & D are quite the average family. One young child, both of them working full time, and they bought their first home about a year ago. They were earning £19 or £20k a year, each, but have just had their salaries knocked back to about £16k due to an enforced contract change by the company they work for, so money and the ability to pay their mortgage is on their minds.

“Do you ever shop in Aldi?’ K asked me. Truthfully, no.

“Only £1.50,” she says, pointing to something on the counter. “Half what we’d pay for a brand.” She goes on to regale me with all the other bargains she’s found, and the fact that they’re just as good as what she was buying before. I’ve no doubt they taste just as good, but I can’t help thinking about what those cheaper prices mean.

“And yesterday I got a bag of potatoes for just 63p,” she finishes. My first thought is for the farmer. I’m sure it must have cost him a lot more than 63p to grow those potatoes. And if he did manage to do it that cheaply, what chemicals did he have to spray over the crops and the earth to do so? And what will those chemicals do his fields, to the water table?

Thinking about plastic and thinking about me
I started this blog because I wanted to think more about plastic, because I wanted to think more about what plastic meant to me, and because I wanted to document my attempts at giving up plastic. Have I achieved any of these things? Yes, and no, is the answer I think I’d have to give. I reduced my plastic intake quite a lot, and I’m proud of what I achieved. But I don’t seem to have had much of an affect on the people around me. Some of the struggles I had with plastic and my now ex-boyfriend, Bron, are well documented within this blog. And now that I’m back at my parents house, I seem to be having even less of an affect. Have I stopped trying? Should I be trying harder? Should I be stronger-willed? I certainly still care, and being around my colleagues from Hevva Hevva / Shortcourse has been inspiring, to see what they are achieving.

Plastic is still a problem. And its an international one. In some ways it’s more talked about today than it was when I first started The Plastic Diaries three years ago - there are even a few books about it now - but in some ways its less talked about too. Its an accepted problem, like climate change, that we know is out there, but as a society we don’t have enough immediate jeopardy to inspire us to act, or, at least, not to act ‘big’ enough. Why are western countries - the ones who are the biggest consumers of plastic - the ones who are doing the least about controlling it? Why do Ireland, Wales, India, have plastic bag bans or taxes, but England doesn’t? If we can’t even get that right, what hope do we have of achieving anything else? What is it going to take to inspire change?

Sunday, 8 April 2012

The Accidental Seafarer

This week I've been reading Donovan Hohn's Moby-Duck: The true story of 28,800 bath toys lost at sea. From the shores of Alaska to Hong Kong and Korea; from debris trawling with Captain Moore off the coast of Hawaii to Greenland and a scientific excursion through the Arctic ice-floes, it's the story of Hohn’s search for the lost cargo of the Ever Laurel: a crate of plastic bath toys that went overboard in stormy seas, spilling out across the Pacific Ocean and hitching a ride on its currents around the world.

Marine debris and the plastic wasteland
The subjects that Hohn covers during his adventure are as diverse as his travels: flotsametrics and ocean currents, Chinese factories churning out the everyday items lining our high streets, disasters that befall cargo ships as they transport these goods across the globe from their birthplace, and of our attachment to the iconic image of a yellow rubber duckie. But also, of course, the overriding subject cannot fail to be that of marine debris and, inevitably, plastic.

"The tide of plastic isn't rising only on Alaska's uninhabited shores," Hohn writes (pg. 90). "In 2004, oceanographers from the British Antarctic Survey completed a study of plastic dispersal in the Atlantic Ocean, north and south. "Remote oceanic islands," their survey showed, "may have similar levels of debris to those adjacent to heavily industrialised coasts." Even on Spitzbergen Island, in the Arctic, the survey found on average one plastic item every five metres. Farther south, in the mid-Atlantic and the Caribbean, at the edge of the Sargasso Sea, they found five times as much - one plastic object every metre."

The Guerrilla Seafarer
It's a great book - thoughtful, informative and entertaining. The especial beauty of it, I think, is that it is in no way preachy. It is not an exhortation for the world to mend it's ways, because that is not what Hohn, ostensibly, set out to achieve - he set out to find one of the plastic ducks set adrift by a shipping accident years before, and the facts about plastic, climate change, ocean currents and our commercial mores are just the things that he learned along the way. The beauty is that he slips this information into the reader's mind in-between other tales. It is thoughtful, clever writing. Guerrilla writing.

It is not, perhaps, a perfect story. What about the debris campaigner who, while refusing to buy bottled water, instead stacks his boat with bottled pepsi and cola? Hohn himself points out some hypocritical aspects of the people he meets and the ways they choose to champion their causes, but somehow manages to remain fairly non-judgemental. It does leave me wondering, though, what his own opinions truly are? Did he really just want to find a plastic duck? And what did he, personally, take away from his experiences? An incentive to change his lifestyle and to question the capitalist focuses of modern western society?

Perhaps he has: "Never mind that only five per cent of plastics actually end up getting recycled," he writes (pg. 189). "Never mind that the plastics industry stamps those little triangles of chasing arrows into plastics for which no viable recycling method exists. Never mind that plastics consume about 400 million tons of oil and gas every year and that oil and gas will in the not too distant future run out. Never mind that so-called green plastics made of biochemicals release greenhouse gases when they break down. What's most nefarious about plastic, however, is the way it invites fantasy, the way it pretends to deny the laws of matter, as if something - anything - could be made from nothing; the way it is intended to be thrown away but chemically engineered to last. By offering the false promise of disposability, of consumption without cost, it has helped create a culture of wasteful make-believe, an economy of forgetting."

As for me, it reminds me that I can do whatever I set my mind to. If a thirty-something teacher from Manhattan can talk himself into Captain Moore's orchard, or onto an ice-breaker travelling the Northwest Passage, then why can't I? At first I thought perhaps Moby-Duck was going to be one man’s attempt to escape impending fatherhood, but it turned out to be a bit of an adventure. Ultimately, I hope it gets a few more people thinking about how lifestyle impacts the planet.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

A Backyard Odyssey

(Here is the piece of writing I wrote in response to the Shortcourse/UK expeditions for the Hevva! Hevva! exhibition at The Eden Project)

A drop of sweat runs down my cheek. I track its progress, the cool trail formed as it winds down my neck. I resist the urge to swipe it away. I am surrounded by strangers, exposed, but the black dark protects me. I sweat and yet I feel clean.

I am not an artist. I am barely even a writer. I am here because in my heart I am a scientist, an environmentalist. ‘Here’ is a sweat lodge. ‘Here’ is expedition one, SHORTCOURSE/UK Cornwall. A collaboration of Cape Farewell, University College Falmouth, the Eden Project. A collaboration of artists and scientists, of environmental thinkers. ‘Here’ is the beginning of a journey.

Journey: a process of travelling from one place to another. A voyage, an expedition, an odyssey.
SHORTCOURSE/UK was designed around three small expeditions, three backyard odysseys, but my journey has turned out to be much longer and more fulfilling than I could ever have predicted. More than the physical act of moving through time and space. Even this piece of writing is a part of it. I came hoping to meet other scientists, like-minded thinkers, but I was skeptical: What does art have to do with science, with climate change? And what are artists likely to teach me?

The environment ⎯ the state of the environment and humanity’s relationship to it ⎯ is often a controversial subject, especially when people choose not to listen, or worse, choose to listen to those with the wrong information. The only controversy over climate change is that created by the media, propagated by a very small number of individuals with loud voices. Climate change is real; it is here and now; we have the data to prove it.

But it’s not only climate change that concerns the environmentalist. There’s a bigger picture: our relationship with the world around us, the things we choose to do in our daily lives and how this impacts the environment we live in, both locally and globally. Climate change is just one side effect ⎯ there are also piles of waste, pollution of air, earth and water, destruction of the landscape and of habitats big and small. But the biggest part of the picture is, perhaps, the disconnection from our local environment. Do we hear the birdsong? Do we see the insects roaming beneath our feet, the whales in the ocean? Do we associate our daily actions ⎯ the food we eat ⎯ with the soil and the rivers? Do we remember the stories of where we came from?

How can we remind people of these things? How do we make them see? How do I remind myself?

Exiting the sweat lodge, I am transported from the spiritual to the material; from the crackling of hot stones, tears, and the warm smell of sage to pens, paper, and laughter. Expedition one is a journey of contrasts. We walk through land reclaimed from industrial scarring, along paths both well-trodden and of our own making. I see areas bordered off and inimitable acts of nature breaking through what humans have attempted to corral. I see nineteen other students, still strangers to me, each looking at and interpreting their surroundings in unique ways.

Expedition two takes me back to my roots in the most literal sense: a trek around The Lizard Peninsula, land of my childhood home, a place familiar and comfortable. And then expedition three, the contrast, a giant leap outside my comfort zone, from land to water, to rocky island outcrops; to a tent, a freezing one this time, alone in the dark, almost physically homesick I’m so full of nerves. But: great things happen outside the comfort zone. The immersion technique. I lie and listen to the waves that slosh a hundred feet from this green piece of canvas, and wake to new friendships. To new connections, new creative thinking and new creative practice.

Until SHORTCOURSE/UK, I had forgotten that science is inherently beautiful, inherently creative and artistic ⎯ the mapping of veins in a leaf, the to-and-fro flow of ocean currents, the intricate dance of DNA’s double helix. Images of these natural art forms hang on walls in museums. Science is, essentially, observation of nature, and since the beginning of this human need to explain the world, scientists have drawn their observations, representing their thoughts and findings on paper. Think of Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical sketches; think of Robert Hooke drawing the tiniest details of a flea as he looks through his microscope. But these images are not just observation; they are proclaiming the beauty of what they observe, they are announcing it to the world: look here, this is what I see. Now I can put my skepticism in a bottle and throw it out to sea, for this is how art and climate change can work together for me.

Ultimately, SHORTCOURSE/UK has introduced me to the connections around me, reminded me how to see those things, things I hadn’t seen since my halcyon childhood days. In the sweat lodge, feeling the earth and grass under my toes, I am transported to a different place, a different world, a different mindset. I am asked ⎯ and ask ⎯ the question: On a journey, do you look where you’re going, do you look behind you, or do you simply look around you?

I learn that journeys can be continuous, constant and everlasting, as well as small, local, and focused on the detail. I am introduced to ‘Wabi sabi’, the Japanese world view that nothing is finished, perfect or permanent, that the journey itself is the value. And this is what encapsulates my personal SHORTCOURSE/UK experience: a set of small journeys that began in my backyard but have the potential to be everlasting, that have changed my worldview, that have shown me how to make the invisible visible.