Banning the bag – a discussion with Greenpeace

I was contacted by Greenpeace earlier this week. I’d signed a petition to ban plastic bags, and I think they figured I might be willing to donate and support them financially.

I wasn’t willing to do that, as I focus my financial support in another direction (KidsCan NZ), but I did have an interesting discussion with the Greenpeace representative about plastic waste and the problems it presents for our environment.

The Greenpeace ‘ban the bag’ campaign. A great idea – plastic bags are a huge problem. But Greenpeace is offering no ideas of what to replace bags with!

‘Single use’ bags are really dual-purpose bags

The argument you’ll hear against banning bags in New Zealand is that people re-use them for their rubbish bins, and this is true. Again and again I hear, If we ban the bags, people will just have to buy them instead. ‘Glad’ and other plastic bag makers will be thrilled. Their profits will soar. And ordinary folk will have yet another item they have to buy which once was free.

There are a lot of poor people in this country. The last thing they need is to pay for rubbish bags. I’m a keen environmentalist but I also feel strongly for families struggling to make ends meet.

I asked the Greenpeace Rep on the other end of the phone what suggestions she had for people to use for their rubbish instead of the single use shopping bags. She had none. None at all!

In my view this is pretty pathetic – if you’re going to ask people to change, you MUST offer an option for them to change to. People do love the environment and want to help, but they hate feeling like it’s a choice between feeding their kids and being ‘green’.

It shouldn’t ever be a choice! We should all be able to support our planet and do the right thing – and we should all be able to save money in the process. Being green shouldn’t only be an option for rich people. It should be for everyone.

    ‘Being green shouldn’t just be an option for rich people. It should be achievable for everyone.’

I pointed out that we can’t just put our rubbish in the bin without bagging it. It’ll fly all over the street and make a mess. She agreed. We also can’t go ‘zero waste’ – we’re a family with four kids in a country town on a budget and the plain fact is, we use products that have packaging.

While it’s a good thing to lobby companies to use less packaging and to choose items with less packaging, change will take time in that direction and in the meanwhile, families will continue to produce plastic waste that needs bagging.

So yes, I support Greenpeace’s ban on single-use bags, but realistically I don’t think it will happen. If Greenpeace is not offering any alternative solutions, the problem of plastic bags won’t be solved by their ban even if it works – it’ll just be transferred. Instead of free plastic bag waste we’ll have bought plastic bag waste instead. We might have fewer, but the problem will remain.

I don’t have answers beyond what we already do. We have chickens to use our food waste – and they do this brilliantly. We compost everything the chooks won’t eat. We recycle everything we can. We buy bulk when we can to cut packaging further. We burn most of our cardboard and paper waste in the fireplace for extra heat in winter. So most of the unsorted waste that goes to landfill is plastic.

We have chickens which take care of almost all of our food waste. We compost the rest of our rubbish, recycle or burn it, so virtually the only rubbish going to landfill these days is plastic.

It’s clear to me that society is improving. We’re getting better. But we have a long way to go. And one thing is clear – you can’t successfully ban plastic bags without having a genuine alternative for all people, wealthy and poor, to switch to.

Rethinking sustainability…leaving the farm

Early this year, I sold a small organic farm on the outskirts of our city, and moved back into the suburbs.

Our farmhouse in the morning. It was idyllic, beautiful…and not sustainable.

I didn’t really have a choice, to be honest. I was divorcing, and the place needed to be sold for financial reasons anyway.

But prior to that, being on the farm for nearly a decade had made me rethink what sustainability means, and how we can move forward in a world that seems intent on, well, not moving forward much at all.

Petrol…the fly in the ointment

We were extremely car-dependent at the farm. There was no public transport. The nearest supermarket, bank, school – all of it was a drive away. There were no buses or trains. This was a huge hurdle to sustainability.

I was routinely spending $100 a week on petrol, and my partner was spending the same. Getting around drained our energy, our time, and our finances.

It was lovely living on the farm and having heaps of space – and animals! – but there was a lot of work behind the scenes that I didn’t expect and that cost a lot as well.

Did I make a mistake moving to a farm? No. But I don’t think that type of lifestyle is the way forward for humanity, as a whole.

It’s appealing, and it stirs in us a vision of an idyllic past, but it’s not practical for a sustainable future.

The present…around the corner to everything

When my new partner and I bought a home this year for our four kids (two of his, two of mine), we bought a very, very walkable home.

Our new house and garden from the rear. It’s in a lovely sunny spot, central and walkable to everything.

The bank is a two minute walk around the corner. There’s a park just across the road. The supermarket is five minutes’ walk, with shops and cafes and restaurants in-between.

Our Walkscore at our new home is 74. That translates as “Very Walkable. Most errands can be accomplished on foot.”

Our new home is very walkable, with a great “walkscore”. See https://www.walkscore.com/ to find your own walkscore!

By comparison, our Walkscore at the farm was 0. “Car-Dependent. Almost all errands require a car.”

The difference is striking. Our kids walk to school, unless the weather is bad. My partner can walk to work – and does. I can walk into the city, or a bus runs right past our door every few minutes.

Most days I don’t use the car much, if at all.

I’d been wondering how I’d possibly be able to stay at the farm should I ever stop driving. Living here, that’s never an issue, because I simply don’t need to be able to drive.

What does sustainable really mean?

There’s no point in running an organic farm if you’re using three tanks of petrol every week to get anywhere.

You’re trashing the planet, no matter how organic your veggies are!

By comparison, the suburbs can be more sustainable if you live with a large group of people together, share your energy costs, walk for a lot of your journeys, and the journeys you do need a car for are short.

Plus, from a purely financial point of view, I’m not spending massive amounts of money on petrol every month. I don’t particular want to make oil companies richer. Does anyone?

Of course there’s more to being sustainable than petrol and cars. Suburban chickens, worm farms, backyard fruit trees, and an unpackaged, locally-produced diet can all play a part.

home made chicken tractor

Suburban chickens can play a role in sustainability.

So can handing-down clothes, buying locally-manufactured clothing or secondhand, using a capsule wardrobe, and limiting imports.

A capsule wardrobe can be a part of modern sustainability.

Finally, reducing family size through access to contraception, ease of access to abortion, education, and solid welfare support all play a role, as can voting on environmental lines and social welfare concerns.

Moving forwards to a new sustainability

I’m not sure what genuine sustainability will look like in the future. But, looking back, I know what it isn’t.

I know we need to reduce car usage, and we need to make our cities more walkable, and lobby to make public transport better and easier to use.

Perhaps we need to open our minds to new ideas, and discard old dreams that don’t fit with a modern reality.

My farm was lovely, and it was organic but sustainable?

No. I can’t say that.

However, I hope our new home in the suburbs might be…one day.

Our Lilliput Library!

We’ve been moved in a few weeks now.

The boxes are (almost!) gone from the hallway, the kids (all four of them!) are settled in, and things are looking sorted. So on the weekend it was time to put up our own new Lilliput Library.

Here it is, looking lovely at our front gate:

Lilliput Libraries are a community project, started in Dunedin by Ruth Arnison a few years ago. Our own library is No 109, so there are a fair number around Dunedin now! You can view their locations around Dunedin on Google Maps.

The project has a WordPress blog, also run by Ruth. The Libraries also have a Facebook page and an Instagram page, with some lovely images of the various libraries around Dunedin. Take a look. Some of the artwork is absolutely beautiful.

Here are a couple of my favourites:

This is my friend Lhizz Browne’s Lilliput Library.

Lhizz’s Lilliput Library is up and running at 186 Pine Hill, so drop by and grab or add a book to this lovely library.

The library below has Diane Smith as its Guardian. She commisioned artist Jack Pillans to paint her fence to match, and the result is stunning. You can view the Lilliput Library – and the fence artwork – at 71 Newington Avenue:

Diane Smith’s beautiful Lilliput Library and fence artwork by local artist Jack Pillans.

Sharing books is a wonderful thing to do!

Lilliput Libraries are based on the concept of book sharing:

Take a book now…
Return or donate a book later.

Whenever you see a Lilliput Library, feel free to open the door and have a browse. Choose a book you’d like to read. You can keep the book for a while, or forever – Lilliput Libraries are cost-free, and there’s no membership required.

Then, if you are able, share a book back to any Lilliput Library when you can.

It’s that simple!

Becoming a Lilliput Library “Guardian

If you’d like to become a “Guardian” of a Lilliput Library in Dunedin, contact Ruth Arnison via the Lilliput Libraries blog. She’s a lovely lady and is incredibly helpful.

If you’re an artist or have carpentry skills, or can donate paint or woodworking products and you would like to support the Lilliput Libraries project, please also contact Ruth.

If you live in another city and would like to start up your own Lilliput Libraries scheme or build your own independent Lilliput Library, I can’t think of a lovelier way to encourage community and reading!