I go shopping with reusable bags. My toothbrush is made from bamboo. I haven’t used a take-away cup in over a year.
Wherever I go, I always try to be more sustainable and eco-friendly. Yet, as I look around my room, my rubbish bin is heaped with plastic packaging. I’m trying to help the environment; why am I failing?
As a university student, my budget is limited to the weekly $240 Studylink payout. After rent and transport, I’m dealing with pennies to feed myself each week. It’s important to find discounted food and cheap deals, but those always come with the steep price of being wrapped in a plastic bag. Every time I find a bargain, I touch the disposable wrapping and think of how I’ve killed another polar bear.
Our place of study isn’t much better. Sure, the University of Auckland has won the Times Higher Education sustainability ranking charts two years running, but what about the stores it contains? I took a wander around Munchie Mart. Aside from some fruit, croissants, and a chocolate eclair, every single thing in the store was wrapped in some sort of single-use packaging. Our favourite convenient option for lunch is also one that’s full of plastic.
I try to be good. But remembering bags, and Keep Cups, and utensils, and organising pre-made food … I can’t be alone in thinking that this is all such a headache.
We hear suggestions for how to cut down on our carbon footprint all the time. Take the bus, or walk where you can. Try to buy unwrapped produce, and bring your own reusable bags. It’s time to save the world. Think of the turtles! Think of the microplastics that clog our oceans and will outweigh fish by 2050! In reality, all of these individual sustainability suggestions are too time intensive for the average student. When I have three impending essays and two tests in five days, I simply don’t have the time to take two busses to an out-of-the-way shop so I can refill my shampoo.
But maybe, all of this plastic usage isn’t entirely our fault.
Studies show that 71% of our planet’s annual carbon emissions are produced by just 100 companies. Almost 50% of lifestyle emissions are produced by the wealthiest 10% of the population. As broke university students, our contribution is pitifully nominal.
And then, there are the products we actually buy. Rather than telling us to agonise over whether to break the budget or hurt the environment, why don’t companies just not use plastic in the first place?
We’re always told that it’s up to us to be more environmentally friendly, but maybe the suppliers of our basic needs should take responsibility for their wasteful habits.
A popular phrase is that there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism. To this, I add: there’s no sustainable consumption under capitalism. Sustainability is not economically friendly. There’s a reason your devices all break down in a couple of years. If you buy something that lasts forever, you’ll never make the company more money by buying another. Cheap products, disposable products, add up to big profits just as they add up in our landfill. As long as companies have access to cheap plastics and no incentive to change their habits, they won’t.
Our plastic problem shouldn’t be put on the consumer. Corporations and governments are refusing to care about the environment, and it’s our generation who will be footing the bill in a few decades.
Luckily, we have a chance to make big changes by each contributing a small amount of effort. Donate to organisations that are taking action to help the environment. Contact your local MP about prioritising climate change. Sign petitions. Join protests. The louder we speak, the more they might listen.
Grassroots change and bamboo brushes can only take us so far. If the world has a fighting chance, we need to get change at the highest levels of society. Until then, we as individuals cannot be sustainable.
Oxfam. (2015, December 21). World’s richest 10% produce half of carbon emissions while poorest 3.5 billion account for just a tenth [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/worlds-richest-10-produce-half-carbon-emissions-while-poorest-35-billion-account
Riley, T. (2017, July 10). Just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions, study says. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/10/100-fossil-fuel-companies-investors-responsible-71-global-emissions-cdp-study-climate-change
Ref: Oxfam. (2015, December 21). World’s richest 10% produce half of carbon emissions while poorest 3.5 billion account for just a tenth [Press release].