Merren Tait, is simply incredible. She went a year without plastic and afterwards a few of my friends told me I should interview her, so I did. By the end of my interview with her I had already fallen in love with her mind. She is simply brilliant and sees the world in a way most people never will. It’s obvious to me how intelligent she is and how well thought out all of her actions are. That is greatly admirable to me. Dedication like she’s shown changes you forever, and I can certainly relate to her experience, especially from Off the Grid Across the USA. This interview with Merren is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to reduce their impact on the environment and live a life full of happiness, health, and freedom.
Robin: What’s the deal with plastic? Why should anyone avoid using it?
Merren: The key thing about plastic is that it doesn’t biodegrade. It will break down, but it will never completely dissipate which means it’s incredibly harmful to the environment as it performs as a toxin, leaching into soil and waterways. This means that every piece of plastic ever produced still exists in some form in the world. Considering that we’re collectively producing over 225 million tons of plastic per year, there’s a frightening amount of plastic pollution happening.
Robin: Many of my friends are gung-ho about recycling but they don’t understand how resource intensive recycling is. They think they are doing a great thing for the environment when they recycle. What would you say to someone who thinks this?
Merren: Recycling is a poor answer. It could be likened to an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, but it barely performs as a stretcher as plastic can only be reproduced into lesser quality products. The shelf life of recycled plastic is unfortunately very finite, and don’t forget that by buying any kind of plastic (recyclable or not) we are indirectly supporting the petro-chemical industry, of which plastic is a by-product.
Robin: Could you explain why reduce comes before reuse and recycle in the 3 R’s?
Merren: Recycled plastic has a fairly large environmental footprint. Most of the Western world’s recyclable plastic is shipped offshore, mostly to China, and even then not all that plastic is destined to be recycled. If there is no market for a new product, the plastic is put into landfills. Reuse is not a great answer if you value your health. Plastic leaches toxins, and this is accelerated once the integrity of the plastic is compromised (which reuse will do). A lot of plastic reuse occurs around food consumption; reusing grocery bags, snap lock bags, plastic food containers designed for single use like take away containers, so the potential to affect your health through plastic reuse is very real.
So there are several key issues associated with ‘reuse’ and ‘recycle’ and ultimately by choosing to simply reduce your purchase of plastic, you are not supporting an industry that is incredibly harmful.
Robin: Tell me a little bit about how you got here. When did you start to care about how your life impacted the earth and why?
Merren: While I’ve always valued the environment, it’s only been in the last few years that I have become really conscious of how wasteful the modern, Western lifestyle I have been brought up in is. When I moved away from the bustle of the city to a slow-paced small town with a green ethos, I guess I had the time to reflect on my behavior as a consumer, and I was encouraged by the shared values others around me had. I initially sought to make Raglan a plastic-bag free town, but when businesses showed absolutely no support I thought there might be another way to encourage local consumers to change their behavior, something that would have a greater impact on throwaway plastic use. Plastic Free July was a wonderful answer.
Robin: Could you please explain the premise of your year without plastic?
Merren: I happened on a trailer for a documentary about the tragic effect plastic pollution has on an albatross colony. It was called, Midway: Message from the Gyre and it was profoundly affecting. I wanted to find out what people were doing in order to curb plastic pollution and my Google search threw up an initiative called Plastic Free July in which participants pledge to avoid using single use plastic for all or part of the month of July. I thought it would be a challenge that people in my community would be receptive to, but thought I needed to do something a little dramatic to promote it and give it a high profile. So I decided to challenge myself to not buy any plastic (not just the single use stuff) for a whole year. It worked; Plastic Free July has just had its second successful year in my hometown.
Robin: Compare the first day and the first month of your year without plastic to the last month. Did it get easier?
Merren: I was pretty well prepared. It was not something I felt I could walk into cold turkey, so I spent a lot of time researching alternatives before I began. I thought my discoveries could assist others so set up a blog that runs more like a plastic-free website for anyone wanting to reduce their plastic use; I actually think my year got harder towards the end as all the things I couldn’t purchase before started to become a temptation.
Robin: Was there anything you had to go without that you could not find a plastic free alternative for?
Merren: Wine. That was hard. All wine in New Zealand comes with screw caps. Under the lid, the seal is made from polystyrene. I really love a glass of wine with dinner, but I guess in the scheme of things it’s not much of a hardship to do without.
Robin: What was your social life like during your year without plastic?
Merren: Yes it certainly presented some difficulties. Thankfully people were supportive, so the difficulties were practicalities as opposed to conflicting ideologies. My friends were good about taking away any plastic they bought into my house with them, and understood that I was very restricted with my choice of food and beverage when I was hosting or asked to contribute to meals etc. Being plastic free made hosting unexpected guests challenging. The majority of my food had to be fresh, and I simply didn’t have snack or quick and easy food available to prepare.
Robin: What were the hardest items to find a plastic free alternative for?
Merren: Some medicinal items and anything to do with the health of my cat. If you look closely at the landfill I accumulated during my year you will see blister packs and specialty cat food for my hypo-allergenic cat. I had decided at the outset that health would be an exception to the rules I set myself, but I tried my best to avoid plastic packaged health products anyway. I found most alternative medicines have plastic somewhere in the packaging too.
Robin: What are you going to use now that you had to give up during the year without plastic?
Merren: Dental floss. I will continue with most of my plastic-free habits, but I really value my teeth.
Robin: If you were the minister of plastic what would you change worldwide?
Merren: That’s easy. Ban the production of single use plastic would be foremost, starting with plastic bags. Second on the list would be to prohibit plastics that are proven to be detrimental to health like ones containing PBA.
Robin: What is more evil- conventionally grown unpackaged tomatoes or plastic packaged organically grown tomatoes?
Merren: That is a tricky one. I have no faith in plastic (especially soft varieties) in terms of the toxins that they could leach into food; plastic is not inert and is linked to cancer and infertility among other health issues. And of course then there are waste issues. It is very difficult to say yes to plastic over a non-packaged product.
Robin: What are the 5 most important steps that we can all take to live a life with less plastic?
1. Be prepared to be inconvenienced. Plastic exists to make our lives easier, so if you want to really make a change you will have to allow things to be a little harder sometimes. This might mean leaving your full shopping trolley in the store and returning to your car because you left your reusable bags in the boot. It also means planning ahead. It can be difficult to grocery shop off the cuff if you don’t have bags with you or if you are in a rush and don’t have the luxury of time to make considered choices.
2. Ask your grandma: the best way to think around plastic problems is to remember there was a time before plastic. Plastic has only been in common usage since the late 1970s so talk to someone who’s a generation or two older than you and find out what they used.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask. As consumers, we have a lot of power because the bottom line is that producers want your money. I did a lot of asking in terms of plastic packaging being removed, or avoided altogether, or alternatives to plastic being sought, and never once got a no. The more we demand change, the more likely change will happen.
4. Make some essential purchases to implement small change: a reusable coffee cup, a reusable water bottle, reusable shopping bags.
5. Find a food store that has bulk food. You will be able to fill your own bags and avoid the plastic packaging that can’t be recycled.
Robin: Besides plastic, what are the five most important steps we can all take to live a more earth friendly.
1. Be resourceful: can you fix it? Can you make or adapt something that will fulfill the same function? Can you borrow it? Do you really need it? It’s easy to fall in the capitalist trap of buying something we think we need because it’s the easiest thing to do.
2. Take the time to enjoy the place where you live: if we value and appreciate our environment (whether it be the city or wilder, greener places) we will treat it with more respect.
3. Use your democratic rights to affect change: be very considered when you vote in local and national elections. Do your research and find out who has the best environmental policies.
4. It’s not easy being green: we would all love to live the most efficiently that we can, but the reality is that our modern lifestyle, infrastructure, financial constraints, time constraints etc, mean it’s not that simple for many of us. So focus on making small changes at a time and celebrate the little stuff.
5. Lead by example: never think that your small action won’t have any impact. What you do will have an effect on those around you, and the cumulative effect on the environment will be so wonderfully valuable.
Robin: What were the greatest lessons or take-aways you got from your year without plastic?
Merren: That there are an incredible amount of people that want the same thing as me; a world without unnecessary plastic. It has been very motivating and also reassuring that we are moving in the right direction. In the time that I have been plastic-free, a healthy number of local governments have moved to ban plastic bags, including a city where materialism and consumerism are upheld; LA. How inspiring!