You don’t need to convince me that there is an urgent need to reduce single use plastic. I’m on board. Got my keep cup in my handbag and never leave home without a cloth shopping bag – but I know that there is a lot more that my family can do. We signed up to Plastic Free July with a view to exploring what other things we could start doing differently.
But in the supermarket doing the weekly shop, I started to realise that ditching plastic was going to be a lot of extra work – especially for me.
There is work in going plastic free, and we just have to take it on.
It’s no secret that women play a major role in taking action against climate change. Natalie Isaacs’ One Million Women movement is built on the premise that since women make more household purchasing decisions, we are well placed to wield our spending power and use it to change policies and trends (and save the planet!).
But the less cheery flipside of that is the fact that all these climate-friendly purchasing decisions are part of a pretty major domestic work gender gap. On top of this, there is the very real issue of mental load. Women are already carrying a greater share of family management.
Which brings me back to the mental load of going plastic free, which caught up with me in the snack aisle of my local Woolies. After telling my kids that, no, we couldn’t get a six-pack of pretzels for their lunch boxes (because plastic) I found myself promising to make them some from scratch.
Look, I enjoy baking, so time in the kitchen with a good poddy and cup of tea is time well spent. But at 10pm on a Sunday socking "pretzel sticks" (crafting an actual pretzel shape was a step too far) in boiling water was the actual last thing I felt like doing. Especially after a day schlepping around various shops in order to avoid all the plastic on my shopping list.
I’m sad to admit it, but the plastic wrapped pretzel six-pack started to look pretty appealing.
Convenience gets a bad rap (especially when it comes wrapped in single use plastic) but we have to acknowledge that convenience allows many of us to keep our spinning plates (work, school run, family management, relationships …) in the air. Forgo convenience and suddenly those plates are crashing to the floor.
So where do we go from here? Alex Stewart is founder of the Low Tox Life, a movement for people wanting to make better choices for the planet. She tells me that we need to start by re-defining convenience. “Forget making your own pretzels and make a big saucepan of popcorn,” she says.
“We start to think, 'Wow, I've got to change everything'. And then we tend to be harder and harder on ourselves for not doing everything perfectly. So we create a mental load that doesn't even need to be there,” she adds.
Plastic Free July founder Rebecca Prince-Ruiz echoes this when she says that the mental load of going plastic free isn’t forever. “Initially it does mean more to think about but once it becomes a habit it doesn’t require any thought, it’s just what we do.
“After all, we don’t have to think about remembering our mobile phones – we remember them because there is no other option if we forget, so it’s become a habit,” she tells me.
We can make this process easier on ourselves by introducing new habits slowly. “Don’t try and do everything at once as it’s hard to succeed. Just make one change at a time and then move on to the next thing once it has become a habit,” says Prince-Ruiz.
But we still need to address the fact that a lot of the work involved in making more eco-friendly choices does fall to women. “Women are the change makers, because we all get together and we all watch the movies and join the Facebook groups, and we talk about it at the morning coffee,” says Stewart.
“We have this extra motivation [to make the changes]. But it also gives us the frustration when people around us, often the partner, or the teenagers aren't on board.”
Focus on what you can change and not what you can’t … keep it fun and positive.
So how can we get other family members to share the effort of going plastic free? Stewart says that it’s about education. “You've done all this work to feel super motivated and clear about why the change should happen, but they [your family] haven't done the work to make it big priority in their life yet.”
In practice this means watching documentaries as a family. It means sharing and discussing news articles. It means sitting down as a family and discussing the small changes that can be made immediately and the bigger changes that will involve a little more planning.
Another way to share the load is to make it enjoyable Rebecca Prince-Ruiz says that taking the Plastic Free challenge together, whether it be for a day, a week or a month, can be a positive learning experience. “Focus on what you can change and not what you can’t,” she says. “Take the challenge together, make it fun and keep it positive.”
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