Together for tomorrow


Sarah Farrell: How plastic-free living led me to grassroots activism

by | Jul 3, 2019

Five years ago when I first realised how complicit I am in contemporary throw-away culture,  I started my sustainable living journey, trying to eliminate plastic, and other waste, from my life. I dedicated my Instagram to this. The more I learned, the more I felt I still had to learn and this journey made me feel better about life. I was doing my bit and believed that if we all did the same, we’d be okay, right?

At the same time, I was trying my best (as a white middle-class South African) to learn about social justice issues. Combining the journeys made me aware that striving for modern “sustainable living” is irrelevant, unless we achieve institutional change and social transformation for sustainability to be achieved for all.

I started a petition to have single-use plastics banned in South Africa in July 2018. A year later and to my surprise, it has over 60 000 signatures. At the same time I was employed to assist Fossil Free South Africa with their #divestnow campaign. The campaign profiles people calling for the divestment of dirty fuels – coal, oil and gas. It gives voice to the people directly affected by the many injustices of the extractive fossil fuel industry.

I gained insights and information about the devastating science behind the climate crisis, and the ethical and social implications of whom this affects most. Then the IPCC Special Report was published. It is a clarion call from some of the world’s leading climate scientists: we have 11 years to avoid runaway climate chaos. My obsession shifted from plastic to climate justice.

I signed up for every reputable newsletter on climate change I could find. I learned that just 100 companies account for more than 70% of global emissions. I read about environmental racism and the connection between colonisation, capitalism and the climate crisis. I started to understand that conversations about sustainability and the climate must address inequality, social injustice and economic transformation.

I became involved in protest action calling for government to act on climate. I helped launch the African Climate Alliance to promote non-violent direct action as a mechanism to resist injustices. But what about plastic?

I read how the anti-plastic movement could, in isolation, be a “dangerous distraction from climate change.” Compared to the climate chaos we face, it is a less urgent issue.

But hold on. Aren’t the plastic crisis and the climate crisis heavily intertwined?

Plastics have carbon-intense life cycles, most plastic resins are derived from crude oil, which requires extraction and refining. Products are transported. All of these processes emit greenhouse gases. To avoid climate catastrophe, we need to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. That means we need to stop the consumption and production of plastic too.

Besides the more obvious environmental consequences, plastic has terrible social consequences. It not only causes illness, it also pollutes communities that do not have waste disposal mechanisms in place.  Don’t forget the shocking truth that rich countries ship their waste to poorer countries to take it off their hands.

Feeling helpless and confused, my mental health declined and it became hard for me to maintain my zero waste lifestyle, climate justice activism and taking care of myself. I lost faith in my potential to create change.  On the upside, I felt less guilty about buying plastic, blamed myself less, and blamed the system more. Giving up on feeling eco-shame, has been a positive experience. But now it’s time to restore my faith in individual actions. Jane Goodall says, “I like to envision the whole world as a jigsaw puzzle … If you look at the whole picture, it is overwhelming and terrifying, but if you work on your little part of the jigsaw and know that people all over the world are working on their little bits, that’s what will give you hope.”

I am no longer under the illusion that our individual actions will achieve radical, transformative and institutional change. But individual actions do matter – especially if we pair them with other forms of activism.

So, this plastic free July, I’ll be reconnecting with the power in my ability (and privilege) to make small changes such as refusing plastic. I’ll remind myself of how powerful collective action can be and that all the issues we tackle are inter-connected. I can’t give up when so little time is left to transform our world into one which we can all call home and thrive.

Please sign the petition here.

Image: Will Cornfield/Unsplash

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