Dealing with the not-so-fantastic plastic

Dealing with the not-so-fantastic plastic


READERS of a certain age will recall Australian Crawl and their hit song “Beautiful People”. For those readers not old enough to remember the Crawl, this was back in the day when vinyl was a necessity, not a hipster accessory, and well before the days of Spotify and Tide and even the concept of streaming. 

It was when bands built a following and sold records by turning up to small, smelly, sweaty venues and playing live in front of very drunk and/or very stoned crowds, whose feedback on the quality of songwriting and performance was both immediate and unambiguous, usually very loud, and often spiked with an actual physical dimension.

An Australian Crawl lyric sprang to mind this week when I got the shopping home from the supermarket.

Beautiful people,

You know the garden's full of furniture, the house is full of plants

I’ve got most of my plants in the garden, but my house is full of plastic bags. Not the single-use type we’re being encouraged to abandon, but the reusable type. And every week the number seems to grow. I do not know what to do with them, because they’re not much use for cleaning up behind the dogs and, frankly, hopeless as bin liners. Throwing them out is obviously self-defeating.

'It makes you realise how a more serious message – like, don’t text and drive, or don’t drink and drive, or get your airbags checked – can take much longer to permeate the national subconscious.'

I’d stood in the queue at Big Supermarket while the person in front of me remonstrated with the checkout kid about the absence of single-use plastic bags. The customer seemed genuinely surprised, and therefore quite angry. Then I realised I was also standing in the queue expecting bags, even though by my reckoning I’d known for at least eight weeks that they wouldn’t be there. It is beyond me why I still cannot make the connection between a visit to the supermarket and the need to take a few bags on the way out. 

Spontaneous shopping (the kind I specialise in) is different: it’s not convenient to drive home, pick up bags and then drive to the shops. And I’m not in the habit of carrying bags around in the boot – unlike the friend of mine I wrote about recently who would survive in her car through the zombie apocalypse, given how much stuff she habitually carts around with her.

So I reluctantly spent a few dollars, or whatever it was, to buy four reusable bags from Big Supermarket, packed them with groceries and took them home to add to the collection, reflecting all the while on how getting a simple message to a lot of people effectively and efficiently can be harder than you might expect.

I mean, we’ve had two months to come to grips with a very simple idea. All fully functioning, and most partially functional, adult human beings really should be able to deal with it. But it makes you realise how a more complex and, frankly, serious message – like don’t text and drive, or don’t drink and drive, or get your airbags checked – can take much, much longer to permeate the national subconscious. Achieving real and lasting changes in behaviour really is a long-term project.

It helps when there’s some sort of short-term reward or immediate pain for encouraging positive behaviour and discouraging poor behaviour. I bet that if everyone who turned up at a supermarket without reusable bags was administered a short, sharp electric shock, they’d probably only make the mistake once or twice. Or if they were given a few dollars (maybe a discount on the grocery bill) for bringing their own bags, they’d sooner get the hang of it. 

I suppose an unintended consequence of such discouragement might be that they abandon shopping altogether, and there would be some who get their jollies from the shock treatment and keep coming back, bagless, so we’d have to deal with both those outliers. 

But you get my drift. If we’re going to do something, there’s got to be something in it for us. It’s a poor reflection on human nature, but sometimes being good just isn’t a sufficient reward in itself.