The psychological problem with plastic

I had a bit of a revelation the other day. I can’t imagine I’m the first person to think of it, but it struck me as significant at the time.

I was at work, and we had some leftover birthday cake in the office. Some people wanted to take a few slices home, but didn’t have any containers with them. “I’ve got a spare container you can borrow” I said, offering a colleague my metal lunchbox (pictured above, minus the lunch). “I can’t take that” they replied, “it’s far too nice to borrow!”

Searching further in my desk drawer I found a plastic box, the type that takeaway food comes in. “That’s perfect”, my colleague said, “I’ll bring it back tomorrow.”

And that’s when it hit me – the problem with plastic isn’t just that it’s disposable, but that it somehow intrinsically embodies the quality of ‘disposable’-ness as well. Plastic represents something that doesn’t require care or preservation – it looks as though it was made to be discarded.

Our whole societal set up is to view plastic as something that doesn’t need to be looked after. Think about the wide variety of toys and child-friendly crockery, made from plastic because it can be dropped, thrown and abused without consequence. Takeaway coffee cups and soft drink bottles, deliberately designed to be thrown away after one use. Party and picnic-ware, sold to us as convenient because instead of washing up, you can scoop the plates, cups and cutlery into a binbag (which is also made of plastic!) and chuck it in the bin (and what are your kerbside bins made of?). Fragile items come packed in bubble wrap and polystyrene, with no option to return these reusable, but frequently unrecyclable, items to the manufacturer. Where does it go? In the bin.

Plastic straws. Plastic lighters. Plastic toothbrushes. Plastic salad bags. Plastic crisp packets. To be used, then disposed of. Out of sight, out of mind.

Now, think how differently you respond when holding a glass, a mug, or even a metal flask, instead of a plastic cup. We treat these items with care, knowing they will break or dent if we mistreat them. Items with a sense of permanence, that invite us to act with care to preserve them. We keep beautiful glass bottles as ornaments, or to display flowers. Whilst we buy a packet of biscuits in plastic, when we take it home we may well throw the new wrapper in the bin and dispense its contents into a sturdy metal tin – one that may well be on a second or third life, perhaps from a tin of biscuits you were given as a present.

There are so many reasons to avoid buying plastic, particularly single-use – the fact that so much of it isn’t recycled (two-thirds in the UK), that it breaks down in the environment to cause environmental devastation and becomes a danger to human health. And yet another reason to avoid it, for me at least, is that it represents not taking care. We need to start fully understanding that man-made items come with an environmental cost, in their production, use and disposal.

Doesn’t it stand to reason then, that when we hold an item and understand that it should be treated with care, that we will understand where it has come from and where it will go, and that this actually matters?


23-29 April is A Week Without Plastic, where people challenge themselves to not buying plastic for seven days. Come and join the community on Facebook.

A Plastic Ocean film is now available to view on Netflix.

If you would like to learn how to reduce your plastic use, some of my previous posts might be of interest:

A Plastic Ocean (and how you can start doing something about it): Part 1

A Plastic Ocean (and how you can start doing something about it): Part 2

Zero Waste Week: Kitchen and Food Swaps

Zero Waste Week: Bathroom Swaps

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8 thoughts on “The psychological problem with plastic

  1. You make the lack of care sing out as a problem. I suppose disposable is very much taken to mean no need to be careful with it. The alternatives to plastic objects are designed not to just last longer but to be pretty, maybe someone needs to design a metal lunchbox that’s hideous?

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    1. Haha! Perhaps ugly design is the next big thing waiting to happen. I don’t know if they designed my metal lunchbox to be pretty though, I think it just somehow is đŸ™‚

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  2. I agree. Plastic looks cheap and discard-able. If it was made to look nice, people would reuse and not throw away. A fine example is the more classy water bottles that we can buy in the supermarket. They look nice and we don’t throw them away like the supermarket brand ones. But we should not be throwing any of them away

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    1. I noticed a message on the side of a water bottle the other day that actually warned not to reuse it! It was made of extra thin plastic, so perhaps that was why. But built-in obsolescence is part of the reason we’re in this situation I suppose.

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  3. I completely agree with your sentiment here and realize that this is why our house felt so much better to me when we went plastic-free. The better energy and feel of non-plastic materials is real! Thanks for your thoughtful words.

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  4. I love your ideas here, of all materials, people respect plastic the least. I think it’s because we all know in our hearts that it’s not natural so it doesn’t hurt us to abuse it.

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