A growing number of people in New Zealand and around the world are trying to reduce the amount of plastic in their lives. For many it is prompted by the horror of the huge mountains of plastic accumulating on the planet. Plastic is turning up in the stomachs of dead whales and other sea creatures. Scientists have found evidence of plastic in the deepest parts of the ocean. Researchers have discovered microscopic plastics in the fish we eat in our food, in our drinking water and in the soil. It’s everywhere around us.
Plastic is ubiquitous. We use it for a multitude of different purposes because it is so versatile: containers, bags, clothes, accessories, furniture, phones, computers, car parts, appliances, toys, playgrounds. Everywhere we look, there is plastic. Even your bed with its cosy quilt and comfy pillow is made soft and comfortable with plastic foam and fluffy plastic fibre.
For young people, it may be hard to imagine a life without plastic, but a trip to your local museum or a conversation with an older person will provide many instances of a plastic-less world. The Whanganui Regional Museum has a quilt made of empty salt bags stuffed with sheep wool. It was made back in the days when material was expensive, but salt, flour and sugar were sold in cloth bags and raw wool was readily available in rural areas. It was probably heavier than a plastic fibre quilt but every part of it is biodegradable. Moreover, it would have been warm.
Go further back in time and take a walk around Te Ātihaunui-a-Pāpārangi, the Māori Court in the Museum where you can see some great alternatives to plastic containers. On display is a range of containers of different sizes: tahā wai for water and tahā huruhuru for meat. The hue (gourds) used to make these containers were grown in gardens over summer and dried out during the winter, leaving a hard-shelled, hollow container. They are more breakable than plastic containers and plastic drink bottles but once cracked, these organic containers would rot back into the soil. Around each tahā is a carefully woven kete (basket), made from harakeke (New Zealand flax). The kete encloses the container to keep it stable and enable it to be carried. Like the tahā itself, the kete, when worn out, will rot naturally back into the soil. These beautiful and useful containers weren’t produced in a factory using fossil fuels. They were hand-made using totally renewable, sustainable, biodegradable natural resources. How clever!
There are hundreds of other examples throughout the Museum of how people managed without plastic. As more and more of us seek alternatives to plastic, some of these examples from the past could point the way to a more sustainable and less polluted future. We can go back to using more glass, wood, metal, natural fibres and maybe some of us can even have a go at growing our own gourd containers.
Margie Beautrais is the educator at Whanganui Regional Museum.