Undercover Plastic Detective

Undercover Plastic Detective

I love the ocean. This love is expressed through my underwater photography and amateur freediving (holding my breath while swimming underwater). Back on dry land I am also a busy mother and ‘everyday consumer’.  Each time I filled my supermarket trolley with the weekly groceries for my family, a few questions haunted me.

Why is there so much plastic wrapped around my food?

Do ‘Magic Plastic Fairies’ work behind the scenes to manage all this plastic waste?

A third thought always followed, but rather than a question, it was more of a wish — I hope all this plastic is not going to, in some way, hurt my beloved ocean.

I reached a point where these questions and concerns progressed from a fleeting annoyance in the back of my mind to regular, angry thoughts that demanded some kind of answer. This triggered a very messy experiment. I kept my plastic waste for two weeks. I threw none away. Instead, I collected it in the spare room of my house. After two weeks, the pile was unwieldy and smelly. I was so ashamed of my family’s fortnightly plastic footprint that I wanted to throw it all in the bin and pretend it never happened. Instead, I did something embarrassing: I sat in the rubbish and took a photo of myself. I sent the photo to my local newspaper and posted it to my Facebook page. I wanted to take responsibility for my actions and perhaps highlight an issue no one talks about.

My plastic usage after two weeks.
The author with her plastic usage after two weeks.

In effect, I shamed myself into confronting my plastic usage. What was really going to happen to all this plastic? It would be recycled, right? I thought I knew all about recycling as I diligently separate my waste between the red lidded bin for regular rubbish and the yellow lidded bin for recycling. You know, pop it in your bin and ‘Bob’s your uncle’.

I now realized that hoping for ‘Magic Plastic Fairies’ or Uncle Bob to deal with this waste in a non-harmful manner was dubious, so I opted for a scientific approach and decided to educate myself. While I planned how to research this issue, some startling facts about plastic waste appeared in my social media feed.

The Boomerang Alliance, which represents many of Australia’s leading environmental groups, estimates 8.5 billion plastic bags (light and heavy weight) are used in Australia each year. That’s 159 single-use plastic bags used every second across Australia.

The 5 Gyres Institute estimates that 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing 269,000 tons, is distributed across the ocean’s surface. These plastics break into such small pieces that a single soda bottle could wind up on every mile of beach in the world.

Plastics do not biodegrade in the ocean, but merely fragment into smaller and smaller pieces. Impacts by plastic debris on more than 660 species have been documented, including entanglement and ingestion. Species impacted range from the smallest of zooplankton to the largest whales, including fish destined to the seafood market.  A direct link between plastics input to the ocean and human health through consumption of contaminated seafood has not yet been made. However, a recent study by Van Cauwenberghe and Janssen (2014) found microplastics in commercially grown shellfish destined for consumers. Seafood toxicity from plastics is an area of active research.

Plastic trash on beach.
The author photographed this plastic trash washed up on a popular beach in Sydney, Australia.

Our addiction to plastic, and yes, I am convinced it is an addiction, is having a detrimental effect on my beloved ocean. As payback for our selfishness, we are actually going to eat plastic. Yes, humans are going to ingest that very plastic that we’ve forced marine life to ingest.

Back to my own personal contribution to this very serious issue … I’ve been totally motivated to find out why both my rubbish bins are always full and if my representatives, the Australian Federal Government, have put procedures in place to make sure no harm is caused from our plastic waste. Let the recycling research begin!

So I sifted through my rubbish and found an amazing array of different plastics. Soft plastic, hard plastic, plastic mixed with foil, plastic lined with paper and foil, soft plastic sealing containers that are made from hard plastic. The bottles with lids made from different grades of plastic. Firm and soft plastic sealed around jar lids, plastic lining inside tin cans … it literally went on and on. And each time I went shopping every two weeks, I found new types of plastic. So what can be recycled? I asked my local council. They told me to ask my designated recycling company.

I found that the recycling company was hosting a public seminar at my local library, so I eagerly booked a place. The representative from the company was able to answer my questions and I was satisfied … until I thought of more questions a few days later. Well, the recycling company seemed willing to share information, so I attempted to get in contact with them again.

I repeatedly phoned and emailed the recycling company and finally managed to speak directly to a waste educator. She politely answered my remaining questions. Hard plastic can be recycled, soft plastic can’t, so that goes in the bin. Once again, I was satisfied until I found more products I had questions about, such as the 1 litre milk carton, it is not just paper, and nor is it what many people assume, paper with wax, it is actually paper mixed with polymers—plastic. Is both the paper and plastic recycled? What about spray bottles of cleaning products, can the bottle and the spray mechanism be recycled? What about the glossy boxes in the freezer section, do they have plastic in them?
I sent a list to my helpful waste educator with all my extra questions. I wanted to be a good citizen, a good steward of my planet and I wanted to share my knowledge through my Facebook page. I believe we should all be the best recyclers we can. Each of us should be treading as lightly as possible on our planet and ocean.

I did not receive a reply. After a couple of weeks I sent another email, stating that if she was too busy, could she just answer a couple of the simplest questions (after all, I did have a list of about 15 questions, which may have overwhelmed her)? She replied, “Management has refused to authorise anymore answers to these questions”. I was shocked. I had just upset a massive corporation. Mental alarm bells went off and I became suspicious that they had something to hide.

How could I find answers to my remaining recycling questions and did they in fact, have something to hide? An opportunity presented itself. The same recycling company was offering tours of their facility through my local council. I booked a place on the tour but I was nervous. While my attendance seemed innocent, I was really an undercover, plastic detective, smuggling my ‘nosy’ self into the facility.

My heart pounded as I stepped off the bus to see that the tour guide was the same lady who ran the earlier seminar in the library. Had my cover been blown? I pulled my hat low and walked past her silently, accepting the protective mask and hard hat she handed out. I put on my disguise and lingered at the back of the group, the last one to enter the building.

Undercover at the recycling facility.
The author, undercover and about to tour her local recycling facility.

I pull my hat down over my face and enter the recycling company facility. Once inside, I nervously scan the lobby for security cameras and sign my name as messily as possible on the visitor register, so it cannot be read clearly. Have I been flagged? Has my photo been circulated to all the staff, advising them to be on the look-out for a brunette intruder? I switch my black cap for the yellow hardhat provided. I’m the only person to accept the offer to wear a mask, though my motive is not to protect my lungs, it’s to hide my identity. I realize I’m probably being a little paranoid, but I’m just a mum from the outer suburbs of Sydney, Australia and I’ve never tried to infiltrate a corporation before. I have no back up, no support group hiding in a musty upstairs room somewhere, waiting for me to check-in with a report. No chance of rescue, should my mission go pear-shaped. I have not read a manual on how to do this. All I know is that something seems to be very wrong with this picture. Why did the recycling company refuse to answer my questions about recycling plastic waste? What are they hiding?

That’s why I’m here — I need to find out more about this issue. What happens to my domestic plastic waste? Is it entering the ocean and our waterways? I would be an ocean protector if the position was available, I’d stand by the sea and wave a banner to stop anyone trashing it, but what if I’m part of the problem? Am I actually harming the ocean myself? Is there any way the plastic waste that I purchase in the supermarket, could be poisoning our planet? I had read that only ‘5% of plastics are recycled effectively, while 40% end up in landfill and a third in fragile ecosystems’ such as my beloved ocean.

With statistics like that, it’s more than likely that I am causing harm, but I need to be sure.

The party I’m with is divided into three groups by the recycling company staff and I choose the rear group so I can remain incognito. I don’t want to be recognized by the official from the recycling seminar, who has taken the front group. I don my safety glasses, insert my spongy ear plugs, and my tour group climbs some precipitous metal stairs. I linger at the rear and discreetly take photos. The recycling facility is noisy and messy, there’s debris flying everywhere. The floor is covered in small pieces of rubbish, it’s authentic, the real deal. This isn’t a highly polished exercise to present recycling as a clean, low energy enterprise. I’m grateful for the honesty, at least. No one’s pretending it’s something other than what it is — rubbish being sorted, and repurposed. There are conveyor belts and huge metal cogs turning, people with heads down sorting and sifting. Air blows in one direction, carrying paper messily to a lower level, a huge magnet repels metal sending it through the air to another conveyor belt. It’s just like the animated movie Robots — grungy, noisy, and dirty with a rugged kind of rhythm to it. I want to thud my boots on the metal walkway to set a beat and entice a chant from all the workers.

The waste is not all sorted in one go, the entire facility has one conveyor belt after another with the blowing and the shunting and the sorting being done at every stage to separate the glass from the paper and the metal from the crap. Plastic shopping and bread bags litter the entire process and IKEA toys are frequently seen being thrown from the recycling line and discarded. I feel nauseous, partly from the smell of the rubbish, but partly because of the reek of my own guilt. I am party to this, I am responsible. I used plastic shopping bags this week and I might have used a bread bag and possibly threw an old IKEA toy into the bin. How could I? How could we?

No soft plastic makes it to the end of the line, as not one piece of soft plastic will be recycled here, which is an issue of monumental proportions, an issue I have educated myself on and exposed myself to. It’s something no one really talks about, but it should be a discussion around every dining table in the world. The fact is, in most places, soft plastic is not recycled. Every piece of soft plastic I have ever bought in my life, has never been recycled. Every block of chocolate and every plastic wrapped ice-cream – those items alone could add up to thousands of pieces of plastic. Every packet of pasta, every bag of frozen peas, every bag of potato chips, every block of cheese, every bag of carrots, every bag of lentils, rice, nuts, crackers, pita bread, every single plastic carry bag that ever touched my hands, for the entirety of my life, has never been recycled. It’s incomprehensible.

I now know that plastic does not bio-degrade. It does not revert back into organic matter. We’ve changed its chemical structure from organic to synthetic and neither nature nor time reverses this. Plastic takes 500-1000 years to break down. It slowly becomes micro-plastic or as I now call it, micro-poison. It’s making its way into water ways and into the ocean. Marine animals, seabirds, dolphins, fish, turtles, you name it, they’re being killed by it. Plastic strangles them and chokes them, mother birds feed it to their chicks, their bellies become so full of plastic that they can no longer ingest normal food. I had to hold back tears this week when I read that coral is eating plastic which is causing coral, en masse to slowly starve to death.  We’re talking about acidification of the ocean and climate change, but how many of us are thinking about the mass poisoning of our oceans through plastic?

Fish wrapped in plastic.
Plastic packaging is being eaten by fish. We eat fish and are now eating the plastic we wrapped our food in.

Fish are absorbing plastic into their bodies, we’re eating fish, and we’re beginning to eat the plastic we’ve been wrapping our food in. We were worried about mercury levels in fish, but ‘poison by plastic’ may leave mercury eating its dust. Plastic is deeply embedded in our modern world. We happily buy almost all our groceries in it, then toss the wrapper in the bin as if it’s dispensable, replaceable, sustainable and biodegradable. It is none of these, but the manufacturers and corporations using it, don’t want us to know. I could go so far to say that it is a conspiracy of convenience. It’s the elephant in the room. We all turn a blind eye because we are all complicit. We love plastic because it makes our lives easier. It’s convenient. It saves us time. Time is money and money is everything.

No one seems to be blinking at this global environmental crime, except for scientists and environmentalists. The masses still deride us and tease us about being “whiny tree huggers”. We’re so late on the uptake of this information that even now, with the evidence flooding in, the average consumer is still defending their right to use disposable plastic carry bags while they can’t even see the plastic bag that they just bought their potato chips in. The average person is so in love with the convenience of pre-cut and bagged vegetables and so addicted to the ease of putting little plastic drink bottles in their children’s lunchboxes, that they cannot and do not want to see the destruction it is causing. I dare you to stand in front of a group of shoppers in the supermarket and tell them that purchasing food in plastic is not a good thing to do and you will see the gentle shoppers turn into aggressors who will froth at the mouth as they defend their “human right” to purchase single use disposable plastic and spit, “Well what alternative is there?”

Why does sweet potato need a plastic wrapper?
Why does sweet potato need a plastic wrapper?

You know what? They’re right—almost every item in the supermarket, the food we all buy our family each week, is sealed in disposable plastic. I’ve been trying to avoid it and it’s basically impossible, even the sales people look at me as if I’m insane if I refuse a plastic bag. They can’t comprehend I would want to make a purchase without plastic. It actually offends them; you can see it in their face.

My dark thoughts are rattled loose by the sounds of the metal walkway rattling beneath my feet. That’s right, I am on a tour of my designated recycling plant, I’m here to uncover whatever it is they are trying to hide. My suspicions were raised when management refused to answer my questions about what packaging items from the supermarket can be recycled and what percentage is recycled compared to that which ends up as land fill. I believe this latter question of mine is what made them cease communication with me.

I’m still hiding beneath my lowered hard hat as I’m directed down a stairwell by the well-dressed, good looking tour guide that is leading my group. My eyes look down to see the layers of grated walkways below. Shattered glass is scattered about, I’m grateful I wore my hard-soled boots. I try to ask a question but my kindly tour guide can’t hear me over the screaming conveyor belts and grinding cogs, and I can’t hear myself. I remove my earplugs and yell at him as he leans close, “How do you get the broken glass out of the paper?” He smiles and says, “It’s more about how do we get the paper out of the broken glass!” I make that facial expression where I laugh because I know it’s a serious issue guised as a joke. He continues to explain that plastic shopping and bread bags cause havoc, as neither are recycled and they are constantly “contaminating the stream”. Also, coat hangers are a massive problem as they get caught in the cogs and jam the machinery, meaning the power has to be turned off and an employee has to climb in and try to pull them out. I pity the poor soul who draws the short straw for that job.

Many familiar items cover the conveyor belts in the sorting warehouse.
Many familiar items cover the conveyor belts in the sorting warehouse.

With the endless turning conveyor belts and the constant parade of crap passing by me, I start to see the big picture. I have the tiniest glimpse of the reality of this enormous, yet hidden issue. I see a chip packet, my hand subconsciously reaches out as I grasp onto and play back a recent memory. I was freediving with hundreds of fish in Bali, Indonesia when I saw a floating chip bag. I reached out to grab it and return it to shore. However, as I did, the entire outside of the packet slimed off in my hand and completely disintegrated, hundreds of fish raced in and snapped up the poisonous plastic, like they were the most delicious morsels they’d ever eaten. I was shocked and wanted to stop them, but how do you stop hundreds of fish from eating what they want? I floated there in a state of shock, watching human-made waste poison nature—I was the only witness. That chip packet on the conveyor belt has now moved out of my eyesight to be removed by a worker who will relocate it to the landfill pile, where it might wash into the ocean and poison hundreds of fish. I want to grab it, but it’s already gone, like that chip packet that disintegrated before my eyes. I am powerless, yet again. My hand slowly lowers and with each step, I feel heavier. What are we doing? What have we done? How are we allowing it? How did we get to this point?

Plastic trash in the ocean.
The author interrupts her recreational freediving session to collect the plastic waste surrounding her. Photo credit: Jan Bareš

Before I burst into tears, one positive thing I see lifts my spirits a little. Metal spray cans of all types are being recycled—a machine squeezes them so the contents empty and they flatten, so that’s one new piece of helpful information for me, spray cans can be recycled. Though I hardly ever buy them, at least it’s good to know. We’re back on the ground level and there’s a huge pile of rubbish many meters high. It’s so big that if I walked into it I’d disappear, never to be seen again. A digger is being driven into it, there’s so much rubbish, the digger and driver almost disappear inside the pile. He’s moving it about and I ask where this particular pile of rubbish is headed. I find out it’s non-recyclable rubbish that has been sorted and expelled from the collected recycling bins in my area. That’s where the chip packet may now be. This non-recyclable waste is compressed into huge cubes which will either be shipped overseas or the recycling company will have to pay for its disposal. So when I hear people make throw away comments, that they just toss everything in the recycling bin to let “them” sort it, I cringe. It costs “them” time, energy and money. Domestic waste is something each and every consumer should educate themselves on and take responsibility for.

Waste that will not be recycled.
This is a fraction of the waste rejected from the recycling plant from the day of my tour. Plastic bags, IKEA toys and coat hangers cost this recycling company time and money. Photo by author.

The tour is almost over and I’m disappointed. I’d hoped my clandestine infiltration of the facility would have allowed me to see how the waste is melted down and recycled. But I didn’t get to see anything other than the initial sorting stage. We’re escorted back to the front entrance and I pop to the bathroom and find it empty and make a weak attempt at quickly snapping a photo of myself in the mirror. My expression is one of worry, I’m unable to hide how I feel.

The tour concludes with a friendly talk given by the other tour guide, a lady. She’s smiling at all the elderly people in the tour group. I realize that they’re mostly retirees who are enjoying a free excursion run by their local council. They are interested and they do care. It is sobering to know that most people my age or younger are completely disinterested and would think what I am doing is totally lame. I am used to being a loner, an outsider, I am beyond worrying about looking cool to my peers. I feel the survival of our species might just be a little more important than impressing the other school mums who drive large SUVs.

I have loads of questions for this friendly tour guide, but limit it to two, so as not to blow my cover. I act shy (which I’m not) and speak in a quiet voice (which is not my own) and talk through my protective safety gear, “Do you recycle spray bottles? Like the ones window cleaner comes in?” She’s floored, she has no idea. She guesses “maybe” as the bottle is all the same plastic, but I know the handle is made up of a harder plastic and it has a metal spring inside. Wow, if she doesn’t know, how on earth would an average consumer be able to know which bin to put their spray bottle in? I let someone else ask a question before I ask my next, “The tin cans with the plastic white lining, do you recycle those?” Again she has trouble, but guesses “yes,” the metal would go into the smelter, but no mention of the plastic lining. I interpret this as meaning the plastic lining would be melted off and evaporate (causing toxic gas to be dispersed into the air we breathe).

I have two questions left, the BIG two. The two that could change everything and the two they don’t want to answer.

First question — “Wet paper, the waterproof paper cartons that one liter (one quart) milk is sold in. I know you recycle the paper portion through pulping. What percentage is paper, which you recycle and how much is plastic, which you do not? What happens to the toxic swill that contains the polymers from the wet paper? The plastic portion which is now mixed with water, this must be a toxic liquid mix and you must have thousands of liters of this toxic liquid swill coming out of your plant, where does it go, what happens to it? How do you prevent it from entering the ocean? Where does all that plastic poison end up?”

I have another burning question. Plastic milk cartons are supposedly recycled, but when I buy fresh milk, the plastic bottles are not made from recycled plastic. How can we buy millions of plastic bottles every day, and most of those bottles are put in our domestic recycling bins, yet they don’t end up back on the shelf as recycled milk bottles? What is happening to this plastic and why are we not ‘closing the loop’ as the lovely illustration shows on the color pamphlet provided to me by my local authorities? Why are the shelves full of ‘virgin’ or brand new plastic, when we’re all recycling?

But I won’t ask this question, not now. I need to get back on the bus before I’m pulled into a back room for interrogation. I just hope that after my undercover infiltration of the recycling facility, I will discover the answers.

I am not opposed to this recycling company, despite what I have just said, I support them. As I leave the grounds in the bus, my bottom lip trembles as I pass countless giant cubes of compressed plastic. The cubes are made from plastic drink bottles. Why do we put liquid into a bottle that will last centuries and will eventually become micro-poison? No one researched the side-effects, or if they did, someone, somewhere, decided there was too much money to be made from the plastic industry. This recycling company is cleaning up some of this mess, if it did not exist, then all the items that entered this facility, would become landfill. At least they’re capturing some and re-purposing it.

However, the dark side is that this process provides governments and corporations a very handy opportunity to ‘greenwash’ and abdicate responsibility by claiming recycling is taking care of our plastic waste and the recycling companies are happy to accept this ‘holier-than-thou’ position of being the ‘good guys’.

The recycling facility management refused to answer any more of my questions and ceased further communication. That’s why I had embedded myself in a tour of the facility, masquerading as a tourist when I was really an undercover plastic detective. I needed answers, and after reflecting on what I saw, I now think this detective has found them.

The ‘thing’ the recycling facility didn’t want me to find out is that the amount of recycling that is being undertaken, is but a tiny fraction of the waste we all create. Globally, only 5% of plastic is recycled. When you contemplate that there is an annual plastic production of almost 300 million tons and growing, that’s an immense amount of poison we are putting into the biosphere every year.

There is almost a conspiracy, a deliberately constructed illusion to convince us that there are ‘plastic fairies’ who have ‘so totally got this problem covered’. They haven’t (and there are no plastic fairies). The recycling company is trying hard to make a difference, but they are just skimming the surface of this enormous issue. They need help. They need government funding—subsidization to recycle more and make a decent profit so they can expand and streamline. Governments needs to intervene and set strict policies and standardize the type of plastics allowed in the marketplace. If they limit it to just a few types of plastic, and offered financial incentives, the recycling companies could recycle almost all plastic instead of just the tiny fraction they currently do. And ideally, we should be implementing re-usable packaging, but we’ve been tricked into thinking that unless it’s sealed in plastic, it’s dirty. Which is in fact, a myth. For years, we’ve been sterilizing babies’ drinking bottles by boiling, why can’t we consider implementing heat sterilization for millions of other items and make the packaging to suit?

Seriously, I’m an absolute nobody, I’m a mum and photographer, but in just the past nine months I’ve brought myself up to speed through my own research, to know this is one enormous problem that no one who has the authority, is willing to fix. Not only are we poisoning our land and sea with plastic, but we’re wasting precious oil in the production and transportation of something we mostly don’t need. It’s quite possible that the oil from the plastic we’re wrapping our food in, could provide life sustaining energy to our grandchildren. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. It may have taken millions of years for that oil to reach the state it’s in now, we can’t click our fingers and demand more once it’s gone. How can we be so incredibly short sighted?

As I step off the bus I’m hit by a heat wave, the air is so incredibly hot that I feel ill. Australia has just had record temperatures, both for the intensity of the heat and for the duration of the hot spells, one spell lasting close to three weeks of record breaking heat. Our addiction to plastic is likely contributing to climate change. With our roads melting and old people dropping dead from the unseasonable heat, at what point will we stop living such self-indulgent lifestyles? Is our collective obsession with ‘the self’ killing us? That would be ironic.

We need to immediately halt the production of single use plastic and have emergency conferences as to how to stop relying on plastic and come up with alternatives—NOW!

I have made it a habit to refuse most plastic packaging and as a result, I’ve had many stressful and embarrassing experiences while trying to make purchases without plastic. Often my attempts are epic failures. What I’ve realized is that it is almost impossible not to use plastic. There are a small group of people who are aware and are trying very hard not to use plastic, but the masses are completely oblivious (whether willfully or not, it makes no difference) and the supermarkets and even small businesses now have almost every shelf stocked with single use plastic. The last thing to be packaged in plastic is fresh produce, an absurd situation. I’ve noticed supermarkets are packing more and more fresh produce in plastic and it seems that shortly, the average consumer will find it impossible to purchase anything without plastic. In the past few weeks I have seen the following new products on the shelves of one of Australia’s largest supermarket chains: Three lemons on a molded plastic tray, sealed in a second plastic bag, three avocados on a molded plastic tray and sealed in a second plastic bag, four pears on a molded tray and sealed in a second plastic bag and finally, three baby sweet potatoes in a rectangular plastic tray and sealed in a plastic bag. And then to top it off, when customers go through the check-out, it’s placed in a third plastic carry bag. Three layers of plastic for produce that needs none. I’ve been documenting the supermarkets’ systematic pricing discounts on fresh produce wrapped in plastic. It’s now common for the pre-packaged items to be at least half the price when compared to the price of purchasing the fruit or vegetables loose (without plastic). These businesses are forcing their customers to purchase unwanted plastic and penalizing people who refuse. Every customer that enters their automated sliding doors will leave with bags made of plastic and that are also full of plastic. The customer won’t even be aware of what they’re carrying and that most of it will not be recycled. It’s an environmental crime of monumental proportions and we’re all blindly participating. If you are feeling adventurous, try not to accept plastic, I dare you, you’ll be treated like a lunatic. But where is the insanity? Am I crazy for not wanting to poison my planet or is the fact that we are wrapping biodegradable food in non-biodegradable packaging, lunacy?

Loose fresh produce in shopping trolley.
Supermarkets are trying to make it impossible to purchase fresh produce without plastic. The loose items in this trolley may soon be a thing of the past.

My concern is so great, that I wrote to the Australian Federal Government and their response was so weak, I’ll not do you the discourtesy of even quoting from their letter. My elected representatives are disinterested, consumers en masse are disinterested, so what next? I started to make Facebook posts about this issue, to share my observation about the price discrepancy between packaged and unpacked fresh produce. I tagged the supermarkets in my posts, asking why they are doing this. Although I was met with radio silence from them, there seemed to be a hidden undercurrent of people who had similar frustrations to me, but had no way of truly expressing their annoyance. Some of these people jumped on board and supported my posts. We tried a visitor post on the supermarket’s own Facebook page and this elicited a reply from the supermarkets. We also highlighted the issue of the reduced pricing for plastic packaged food and asked to meet with the management team to discuss the many ideas we had for reducing plastic packaging but these requests were never acknowledged. I did receive some very positive support from other ‘aware’ consumers who were also sick and tired of all the plastic and being charged more for refusing it (where it was even possible to refuse it). The supermarket would always provide one standard reply for each post (no matter how much discussion and questions were in the thread). The supermarkets would ‘cut and paste’ the same reply about minimizing packaging and aiming for ‘targets’, while they continued to increase the amount of plastic packaging on their shelves. Although frustrated with the supermarket chain’s lack of willingness to change or have a genuine discussion, I was pleased that at least they’re noticing some of their customers aren’t happy. How can we move this issue further and stop this environmental catastrophe? We must stop this because we’re wasting valuable resources, the plastic is poisoning our food chain and its production and distribution is likely contributing to climate change. It’s a totally unsustainable model and the ramifications are enormous.

I continued to write anti-plastic-packaging posts and encouraged others to write their own — it became the #PlasticFreeProduce campaign. People have been reluctant to post themselves but are happy to support mine. The campaign has been moving in stops and starts. I persisted in posting about plastic packaging on fresh food while the supermarkets ignored me. I even did a few radio interviews but nothing changed. I’ve been trying to get media attention for months, but not one outlet has responded. Either they think it is not a real issue or they’re too scared to talk about powerful supermarket chains who pay them for advertising.

Unpackaged versus packaged.
Supermarkets are trying to eliminate unpackaged fresh produce by making the plastic-wrapped items cheaper than the unwrapped items.

I strongly believe that the only way anything will change is if enough people share the posts and publicly complain about the plastic packaging on fresh food. As each week passes I see the pattern of fresh food in packaging being sold more cheaply than the loose food. People buy the packaged food to save a few cents and slowly the loose produce is being removed. If I could see it happening before my eyes, why were others not speaking up? How is the government allowing such a non-essential, wasteful and destructive use of our natural resources? To me, the current move toward fully packaged fresh food, is like huge metal doors slowly sliding shut, once the loose produce is removed completely from the shelves, and then the scales are removed, those doors will be shut tight, there will be no way for us to revert back to being able to buy fresh food without plastic. I feel we have a narrow window of time to put a wedge in the door to keep it pried open before it’s too late.

I continually brainstormed and realized the entire issue is about money. It’s about the supermarkets making more profit through selling food in packaging and it’s about customers wanting a bargain. So I decided to do a post that just focused on the price differentiation. Again I photographed some fresh produce in a local supermarket that clearly showed that packaged food is cheaper than loose. People suddenly responded and the post was shared 2,600 times in one week. I received an anonymous offer of $10, 000 to stop my campaign and close my page. I immediately shared the anonymous message on my Facebook page. Over the next few days the same supermarket where I took the photos drastically reduced the price of the loose items I had photographed. And I mean drastically, from $4 per kilo to $1.50 per kilo on one item. It means if enough people share and complain on social media they will respond. But if we stop, the supermarkets will immediately revert back and the door will close on our opportunity to buy loose produce without plastic.

Ask for plastic free produce.
Please support the #PlasticFreeProduce campaign.

So what can you do? You can take a photo of fresh produce and post it to social media. Perhaps say “I prefer #PlasticFreeProduce”. Share and support any posts that other people make on this topic. And whenever you see fresh produce cheaper than packaged — buy it, making sure you don’t use any of their plastic. We need to prove it’s what we want.

I have been labelled with many names over the past week on social media, such as pathetic, nut case, insane, stupid, idiot, twat. There was also the lovely enquiry, ‘Why don’t you grow a pair?’ I do not give people permission to label me, especially strangers on the internet who have never met me. But I am happy to give myself one label: nobody. I am nobody. I am the epitome of nobody. I could walk down the street and no one would turn their head. People would not even smile or say ‘hello’ to me. I am invisible. So if me, the world’s biggest nobody can cause one of Australia’s most powerful corporations to change the price of food on their shelves, it shows what’s truly possible if we consumers band together. My God, we literally could change the world.

Signing off …

Mrs. Nobody, from Australia
Undercover Plastic Detective.

I'm a nobody.
Undercover Plastic Detective.

31 Replies to “Undercover Plastic Detective”

  1. Fabulous article Anita. I’m one of your followers and I, too, am bewildered by the attitude of the supermarkets and the apathy of the general public to rail against all this plastic being imposed on our society. Keep up your good work and I’m trying to do my little bit against the avalanche of single use plastics especially.

    1. Thank you Christine, for taking the time to read my story and for your supportive comment. It’s hard to keep going when it seems the masses are heading in one direction but you don’t like what you see up ahead. There needs to be a lot of people like you and I who start rowing against the tide.

  2. great work-education education education thats all we can do, If we could get “enthusiasts” in EVERY council to educate their own council- by passing the actual council- straight to the residents it of course is doable.
    thanks to youre enquiring mind and drive- the journey has started.

  3. I disagree with you about one thing –
    You are most certainly not a nobody! Your grit and perseverance to continue through with your undercover detective work is inspiring and , on a selfish note, it gives me hope because I often feel depressed to hear another story from someone about how great it is that vegetables are cut and packaged in plastic , or the article in my local newspaper on the weekend which was heavily complaining about the proposal that residents should sort their rubbish & recycle more. I couldn’t agree more with your comment that we must all take responsibility for the rubbish we generate.

  4. You’re talking right to me, I get so infuriated by all the plastic!! And get told I am a pain for presenting my fruit and veg loose to be weighed at the cash register. Thank you so much for this article, makes me feel less alone in the fight against plastic! Another huge area of plastic is the pieces that attach price tags to clothes, I wonder if there is any movement in progress to change that practice?! Thanks again 🙂

    1. Hi Erin,

      I go through the self-serve section to avoid stressing out the check out staff. But the staff at the self serve terminals are on high alert for theft. Yesterday the staff member literally stood next to me and watched me scan/weigh my entire purchase. It was so intrusive I said to my child “Can you please stand to the side so this lady can see, she is watching to see if I steal anything”. They really have screwed up the entire system. And yes, I hope people will take the movement to other areas as well. Food courts have got to be one of the worse culprits for wasting single use plastic.
      Thanks again for taking the time to read my article and for leaving your thoughtful comment.

    2. Hi Erin,

      I also collect all my fruit and veg without the provided plastic bags, but I have a couple of reusable bags to put it in. Calico bags for heavier items like potatoes and a small mesh bag for e.g. self-serve-rocket or mushrooms (I know, mushrooms go in paper bags and not plastic, but even the paper has to be made from trees).

      Usually I don’t get any comments, only once the lady said “I’ll have to weigh your bag like a peach.” — well duh, of course she does! But it weighs a couple of grams and I am happy (well, not happy, but I accept it) to pay the extra 5 or 10 cents in order to avoid the plastic bag!

      Maybe have a look at the onya bags or google for reusable vegetable bag. Good luck!


    3. I use material bags made from light recycled material such as boomerang bags makes. I had cashiers worried I was paying too much for the bag and trying to take my produce out! I’d rather pay extra for some material than pay the price of plastic.

  5. Thank you Anita for your dedication and trying to bring this issue to the forefront. We must all continue to stress the issue of illimination of plastic in our lives!!! Recently I saw a documentry from Pivot taken on the Sea Shell islands about plastic; hundreds of birds dead on the island and when one slit open, small chunks of plastic……I literally started crying. Of course, the same is true for the fish in the sea as they are exposed as much. I have contacted Pivot to see if there is a link on youtube and I will post it on Facebook. If we all continue to stress the illimination of plastic in every day issues we can dramatically reduce the polution. I am going to be working on my end to educate as many as possible, especially the youth. Again, thank you for your efforts and love of this world! Wendy

    1. Thank you Wendy. Yes it is completely devastating. All the wildlife eating plastic, many images have brought me to tears. I am pleased to hear from someone like you who understands.


  6. Hi Anita,
    I admit I didn’t want to read your article at all … not one bit, because I knew before I started reading that the news would be devastating – a blow to the soul and total disgust at the contribution my family and I have made to this world catastrophe.
    I recently watched a show about toxins in everyday products in the 19th century, such as lead, mercury and arsenic in wallpaper, clothing and the like and the horrible slow deaths these toxins caused.
    Step forward to the 21st century and it seems that history is repeating – yet on a much larger scale. Yet, we in our ignorance refuse to see it, refuse to acknowledge that we have stuffed up big time again.
    Consumerism, capitalism and our own Governments have become quiet slow killers just like the arsenic of the 19th century. We believe that it’s all ok, life is all good and we will all be fine as long as we purchase, purchase, purchase without thought for future consequences. Thank you being brave and digging deeper into this issue as no one else seems to give a crap.

    The only place that may listen to you, or interview you could be the ‘Project’ on channel 10. As they do seem to have environmental issues on their program quite often. I hope you send them your article…..and ask to be heard.

    1. Hi Linda,

      Wow what an insightful comment. Thank you for reading the article even though you knew the information would be challenging. Honestly, when I started all this, I had no idea what I was uncovering. I thought I would have my questions answered and walk away happy, knowing things were being taken care of. Each piece of information I uncovered was a total shock to me and motivated me to keep digging. Now I understand how the world works. Yes you’re right, it’s all about consuming. Our society believes it will strive if we just keep making crap and people keep buying the crap. That’s the model we’ve built for our survival. I have grieved a lot with what I’ve learned, but I haven’t given up. It’s just motivated me more.

      And thanks for the tip. I sent The Project a message but wouldn’t be surprised if they are soon sent an anonymous message with an offer of $10, 000 not to run it.


  7. Anita
    Thank you.
    I have recently decided to go plastic free but to be honest got really complacent. I was thinking, one bag won’t hurt…but it DOES!
    You have given me the mental images to help me make the right decisions.

    A school of fish EATING plastic.
    A digger than can DRIVE into the waste that won’t be recycled.

    When I want to choose bagged lettuce instead of getting it loose and putting it into my own material bag, I will.
    Instead of buying bagged dried beans at my local shop instead of being organised and buying them from the Wasteless pantry or my health market 200km away when I go to the big smoke. I will.
    It will be hard, but will be worth it!
    For the next generation, and the one after that and the one after that, etc.
    Anita, don’t stop what you are doing.
    Keep going, it’s so important.
    Education and changing how people think is the first step, and you do it wonderfully!

  8. Thanks for sticking at it! You could easily have become so worn down that you stayed quiet.

    It’s a long read, but well worth it. I’m encouraged to keep being ‘difficult’ and thinking up new ways to avoid plastic.

    Harris Farm now sells cherry tomatoes loose! It CAN be done.

  9. To add to this movement against plastic,

    Over the last year or so I’ve been slowly but steadily moving towards a zero waste lifestyle. I’ve slowly changed multiple products and habits I use and do such as a bamboo instead of plastic tooth brush, mason jars instead of plastic storage and simply taking cloth produce/shopping bags to the supermarket to mention a few things.

    Living in a small town I have the wonderful opportunity at the local supermarket to be recognised by staff that I never want a plastic bag and I always have reusable bags with rare occasion I forgot bags and I’ll just carry it. It’s a nice point when they automatically reach for a plastic bag then look up and see me without a word just put the bag back, extremely satisfying.

    I personally think that there should be “natural” alternatives (wood, metal, glass, cloth, etc) to as much as physically possible that is currently plastic and then the plastic items that cannot be made alternative can be made from recycled plastic (or simply lived without).

    I’m just plodding away doing my little bit, working towards zero waste and picking up rubbish (mainly recyclable) in the bush. Every person can make a difference, I’m hoping it’ll hit a turning point.

    So there you go, there’s another person out there who doesn’t think you’re crazy for hating plastic and even agrees with you.

  10. I’ve just become aware of your work, Anita. Great article! I’ve shared your name and your mission to the 70,000 members of the Journey to Zero Waste Facebook group. We need to develop opinion multipliers very rapidly in order to reverse this onslaught.

  11. Great article! I’ve been aware of our plastic problem for a while but have only recently discovered you and your campaign. You inspire me to do more, try harder, educate and to hold our corporations and companies to a greater account!
    Kia Kaha ~ you have people who support you!

  12. I’m inspired and heartened to stumble across your ‘campaign’.

    I write letters to organisations either to make a complaint about their product or encourage them to do better regards ‘managment of waste’ etc. Keep up the good work

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