Sir David Attenborough’s series, Blue Planet, seems to have succeeded in bringing to everyone’s attention the damage we are currently doing to our planet, particularly through plastic pollution. The BBC recently reported[i] that even the plastic food trays that we carefully wash out and drop into our recycle bins don’t actually get recycled – as much as two-thirds end up in landfill. And of course, we fill our dustbins with non-recyclable waste.
As Christians, the Bible gives us compelling reasons to care for the environment. It tells us that Adam was placed in the garden to “cultivate it and keep it”[ii]. After the Exodus from Egypt, Moses tells the people that the land they are about to enter is “a land for which the Lord your God cares; the eyes of the Lord your God are always on it, from the beginning even to the end of the year.”[iii]. The Old Testament law and Wisdom literature include compassion for animals and nature: “If you happen to come upon a bird’s nest along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young”[iv]. And, “A righteous man has regard for the life of his animal”[v] In Revelation we are told that the final judgement will reward those who have obeyed God and “destroy those who destroy the earth”.
But how easy is it to live by those principles? When even cucumbers come shrink-wrapped in plastic and so many containers are still not recycled, what difference can individuals make? It’s true that significant change is going to require action by the big corporations and manufacturers, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do to reduce waste. I went to talk to one woman, Rachel Carson, who has dedicated her life to doing as little harm to the environment as possible and, as a teacher, teaching her pupils to do the same. I was intrigued to know what she does, especially as I had heard that she produces so little waste that her dustbin is emptied only once a year and her recycle bin only about eight times a year.
Rachel told me that she grew up in a very environmentally aware family, with parents who grew as much of their own food as they could and told their children, “You either eat chemicals or you eat greenfly!”
I asked how she started to reduce her impact on the environment. “I started well,” she told me, “saving and reusing items as my parents taught me. Then I lost it a bit when the children came along; it ceased to be a priority, but I did continue to grow my own food, eat organically, reuse scrap items, and so on.
“But five or six years ago I saw some pictures by photographer Chris Jordan from an island in the Pacific where lots of albatross chicks were dying because of plastic waste. I was totally shocked that our arrogant way of life could affect another species so completely. The parent birds were flying thousands of miles to feed their chicks, and then unwittingly stuffing plastic down their throats.”
Rachel acknowledges that plastic has some good and even essential uses – in medical devices, for example – and that her lifestyle would not be possible for everyone. “I’m fit, I’ve got a car, I have enough money to live on, but the things I do would be beyond the means of many people.”
Nonetheless, she was delighted when she heard a child at school ask another child whose class he was going to be in, and when he replied, “Mrs. Carson’s”, the first child responded, “You’ll be using a bamboo toothbrush by Christmas!”
I asked Rachel if she found it hard at first, and what advice she would give to anyone else wanting to reduce their impact on the environment. She told me, “I decided I couldn’t do everything at once, so I made a decision to change one thing, using shampoo bars instead of bottles of shampoo. And once that was a habit, I changed the next thing. I did loads of research using social media, blogs and books. Some people say choose one room in which to eradicate plastic, and once you’ve succeeded, move on to the next room. The bathroom is a good place to start, using shampoo bars, bamboo toothbrushes, and tooth powder instead of tubes of toothpaste. A rubbish audit of your bin is a really good way to work out what’s being thrown out regularly and therefore what action would make the biggest difference to your household.”
Rachel shops at zero waste shops which she visits when she goes to London to see her daughter, though she recognises that this isn’t an option for everyone. She also buys from farm shops and local butchers instead of getting everything plastic-wrapped from the supermarket. She showed me two jam jars containing all the unrecyclable waste she has generated this month, but added, “I’m aware that I can do it because I’m privileged.”
I asked how she finds time to shop in these different places while working as a full-time teacher. She replied, “It’s quite difficult, but I feel so strongly that I’ll make time for it and prioritise it. I plan it like a military operation; I’m incredibly organised and I devote quite some time to it. Not everyone could do it. If I had caring responsibilities I couldn’t do it, but I’m at a stage of life when I can.”
And her advice to someone wanting to start living in this low-impact way? “Try one thing. Then when it’s a habit, try another. Walk the children to school, picking up litter as you go.” It sounds like great advice for fulfilling Adam’s original mandate to “cultivate the garden and keep it.”
This was my entry for the Association of Christian Writers 2018 Journalism competition, for which I was awarded 2nd place. If you want to hear more from Rachel Carson, you can follow her on Instagram: @onestepatatime61.