plastic waste bottles

Single Use Plastic, Injustice and Yoga

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels


Plastic. Money. Pollution. Injustice.

Perhaps you might think these are not subjects for a yoga teacher to ponder upon. If you believed the yoga hype, I should be off on a tropical island, perfecting my headstand oblivious to the mess we are in. Yet in truth, anyone who delves deeper into the philosophy of yoga cannot help but think more deeply about solutions to our multiple planetary crises. Earth is struggling to cope with the toxic load of humanity. Our politicians and business leaders are now pretty much untethered from any sense of a moral compass. We’re also slowly realising that everything we see as progress, is actually built upon the fossil fuel industry: a destructive, cruel and toxic cartel we’re all currently dependent upon.

Imagine a Life with Less Plastic

Yesterday, I filled in a questionnaire about banning single-use plastic. If you’re from the UK, you can fill it too, if you like. Your answers will feed into a UK Government survey to see what people really think about banning these flippant products that end up in the bellies of whales. Filling in my responses got me thinking. What would our country be like if we really stopped producing and consuming so much plastic? How would we need to change our routines, expectations, habits and lifestyles? After all, we managed just fine with milk bottle deliveries; fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, and actually sitting down to drink a cup of coffee rather than rushing around clutching one in our hands. We might actually benefit from ditching the plastic and live slower more meaningful and connected lives.

Lifting Our Heads From the Sand

One of my favourite sayings is “where there is a will, there is a way”. This certainly served me well as a yoga teacher in the pandemic. This problem solving, “can do” attitude is what we need in any kind of crisis, and we are definitely in a crisis. No matter whether you believe in the climate crisis or not, we can all accept we are suffocating the planet and ourselves. Our bodies of water are littered with plastic, oil, runoff from chemical fertilisers and animal waste from intensive farming factories. The issue of plastic waste alone is acute. The problems deepen the more we stick our heads in the sand and refuse to face the need for rapid and fundamental change.

First, Do No Harm

The first ethical principle of yoga is the same as the Hippocratic oath: “first, do no harm”. The principle of Ahimsa is translated as nonviolence or non-harming. It calls us to think more deeply about how our actions (karma) may cause harm to ourselves, other beings, and the Earth herself. Yoga philosophy is very pragmatic and recognises that wherever there is action, there is the potential for harm. Reducing the harmful impact we humans are having on the planet is, therefore, a part of yoga practice. Believe it not, it’s not all downward dogs. Yoga is about developing awareness, facing the truth, creating change.

Ability to Create Personal Change is a Privilege

Developing awareness often leads to considering our actions and choosing those that cause less harm. For instance, we might choose to cook more from scratch; buy fruit and veg from stores that don’t use plastic packaging and make our own vegan milk rather than buying them in a tetra pack (way cheaper too!). If we have access to a garden we could try growing spinach (it is so easy, even I can do it) rather than buying it in plastic bags. Buying from local businesses such as butchers, bakers and delicatessens, can avoid much of the unnecessary packaging that supermarkets use. Yes, they still might use plastic, but they use far less. And in some towns, and even villages, there are zero waste shops popping up.

Systemic Change is the Answer

Not everyone has the time, money or energy to make these kinds of choices. This is why there is no better way to create positive change than to get involved in pushing for systemic change. If laws are made to ban single-use plastic, this will go a long way to reducing the harm. Leaving individuals to reduce their own plastic consumption is not an effective solution. It passes the blame to the individual when really the onus is on the supermarkets, fast food, packaging industries, and from governments passing laws that create deep and fundamental change. If we all have to live with less plastic, then we can work as a collective, at scale to find solutions and support each other through the changes.

Plastic Sardines, Anyone?

Marine animals are ingesting the plastic and so are we. One study found 3mg of plastic in every 1g of tinned sardines. I find this deeply troubling. Especially as this is a natural food product and highly regarded as good for the brain. I wonder how this will affect our brain health or our gut health, in the long term? For as we pollute the Earth (and it’s not “them” it is “us” – all of us); so we pollute ourselves. As we make the planet sick, we make ourselves sick. Our outer world is reflected in our innards, quite literally.

Waste Colonialism

The injustice is that some of us get sicker than others. Wealth cushions people from the full brunt of environmental pollution. Countries that are richer and lauded for their recycling efforts are actually shipping out waste to countries that are less rich. This is aptly known as waste colonialism.

Shipping Waste Around the World

China used to be the country that took on the plastic waste of the world, but since 2018 it has refused to accept waste from other countries. Now our waste ends up in countries closer to home: Bosnia, Romania and Turkey or further afield in Thailand and Malaysia. One of my friends who is a shipping consultant says that it is highly likely that much of the waste ends up in the sea on the way to these destinations. In the bellies of whales and sardines… If the waste does arrive it is literally dumped on roadsides, in Nature. Sometimes it is sorted and recycled, but this recycling is a toxic process that emits fumes and poisons the air for miles around.

North London Skyfill

I live in North London, the waste here ends up in the Edmonton Incinerator. This plant is currently teetering on the edge of a £1.2 billion expansion, it will end up 30% larger and process much more waste. This project is opposed by the local community and environmental groups such as Extinction Rebellion. The CEO of the Spanish company about to build the new plant, when questioned at the Glasgow COP21, admitted that this kind of development would not be permitted so close to residential areas in Spain. Yet all the North London Borough Councillors involved voted to continue the project. This is another example of waste colonialism. Closer to home, yet still affecting poorer people more than the richest. Although air knows no boundaries, all North Londoners will be subject to the increased “sky fill” contaminating the air and the rainfall. It will fall on my spinach. It will fill my lungs, albeit with fewer particles per million than will fill the lungs of the good people of Edmonton.

What Will You Do?

Another aspect of yoga is satya, truth.

As individuals, we are in the process of facing up to the truth of the destruction that oil and plastic create on our planet.

We know the truth about what happens to our plastic waste now.

What action, karma, will you take?

Here is the link for the survey on single-use plastic, which will be sent by 38 degrees on your behalf to DEFRA (The Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs).

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