Community environmental action - Carrying our Future

Carrying Our Future is a community environmental group based in Palmerston North which aims to explore and offer alternatives to single-use plastic bag production, consumption, and disposal. Dr Trisia Farrelly, Senior Lecturer in the Social Anthropology Programme at Massey University, Manawatu campus, is a co-founder of the group. 

The co-founders of Carrying Our Future understood the significant cumulative impact the seemingly benign yet ubiquitous single-use plastic bag can have on our environment, the economy, and our health. Globally, one million plastic bags are used every minute and used for 15 minutes each on average. In New Zealand, 40,000 bags go to landfill every hour in our country. This totals approximately 1.6 billion/year or the equivalent of dumping 192,000 barrels of oil every year.

Where they can be recycled in New Zealand, plastic bags are merely ‘downcycled’ into things like park benches. They block stormwater systems, jam recycling processing units, strangle and block the intestinal tracts of sea birds and other animals. They do not biodegrade and the microparticles they break down into attract persistent organic pollutants (POPS). These then enter the food chain – and us. In landfills, they contribute to leachates and eventually contaminate soil and groundwater.

Dr Trisia Farrelly at the Single Use Plastics Forum at Massey University in December 2015. Photographer: Sy Taffel.

Dr Trisia Farrelly at the Single Use Plastics Forum at Massey University in December 2015. Photographer: Sy Taffel.

Since the group was founded in February 2015, Carrying Our Future has been very active. A public forum at the Palmerston North City Library launched the group in June last year. Local businesses, politicians, councillors and researchers presented at the forum and the public were encouraged to ask questions and offer their views. All the businesses on the city's popular George Street indicated support for the first of the group’s initiatives:  ‘Single-Use Plastic Bag Free Fridays on George’. This initiative encouraged shoppers to bring their own re-usable bags every Fridays when shopping on George Street. This was initiated with a free open air cinema viewing of ‘Bag It: The Movie’.

The group’s first nation-wide action was a submission to a parliamentary select committee for a nation-wide levy on single-use plastic shopping bags with Rebecca Bird (Our Seas, Our Future). This was followed up with a Single-Use Plastic Bag Forum held at Massey University last December in collaboration with, and funded by, Massey University’s Political Ecology Research Centre (PERC). The forum was well-attended by an eclectic group including industrial designers, a politician, a mayor, a waste engineer, an economist, a student environmental activist group, an entrepreneur, a waste consultant, a media expert, an environmental educator, two councillors, and a social anthropologist. The outcome of this forum has been the formation of a steering committee for a New Zealand Product Stewardship Council. One of Dr Farrelly’s summer scholars and anthropology student, Isaac Tombleson, prepared a report for the steering committee.

The group’s latest project is a reusable bag deposit scheme which is again focussed on the very popular George Street. If customers forget their reusable bags while shopping on George Street, they can borrow one from Carrying Our Future’s ‘bag box’, wash it, and return it the box at a later date. This is a project created by the community for the community: The bags have been made by Carrying Our Future volunteers with train the trainers workshops held by SuperGrans; the timber for the box was donated by local businesses and made by MenzShed; fabric is donated by local businesses and community members; the sewing machines were funded by PERC; and additional sewing machines and a work space were provided by the City Library. The photos below are from the recent community bag making sessions.

Photos courtesy of Trisia Farrelly, 2016.

If you would like to learn more, join the group's Facebook page. Also keep an eye out for a short film about Carrying Our Future created by PERC co-founder Dr Sy Taffel and his summer scholar, which is due to be released in the near future.

Dr Farrelly has recently published on Bisphenol A in New Zealand household plastics with student, Thomas Robertson. She is currently completing an article (co-authored with students Isaac Tombleson and Chad Foley) on single-use plastic bags. She will then be shifting her attention to styrenes in household products with toxicologist Professor Ian Shaw (University of Canterbury), and then plastic water bottles later this year. Dr Farrelly is also working on a three-year National Science Challenge (Sustainable Seas) project involving a critical discourse analysis of ‘social license to operate’ in New Zealand.