Systemic Change

In recent years, it has been impossible to avoid the media hubbub around getting rid of plastic straws. The environmental and wildlife degradation they cause has been highlighted on social media, in newspapers and on TV.

The awareness that this attention has brought towards the dangers of single use plastic is inherently a good thing. It is vital for people to understand the impact single use plastics have, especially those which serve no purpose after their single use and can very rarely be recycled (if you don’t know, head over to our Single Use Plastic Free challenge!)

However, whilst the significance of making individual lifestyle changes to help the environment should not be downplayed, there can sometimes be a gap in remembering the responsibility businesses, governments and other global leaders have in working to reduce fossil fuel use and waste production at the source. When the focus of environmental action is put only on individual action, it distracts from the need for major, systemic change.

Take single use plastics, for example. Walking around any supermarket, it is almost impossible to avoid plastic packaging. Around carrots, chicken, coriander or cereal: plastic is everywhere. With the exception of people who have the economic freedom to regularly shop at farmers markets, the vast majority of us find it tricky to shop in places where going plastic free is an option. The cost and responsibility is put on the consumer – to either travel further or shop differently, and to pay the price.

It is at this point we have to push back against the idea that this is the way it should be. In order for change to come at a systemic level, there needs to be a shift of responsibility away from individuals and onto the companies facilitating the continued creation of unnecessary plastic packaging for the purpose of short term economic gain.

The call for change in this area needs to address different leaders who have the power to influence key aspects of the industry. For example, a large amount of single use plastic cannot be recycled due to the materials used. In order for this to change, government legislation and policy, technological and scientific focus and company priorities need to be refined, to focus on maximising the use of recycled, and recyclable, materials.

On top of this, the commercial element of recycling means that the market for recycled plastics is becoming increasingly saturated, resulting in countries such as China announcing that they will no longer take no-residential recycling imports. Change at an international level to influence policy around the recycling trade would begin to address some of the issues caused by this.

However, the question remains about how we go about influencing this systemic change. It might seem that this change needs to happen at a level far removed from our own shopping bags, kitchen cupboards and weekly grocery choices. However, it is at this point that individual actions again become vital.

The commitment that we are making in changing our own lifestyles is a certain step one: as consumers, we have value in the market structures which influence production. The noise we make by our actions and words can direct the urgent need for change to those who have the ability to influence key areas. By channelling this into direct calls for change to specific decision making bodies, we can enable our decision making to have a broader impact.

This can take many forms, if that be through contacting companies directly, boycotting or reducing personal intake of certain goods, or contacting your MP to arrange a meeting and discuss the issues that matter to you. For example, this could particularly be by taking up yesterday’s call to action, to contact your local authorities to request information over their waste export practices. You can read more about this here.

As a Living Lent community, we have been clear that not only do we want to see whole-life change for ourselves, but for the world. Using our own commitments to influence those with the power to make broader, systemic change is part of doing this.


Bethan Laughlin is the JPIT/House of Lords Intern for 2018-19, working for both JPIT and The Lord Leslie Griffiths of Bury Port. She is a Politics Graduate with an interest in policy and social justice. Her background lies in Community Action along with working with female refugees and vulnerable women.