Hi, my name is Victor and I’m addicted to plastic. I can’t get through a single day without touching multiple objects destined for the bin. I’m fully aware that these objects are harmful to the environment – but I can’t stop.

Recently, while waiting in line at my local cinema, I witnessed an exchange that got me thinking about the choices I make every day and how I happily divest myself of responsibility. I noticed someone finishing a drink in a plastic bottle. They looked for a recycling bin and upon not finding one, approached the concession worker to inquire. The worker said they didn’t have one and an argument ensued about how they should have recycling bins available.

Watching this interaction from the comfort of my judgment bench, I immediately came up with two solutions.

Why not take the bottle home with you and deposit it in your own recycling bin so it can go on to be something great – like another bottle, a tote bag or a sweater made from recycled plastic fibre. It could be anything so long as you don’t have to be actually involved! 

Or maybe make a choice that doesn’t create the rubbish in the first place. Perhaps a nifty collection of hydroflasks would have saved that kid behind the popcorn machine an eye-rolling encounter with a righteously indignant patron.

Seems simple enough, but I really shouldn’t judge because I’ve made the same pro-rubbish choice many times, as most of us have. Our busy lives seem to entitle us to create waste and carry on with the assumption that there’s a giant, carbon-neutral machine somewhere that will clean it all up for us, so long as we put our waste in the right receptacle.

And I’ve further justified my use of plastic with the idea that I have a microscopic carbon footprint. I recycle, I’ve never owned a car, I’ve taken public transportation every day of my life. Add to that my vegetarian tendencies and surely I have more entitlement to single-use products than most, right?

But then I thought of my 30-year career in retail. How much plastic and waste have I pushed on the public over the decades? For example, I am old enough to remember the emergence of the miracle of the packaging world – the clamshell package! What an innovation! Products stay safe, protected, antiseptic, and pristine in this heavyweight clear material. Sure, it might send some less adept folks to the ER with severe plastic lacerations or induce a bout of “wrap rage” but surely it’s a small price to pay for the convenience of getting a perfectly ensconced, unsullied, germ free product.

What I didn’t appreciate until recently is that not all plastics are created equal, and clamshell packaging is a recycling nightmare.

Add to that all the other plastic packaging in retail products and the products themselves that have short life spans, and my teeny carbon footprint doesn’t look so good now.

In the end, individual efforts by consumers will not completely solve the problems we face. But I see an opportunity in cultural stores to give their visitors thoughtful alternatives to single-use products. We can become leaders in offering truly sustainable products through the decisions we make and by supporting, encouraging and partnering with suppliers to create products that have a smaller environmental impact.

Speaking for myself, this old dog needs to learn some new retail tricks. I’m educating myself and learning to ask new questions about products that are well beyond simple retail metrics and profitability. What materials were used to make an object? Where was it made? Who made it? What is the manufacturing process and how much waste or run-off results from that process?

I am excited about attending the Cultural Enterprises Conference to learn from others what they have done around the issue of retail and sustainability and share my own ideas with colleagues. My ultimate hope is that as a community of buyers and shop operators we can be both a support group and wield our collective buying power to induce change within our industry. 

Individual efforts are not the sole answer, but together, as a group and with a shared goal, I believe that we can create truly impactful and positive change and prove to other retailers that sustainable retailing can work.

Victor Oliveira is Director of Merchandising at the Peabody Essex Museum, Massachusetts. As this year’s recipient of the annual International Exchange Programme between the Association for Cultural Enterprises and Museum Store Association, he will be speaking at the Cultural Enterprises Conference about how museums can lead the way in reducing plastic usage, and will also join our panel discussion on sustainability.

Victor Oliveira
By Victor Oliveira
Victor has over three decades working in product development, management, publishing, merchandising and creating retail experiences for cultural attractions that include Boston Museum of Science, ICA Boston and Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and most recently at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
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