Plastic, Pegs, and Buying NZ Made

Black and white wooden clothes peg, photo by user andronicusmax from FlickR

Inspired by my plastic-free friends, I decided to start looking for some wooden clothes pegs. Wanting to invest in supporting local workers, and not wanting to selfishly invest in the exploitation of sweatshop workers in other countries, I also decided to look for NZ-made ones. But this is not as easy as it sounds. This article explores my quest.

Recently I got inspired by some friends who have committed to a plastic-free life (http://osof.org/portfolio/plastic-free-nz/). I think that's great, for a number of reasons. The feedstocks for most plastics come from the fossil fuel industry, which they effectively subsidize, so not buying plastic is a way consumers can stop investing in these climate criminals. Now it's true that as with bio-fuels, you can make plastic from biomass feedstocks like plants (or animals). But as with bio-fuels, that is an energy-intensive process that redirects biomass away from other important purposes like ecosystem regeneration, the human food supply, and so on. Plus, it results in the avoidable creation of, well, more plastic.

Which brings us to the second major problem with plastic, it doesn't biodegrade for hundreds or even thousands of years. What this means is that unlike wood, for example, decomposers like bacteria and fungi can't break plastic down into naturally-occurring chemical compounds that can be recycled back into their ecosystems. The plastic does disappear from view after a while, but that's because it breaks down into smaller and smaller bits, which end up all through the environment. A scary proportion of the plankton in some parts of the ocean is actually tiny pieces of plastic.

Now it's true there are extremely durable forms of plastic, like kevlar, and if you're making things that you want to still be around in a few hundred years, high-durability plastic might well be a sensible material to choose. As with making houses or furniture out of wood, making high-durability plastic is one way of sequestering carbon that won't end up back in the atmosphere for a really long time, which is good. But the problem with most plastic products is that they are either designed to be disposable, or made of such low grade plastic they fall apart pretty quickly anyway, especially if they are exposed to the sun and the weather. This works out pretty well for the companies that make and distribute them because then they get to sell more plastic to the same people more quickly. So even if they aren't making crappy products on purpose (planned obselesence), there's not much financial incentive for them to make more durable ones.

The final problem with plastic products is that most of them are imported, which creates three other problems. One is that they are transported using either ships or planes that run on fossil fuels, with huge carbon emissions that aren't even included in current carbon reduction treaties yet, because nobody can agree on whether they should be part of the exporting country's carbon budget, or the importing country, or a bit of both.

The second is that whatever it costs to import plastic products gets added to the bill that the whole country has to pay by exporting stuff (the "balance of payments deficit" in Treasury-speak). To add insult to injury, most people will recognise from their own experience that most plastic products get sent to landfill (if we're lucky) within a few months of buying them, providing very little value for money for both the customer and the country ("added value" in Treasury-speak). This means importing plastic contributes to even more environmental destruction in Aotearoa, by adding to the most common justification (after "jobs") for fossil fuel exploration, factory farming, and other industries that produce stuff that can be exported from the country.

Finally, by buying imported versions of products that can be made in Aotearoa, we are starving local businesses of the revenue they need to keep their kiwi workers in jobs, making those products locally, from local materials. Some things, like coffee beans and coconuts, can't ever be produced here in significant quantities, and others like cars and computers can't be produced here in the short-term, if at all. If we want those things and others like them, we need to engage in some international trade. But just because we're willing to pay someone to make us an espresso, doesn't mean we should pay them to come over to our house and poo in our toilet for us. Sure, on paper that looks like "economic growth", but there are things we can and should do for ourselves as a country. This helps the people who live here make a living and besides, if we don't invest in local businesses by paying for their products and services, how do they get started, and scale up to the point where they can export stuff to pay for the coffee beans, coconuts, cars, and computers we want imported?

In summary, if you want a product that will last a really long time, like the guttering on your house, and you can find one made from highly durable bio-plastic, by a local company, plastic might well be the one. For pretty much anything else, the plastic-free life in the way to go.

Which brings me to clothes pegs. We are lucky enough that the rental house we live in overlooks a steep gully with a stream at the bottom, which was planted out in a range of natives years ago by the wonderful couple who own the house. For reasons I really can't fathom though, our landlords put the clothes line on the south side of a two-story house, on a concrete pad next to the gully. No matter how consciencious we are, we just can't help losing the odd clothes peg into the bush, where they are impossible to recover. Every time I feel a stab of guilt about how many hundreds or thousands of years they might be there, assuming they don't get washed down into the stream, and end up on the beach or in the ocean. Not good.

I started my search for biodegradable clothes pegs at the good old "red shed". Not because I really expected to find NZ-made pegs there, but because you never know, and you have to start somewhere. Besides, like vomit-stained pavements downtown on a Saturday night, there's always one nearby. They did have wooden pegs, which is good, priced at $3.00 for 20. But they were made in China, and packaged in a completely unnecessary plastic zip-bag, which kind of defeats the purpose of plastic-free pegs.

My next stop was the local organic shop, Taste Nature. Their friendly staff pointed me to the pegs they stock, which are made of bamboo, and marketed by NZ company Go Bamboo. Thing is, they are also made in China, and cost $4.50 for the same number of pegs. If you're feeling charitable, you can also buy them from the Sustainability Trust for $6.95. They're not even Fair Trade certified, and there's no indication they are made by a self-managing manufacturing cooperative (as a lot of Trade Aid products are), which would have made me feel a bit better about them.

Our household collective (made up of students, minimum wage workers, and professional volunteers) can't really afford to spend more money for a product that's essentially the same as the cheaper one (who can?). Do the Go Bamboo pegs really offer any socially or environmentally significant points of difference to justify the huge price hike?

According to Go Bamboo, their pegs are "designed to weather New Zealand’s harsh UV conditions", and I can see why it's important to make sure my pegs don't get skin cancer. Seriously though, I'm sure bamboo would survive the UV better then any kind of plastic but probably no better than any other wood. They reckon bamboo is better though, because it "won’t stain light coloured clothes because of bamboo’s low tannin content". This is a problem I've never had, nor even heard of, and sounds an awful lot like a way of greenwashing a product that can't just be sold on its own merits. Bamboo is an incredibly fast-growing woody material and it's obviously better than using trees from wild forest to make consumer products. It may well perform better in many respects than plantation trees, and Go Bamboo have a list of bamboo benefits on their website that make this claim, but no links or references to any external evidence for them. If bamboo really is the wonder product they claim, why not harvest the bamboo and make the products locally?

Aotearoa has a huge amount of plantation wood and wood waste available that could be used to make pegs without importing bamboo from China. So, is there anyone making non-plastic pegs here? Maybe a web search can help me?

Fishpond is NZ's answer to Amazon, and my fiancee has bought a few books through them. They sell wooden pegs, but almost all of them are shipping from UK suppliers (plus one or two from the US and China), and I got no hits searching specifically for "NZ" or "New Zealand". I tried TradeMe, but it's time-consuming to establish which products there are new vs. second-hand, and where the ones being sold new are actually made. Heritage.org.nz are selling the no-spring style of wooden pegs, $4 for 12, but like a lot of sites I found with .co.nz web addresses, they don't bother to specify where they were made. After about an hour of searching, I couldn't find any that were NZ-made. My final attempt was a visit to the BuyNZ website. This is a great site, where you can search for NZ made products and businesses. Sadly, a search for "pegs" came up empty.

If you are a local social entrepeneur looking for a product to start making, I reckon locally made biodegradable pegs is a good one to consider. After all, we are going to want clothes pegs for as long as we wash our clothes. If you could match with the $4.50 for 20 that Go Bamboo charges, I'd definitely buy them. If you could match the $3.00 for 20 that the red shed charges, I can't see why you wouldn't sell heaps. Maybe they would even sell them for you? If anyone knows of any clothes pegs being made in Aotearoa, please let me know in the comments.