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Greek village rides the rise and fall of plastic

  • 09 March 2018


I tell my descendants tall tales and true from the legendary past. The true ones inform them I was born pre-TV, pre instant coffee and dishwashing detergent, and pre-plastic. Definitely pre-plastic.

There were no plastic covered polystyrene trays at the butcher's, housewives put fruit into home-made string bags, and children knew the grocer would serve broken biscuits with his bare hands: there was nary a latex glove in sight, and said bikkies were always presented in a paper bag. This was saved to do duty for at least one school lunch: Tupperware and its ilk were invented in the USA in 1946, but took a good 15 years to reach Australia. And even longer to reach Greece.

Greeks were predictably instant fans of plastic, for plastic represented convenience and an end to domestic struggle. The first Christmas my family and I were in the Peloponnesian village I sent my two elder sons to their grandmother's house with presents of an earthern ware bowl and matching jug. Yiayia Aphrodite was somewhat less than thrilled. 'These things remind me of the bad old days,' she announced. 'Take them back to your mother and tell her I want something new in plastic.' It was a point of view, and also part of my long learning process.

Aphrodite had always, of necessity, practised frugality. She cut old dresses into strips and wove cotton rugs out of them, she used matches twice if she possibly could, and she saved every piece of string. She never bought paper tissues (although she had a supply of paper napkins for visitors) or used anything that could not be washed and used again.

I don't suppose she ever thought about recycling, and she certainly did not worry about the environment, but when plastic bags came into still-new supermarkets, she immediately made use of them. Handy containers, they hung from hooks and nails in kitchen and store-room, but she also cut them into strips and then plied her crochet hook very busily: I think every house in the extensive neighbourhood had received presents of circular blue and orange bathmats and doormats.

Now I learn that women in Guatemala are weaving bags and bag linings out of used plastic. In a thousands-year-old Mayan tradition they use portable backstrap looms: one end is anchored to a tree or post and the strap around the waist enables the weaver to control tension. They are recycling, and making concerted