PLASTICS have been bothering me for a while. Single use, disposable items seemed so obviously anti a low impact life and so easy to avoid. Straws, bags, bottles, food packaging: for a long time now I've made the effort to avoid them as far as possible. Ready meals give me the heebie-jeebies, carry out coffee cups leave me heavy of heart.

These items are all part of our hyperdrive, consumer led society. I've never been a one for conspicuous consumption so a desire to live lightly hasn't been too hard to implement: avoid throwaway fashion, switch to a green energy company but keep the heating off anyway, cycle everywhere, don't eat meat.

Ah, but three weeks ago I flew Glasgow to London - 345 miles. London to Singapore - 6,741 miles. Singapore to Sydney - 3,918 miles. How many trees should I plant in penance?

Despite best intentions, our own immediate self interest overrides.

In Sydney we visited the Powerhouse Museum where I spotted my mobile phone in an exhibit about changing technology. "That still works?" another visitor asked, with an air of impressed incredulity.

My current mobile is literally a museum piece. Do the subsequent handsets I've avoided buying cancel out the flight emissions of the next leg of my trip? Sydney to Wellington - 1387 miles. Auckland to Sydney - 1345 miles.

The museum gift shop was heaving with sustainable alternatives to everyday objects. Bento boxes made from plastic recovered from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Picnic crockery made from sustainable bamboo.

Do I update my plastic lunchbox with a sustainable bamboo lunchbox? How environmentally friendly is it if I put my perfectly serviceable plastic tub in the bin?

Gross consumerism harms the environment but, now that environmentalism is a hot topic, a trend piece, virtuous consumerism is stepping in to offer green alternatives. Consumption is the problem, consumption pretends to be the solution.

Shelves of self-respecting department stores are heaving with walnut wood reusable coffee cups and water bottles in stainless steel with hand marbled finish.

Consumerism is such a boondoggle yet it is a mainstream ideal. You see it in the current vogue for calling patients "clients" and social service users "customers". To be a consumer is a compliment.

It's incredible how quickly the plastic straw has become a totem of environmental evil, banned by corporations and governments alike. It's predictable how quickly businesses have stepped in to offer snazzy alternatives - glass straws, steel straws, pasta straws, decorated paper straws.

People with disabilities are hindered by plastic straw bans, the items can be vital for independent living. How grand it would be to see these firms stepping in to create viable, green solutions to that issue, rather than trying to make an obvious buck from the hipster crowd.

Is activism you can Instagram really going to save the planet? A backlash says no, the solution is not to focus on the individual but to look at structural forces.

This week a new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, compiled by hundreds of researchers and reviewers, set out baldly that our way of life must change drastically if we are to save the planet from devastating global warming.

In response has come a bombardment of think pieces offering advice: we must eat more beans and pulses in place of meat and dairy, we must switch to electric vehicles, we must create carbon neutral homes.

My grandmother's generation, from necessity, shopped with paper bags, ate a locally sourced diet and got by without the slew of home appliances we now take for granted. Our inventions - plastic, intensive farming - to make life easier for ourselves have backfired.

Now we need to innovate to save us from the unforeseen byproducts of our innovations. We face social, environmental and ethical challenges that will need a multi-disciplinary approach to solve - using design, manufacture, science and technology. Perhaps also traditional crafts and skills.

It is too easy to dismiss individual choices as non-impactful. While urging people to swap a plastic straw for a pasta straw does relatively little, in the grand scheme of things, it does open the conversation about why change is necessary. Putting the environment to the forefront of consumer consciousness paves the way for spurring people to collective action.

And it is only collective action and united pressure that will prompt governments to make the sweeping policy changes needed for meaningful environmental stewardship.

At the Australian Museum an exhibition explained the Aboriginal connection to Country. The English word has a different meaning; it encompasses land, sky, water, living things, culture.

Cultural laws dictate balance in taking food and resources from Country with an emphasis on ensuring enough is left for both neighbours and future generations.

"Look after Country and Country will look after you." This seems such an unarguable approach against our Western ways. We eschew thoughts of what we can do for what we can have.

I should feel guilty about air travel. We should feel guilty about so many of our choices. Ultimately, though, it is the cult of consumerism that must fundamentally change as we adjust to using less and doing more.