Ugh, I’m scared to listen to the news or look at the internet these days, and not just for the usual reasons.
The plastic situation is depressing me too much. It is so pervasive that it’s making it hard for me to organize this rant in a thoughtful and logical way. Let’s start at the beginning.
When I was a kid, way back in the late 20th century, plastic was everywhere but not the way it is now. It has become MUCH WORSE during my lifetime. Some minor, everyday things that were not normally made of plastic in the ’80 and ’90s but now almost always are include:
- Toothpaste tubes: these were made of some kind of soft metal. It was fun to roll them up.
- Candy and gum wrappers: everything was wrapped in foil, waxed paper, or paper. I never found anything problematic associated with this, except the odd ginger candy that stuck to the paper. But you could eat the paper in the worst case scenario, so who cared?
- Grocery bags: it was normal to get handle-less paper bags at the grocery store. You held them from the bottom. Sometimes they broke, but it was usually fine. Shoppers knew how to handle it, and the baggers doubled the heavy loads.
- Soda: it came in glass bottles or aluminum cans. Our friends at the horse farm had a soda machine that dispensed glass bottles. It had a bottle opener and a hole in the side of the machine for disposing of the bottle. (This was before the bottle bill.) (I wonder why beer isn’t sold in plastic bottles these days!)
- Water dispenser cups: these were always paper.
- Bottled water, which was rare, was always in glass bottles.
There are a jillion more examples, but these are the ones that come to mind quickly, and this post isn’t really about lists.
But to go back even further, the plastics craze really started during WWII. Invented decades earlier, cheap, lightweight plastic was a boon to the military industrial complex. I’m interested to read this book: PLASTIC: A TOXIC LOVE STORY, which points out, among other things, the lifesaving usefulness of plastics in the medical industry. I can accept its use there, to a degree, but its pervasiveness in the rest of the world is literally destroying our planet.
Post-war America was built of/on plastics. The kitchen was a hot spot for new plastics, as were the auto industry and household packaging. Plastic is cheap, lightweight, and easy to seal. Mice can’t smell food wrapped in plastic. Plastic is easy to keep clean. Plastic is shiny and apparently attractive to the modern rube. Why not wrap every single product in the known world in plastic? It seems that is what has happened.
Walk into your neighborhood pharmacy. I defy you to find anything, aside from magazines and newspapers, that are not packaged in plastic. Take a deep breath. The entire store smells of plastics and petroleum-based cleaning products. It does not smell or look like anything on Planet Earth should. It is utterly unnatural.
Slava loves the local upscale grocery store. I’m not a real foodie, and I wasn’t immediately sold. I’m generally more interested in thrift when it comes to food (and, let’s face it, everything else!), and this shop doesn’t have much in that department. I was, however, getting more interested in eating organic, not least due to big agriculture’s negative effects on the environment (is there a more ironic statement you can conjure?). Eventually, when I realized the upscale shop smells like food, whereas the big chain Big Ys and Stop & Shops smell like cat litter and scented candles (again, the revolting irony!), I changed my mind. These stores don’t give off the aurora of kitchens, rather that of bathrooms and litter boxes. Is this where we should buy our food??
Now and then I take note of what our trash is made of. I have to drive it to the transfer station, so I have time to reflect on it weekly. We don’t produce an awful lot of trash, and most of our disposables are recycle-able. I clean these and take them to the transfer station, toss them in the correct bin, and hope for the best. The actual trash is 90% plastic, and it’s all packaging, mostly food packaging.
We don’t use plastic bags at the store, but that doesn’t mean we don’t end up returning from the shop with disposable plastic. We like “fresh” pasta. It comes in plastic. I buy local milk in a returnable glass bottle, even though it’s not organic milk. We can’t be perfect, apparently. Yogurt almost always comes in plastic, although we have a local possibility in glass. Now that I’m a farm lady, I plan to start making my own, but haven’t yet.
PLASTIC BAGS Our town has banned plastic bags, and I’m always surprised when other towns find it to be a controversial proposal. It’s not difficult to bring canvas bags to the shop. When I forget mine, the shop provides a cardboard box. They have a million boxes, since everything is shipped to them in a box. No biggie, as we used to say. I never wish for a plastic bag. I never see old or disabled people shaking their fists and wishing for plastic bags. We can deal with this.
My Life as a Bag:
Scenario 1. You go to your local grocery store. I went to a big grocery store in a neighboring town recently to buy cat litter or something, a store where single-use plastic bags are still en vogue. I brought my bags anyway. I was behind someone with a cartload of plastic packaging, which was then transferred into about 8000 single-use plastic bags, put into their cart, and then into their car. So, these items are in these bags, which will never fully leave our world behind, for only a short period of time. This person probably shops once a week. So, 8,000 times 52 weeks = A SHITLOAD OF PLASTIC BAGS!
- You have a cartload of stuff.
- Cartload of stuff is placed in bags, and back into the cart.
- Bags are moved into the car. (Note: this moment, between the cart and the car, is the first time when the bag is “needed.”)
- Items are driven home (note: bags are not necessary while they are at rest in the car.)
- Bags are removed from car, taken into house. (This is point 2 when bags are “used.”)
- Items are removed from bags.
- Bags are now not needed. They are now either put into a place for bags, recycled at the grocery store, or thrown away.
Scenario 2. I go to our local grocery store. I bring my bags with me.
- I have a cartload of stuff.
- At the checkout, my stuff is transferred to my canvas bag. Anything that doesn’t fit can either go straight into the cart, or into a cardboard box.
- Steps 3-6 are repeated as above.
- Bags are returned to car to be re-used at the shop next time. No excess trash is produced, although it’s possible a cardboard box is recycled.
Scenario 3: The plastic bag escapes! The plastic bag, once Scenario 1 has ended, unsurprisingly escapes recycling. Now what?
- The bag flies up on the breeze and inspires a teenager to make an experimental film.
- The bag gets caught in a tree, outside the reach of a human hand. It remains here, blowing in the wind and fraying like an ancient nylon flag. Bits of it find their way into bird’s nests and the stomachs of wild animals.
- The bag winds up in the ocean, and kills any manner of sea life, birds, turtles, fish, etc. who innocently eat it. PS this news story today inspired this post, which as been simmering for months.
- The bag ends up in a desert where it mars the landscape and maybe is ingested by birds or other creatures. Maybe it strangles one of them.
- Best case scenario, the bag winds up in a landfill, where it remains for eternity.
Maybe I already told you this story. I used to work next door to a chain pharmacy. Once, probably 8 or so years back, I went in to buy something that was, no doubt, wrapped in plastic, and I told the Indian clerk I didn’t want a bag. He was ecstatic. (I paraphrase): “Thank you! Do you realize there is an island of plastic bags larger than Texas in the Pacific??? Why do we need all these bags?” [Here I will say, this is a moment I will always remember, when someone who seemed so different from me (an older man, an Indian immigrant, a clerk at a time when I hadn’t been a clerk in 20 years) was completely on my wavelength. I find it important to talk to strangers – we find so many commonalities!] I said something like, “It must be so hard for you to work here! People love plastic bags.” He replied something like “You would not believe it! People demand bags for things that are already in bags! Then they want me to double the bags! Why do they need all those bags? It is madness!” I agreed. He didn’t last long at the store, and I hope he found a job that didn’t involve wrapping things in plastic. I felt his pain. When I was a clerk in a convenience store, people would depress me with their unquenchable desire for plastic bags. It was like their purchase couldn’t be completed without a plastic bag around it.
For a while, when I was living in Boston and riding my bike every day, before they banned them, I embarked on a project picking up plastic bags during my commute. I got very good at picking up stray ones with my foot whilst riding. I’d tie them to my bike basket and count them up at the end of the day. And, of course, document it on Instagram. Occasionally I’d pull over if there was more than two on the side of the road. Which there often were.
PLASTIC WHILE TRAVELING. There are moments along the way when I can’t avoid plastic, but I try. I bring a metal water thermos to fill at the airport, at the very least. On a plane, they try to push a thousand plastic bottles of water. Try not to support this!
I had to sit here…..
Sometimes I’m forced into plastic use, for no real reason.
Other times, I just helplessly watch.
When traveling in poorer countries, I think I need to take my trash home. Witness our Egyptian experience. I want to travel more, of course. From my experiences in Argentina, Ethiopia, and Egypt, I’ll tell you trash means more than one thing. In these countries, we saw many people sifting through trash to make a living. In Egypt, plastic trash (bags and bottles) were ruining the natural waterways, bird life, and tourist destinations – the pyramids sit amongst a desert of discarded plastic bags and water bottles. When I visited Ireland as a kid in the mid-late 1980s, trash was a problem. Now the government, who recognize tourism as a major economy, have outlawed not only plastic bags nationwide, but have also cleared out the ubiquitous junked cars from everyone’s driveways. It has made a big difference! Many countries have outlawed single-use plastic bags. I hope the rest of us can follow suit soon. As someone who lives without plastic bags daily, I can tell you IT IS NOT HARD!
Jeeze, this blog post could go on forever. I will close in saying, think about plastic wherever you are. It’s always there and it’s never thinking of you, yet it will “outlive” you.