Assorted Opinions: Plastic
The thing you’re doing isn’t wrong. In most cases. What comes athwart environmental activism is the scorn, distrust, frustration of people who feel themselves harried over things that were always “okay in the past”. When you drink a Diet Coke and faithfully drop your bottle in the recycle bin, you’re not receptive to someone flying at you with an accusation of, “Single-use plastic!” And what part we can all do, though I don’t doubt the majority are prepared to tackle it, floats somewhere between “always this” and “sorry, that’s useless”.
Our planet’s salvation is going to be a matter of scale. I can’t feel, by myself, that throwing one piece of trash away is worse today than it was twenty years ago. I can’t feel that if I, by myself, conserve my spending of resources, and alter my personal habits, I’m making a global change. Environmental warriors have to be recruited on faith. And treated as wobbly, until enough are acting in concert that the impact is unmistakable. Our first pledge should be: if a person is trying, praise him. If she fails, encourage her to try again. If he and she (and they) are walking this path with you, don’t insist they keep to your pace, lest they fall by the wayside.
So much for PC. Our second pledge should be to maintain awareness. Every day, think about the plastics your fingers touch. Awareness can be a money-sink, and we often come across cause-mongers who collect donations on the pretext of teaching awareness, while anyone may reasonably prefer to see good works, rather than good talking. But, every time plastic comes into your life, it’s worth asking yourself, “Is there a way to avoid this?” (No charge.)
Now, as for the drink bottle, we have an entire essay, and later, I’ll give it to you. Getting rid of the plastic bottle takes you head-to-head with water quality issues, and water quality, especially globally…but in American communities that may feel themselves safe as well (fracking, farm runoff, being two contaminant sources), is huge and problematic. We can’t demonize people for drinking bottled water that’s filtered to a level of safety above that of their tap water. Plastic is of course a petroleum product, so plastic reduction initiatives may by attacked by some of the world’s worst polluting interests.
Culturally, a couple of things have come together to make plastic the scourge it’s become. One, a worldwide rise in living standards, that makes the plastic lifestyle available to millions of new contributors—to the burden of roadside ditches, that carry their trash to the rivers, that carry it to the oceans. Plastic trash also comes to the ocean from direct dumping in water systems, catastrophic weather events, and from shipping waste.
Another is the rise of disposable electronics, in tandem with the rise of the internet. We can buy a TV far more easily than in 1980; we have easy credit, and the percentage of our disposable income the price of a TV represents is a lot less. (A Sony Trinitron in the 1980s could be above $2000.) But nobody repairs TVs. Electronics are sometimes refurbished, but most people suspect the quality, fear the lack of warranty…and then, a brand new computer, phone, TV, is just a couple hundred…
The internet, meanwhile, is the phenomenon that gave us identity consumerism. (Likely there is a connection between this and identity politics; a heightening of difference-sensitivity, more petty things to separate people.) We all know you can buy, if you want a dog dish, or a laundry basket, any number of prints and colors. (Try a search on “rainbow storage containers” for the full spectrum.) Food packaging is possibly the most egregious source of plastic, now that consumers can choose from every imaginable toothbrush style, and toothpaste formula to go with it; from six or a dozen M & M flavors, blue, green, red and yellow fruit juices, many varieties of sliced cheese, fine degrees of whole wheat in bread…strong, soft, recycled, jumbo-sized toilet paper, etc.
And so, scale. A few things that aren’t tough, and won’t badly disrupt your life, but if a million of us do them…
It’s a good idea to go back to the “bulk purchase” plan first touted a few decades ago, and which, in the onslaught of personal-choice marketing, lost ground to cute individual servings. Buy the biggest size available of grocery items packaged in plastic, and divide them, into old-fashioned upcycled butter tubs, sour cream containers, anything with its own lid. Meal-sized servings are a thing you can make for yourself.
What about bags? I can well believe, because I feel it a little too, that not using “bring your own” at the grocery is spurred by suspicion it will lead to some sort of harassment. You’ll be asked to prove you aren’t stealing. Someone will think your bags aren’t clean enough… But you can make a strong dent by not bagging things at all, when the packaging they come in is adequate. (And except for refrigeratables, most will be.) Keep a crate or basket in the trunk of your car to carry purchases inside.
Spandex. Microfibers are a growing problem. This NPR report from 2011 says a combination of cheap prices and imagined, at least, consumer demand due to rising obesity, has made spandex use skyrocket until 80% of garments produced contain some. Organic fibers, cotton, wool, flax, hemp, are presumably digestible and decomposable. Plastic fibers break down into smaller plastic fibers. And you will be getting them inside your body. Buy your fashion in natural fibers, and buy your basics (jeans, teeshirts) second-hand.
Cosmetics. We love them, but. For one thing, you’re told to throw your gloss and mascara, etc., away every few months for alleged germiness…fortunately, a lot of us have used old makeup and lived to tell. Then there’s the temptation of colors and types, retinol creams, potions for sagginess…a great flush of precious little boxes, jars, and tubes. Not just for feminism’s sake, but for Planet Earth, you might pick one product you can do without, at least through 2020.
Now, how to complain. If you boycott, you boycott alone. If you use social media, you have an audience. First, let the company know you’re a customer. This is good advice I learned long ago, when people wrote letters.
“I love your shoes, but I’ve never used a dustbag in my life, and I wish you’d stop having them manufactured, and shipping them with every pair…”
“I buy jewelry for myself, and I don’t need a presentation box. Please offer an opt-out.”
“Your cookies are my favorites, but do you need a separate tray inside the package? Can you invent a box that does both functions?”
Finally, creative people, put on your thinking caps! I did research on upcycled products out there to be purchased, and not many were of practical use. Wall art, candles, decorative items generally, aren’t going to pull a lot of plastic out of the environment. But there’s bound to be a great idea waiting.
See more opinions on Assorted Opinions page
(2020, Stephanie Foster)