I have a confession: I know disposable plastic products are so wrong, but it just feels so right as a stressed out slipper-wearing college bum. It’s easy enough to bring my own metal water bottle and remember to bring reusable bags, but still my cobalt blue stocky fellow (a.k.a. the recycling bin) is filled to the brim at the end of every week. The thought of myself going through so many one-time-use plastic containers is an omnipresent source of guilt in my life, but I do admit, recycling day takes the edge off.
Well, if I wanted to be mean and name names, I’d go ahead and declare recycling the champion of slacktivism (definition: wanting to make a difference without much effort; example: read above) in the 21st century. But hey, being a big bully gets you nowhere. So, I’ll start by saying this — recycling is great. It’s an essential city-run program that is crucial when it comes to offsetting consumer waste. In 2012, Americans saved 2.8 million tons of plastic! Well, that’s like 9% of the total generated, but it’s much better than all of it going to the landfill. To put that into perspective, each ton of plastic recycled saves enough energy to power a two person house for a year. However, the critical part of my compliment cookie is this — although recycling plastic has it’s perks, it doesn’t even begin to solve the screwed up disposable situation we’ve gotten ourselves in.
A lot of environmentally-concerned folk regard plastic as the anti-christ of all things good and natural, and rightfully so! If you’ve done a little research on how to properly recycle, or if you’ve participated in buy-back programs, you know about the different numbers listed on plastic containers. Each one is different concoction of fossil fuels, such as liquid petroleum gases, natural gas liquids, and natural gas itself. They look eerily similar, with a slight difference in texture or opacity, but the differences are important. While all plastics are still out on the market, polyvinyl chloride (#3), polystyrene (#6), and the “other” ones not included in the rest of the list (#7) are widely accepted as the ones to avoid. One quick search on the internet will be sure to give you nightmares about hormone disrupting and cancer-causing toxins, along with a slew of studies that shed some bad light on the plastics thought to be innocent. Blogging mommies and angry health nuts are, to put it lightly, shunning anything plastic from their lives.
Before we pick up our pitchforks and toss our belongings in a bonfire, let’s go back to the beginning. Susan Freinkel, author of “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story” dropped the mic in the Opinion Pages of the NYT: “Originally, plastic was hailed for its potential to reduce humankind’s heavy environmental footprint. The earliest plastics were invented as substitutes for dwindling supplies of natural materials like ivory or tortoiseshell. When the American John Wesley Hyatt patented celluloid in 1869, his company pledged that the new man made material, used in jewelry, combs, buttons and other items, would bring ‘respite’ to the elephant and tortoise because it would ‘no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.’ ”
This may be an inappropriate response, but all I could do was chuckle when I read those words. How on earth did we mess up this bad? Plastic was a human-made invention that was actually curated with the good intention of saving our earth. Now, it’s one of the leading causes of destruction. Yikes.
I can answer my above question with two words: Disposable products. It doesn’t matter whether the container is made from plastic, glass, wood or tortoise shells; if it’s made for a one-day purpose, only to be discarded once the sun sets, we have a problem.
Our society has perfectly crafted the illusion of extreme convenience, so almost everything you can think of has a plastic, disposable version. This allows us to use products on the go, it allows us to get rid of them easily, and it allows them to be dirt cheap compared to their more permanent contenders. One-time use plastic products vary from being really good ideas, like medical syringes, to being completely unnecessary, like K-cups. Overall, the crime lays in the way we use the plastic.
The idea of disposability isn’t just an environmental no-no; it’s a social injustice as well. This is the part where we need to take a break from our busy tree-hugging schedule to shed some light where it’s real dark and damp — the topic of how our fellow humans are being affected.
The process of creating plastic and recycling it is a very toxic one. And to do it for cheap? Well, that involves hiring low-income people who will do the work because they simply don’t have another way to make ends meet. The idea of easy plastic disposability simply wouldn’t be possible without these people working in toxic conditions, or the ones who live nearby and don’t have the option of moving. The consequences of this deadly situation were once kept hush-hushed, because it was happening half a world away in poor provinces of Asia and affecting workers who didn’t have a voice. As demand for plastic increases, however, the evidence is showing up in our front yard. Parts along the Mississippi River are now dubbed “Cancer Alley” due to the harmful effects that the abundant industrial plants have on their workers and local residents.
Our environmental crusade shouldn’t be just a defense of furry friends and old forests anymore; it’s a defense of everything and everyone on this planet.
Van Jones said it perfectly in his TED talk: “You see, if you understand the link between what we’re doing to poison and pollute the planet and we’re doing to poor people, you arrive at a very troubling, but also very helpful, insight: In order to trash the planet, you have to trash people. But if you create a world where you don’t trash people, you can’t trash the planet.”
So, whom do you want to trash? What species is going to get the boot? What culture do you want to pick on? My hopeful answer, like that of a valiant third grader who dreams of world peace, is, “Can’t we just save everyone?” Well of course, no one asked me those questions. Creating a disposable product completely goes against the idea that I don’t want to dispose of any of those above things. But this system has been set in place for years upon years upon years. We have grown accustomed to the overwhelming perks of disposability, and with people picking up our crud curbside once a week, if I’m not careful, I catch myself not even thinking about it anymore.
For our plastic water bottles, we have a recycling bin to hide them from thought. But if there’s no recycling bin to deal with the resulting suffering (spoiler alert: there isn’t), it’s time to face the problem.
So, what do we do? The band-aid has been ripped off and my skin is on fire and I have tears in my eyes and I’m feeling a bit hopeless at this point, really.
Well, Susan Freinkel makes another good point in defense of plastic — it has been our downfall, but it can also be the thing that saves us. “Plastic has become synonymous with cheap and worthless, when in fact those chains of hydrocarbons ought to be regarded as among the most valuable substances on the planet…In a world of nearly seven billion souls and counting, we are not going to feed, clothe and house ourselves solely from wood, ore and stone; we need plastics…These ‘unnatural’ synthetics, intelligently deployed, could turn out be nature’s best ally. Yet we can’t hope to achieve plastic’s promise for the 21st century if we stick with wasteful 20th-century habits of plastic production and consumption. We have the technology to make better, safer plastics — forged from renewable sources, rather than finite fossil fuels, using chemicals that inflict minimal or no harm on the planet and our health.”
Say it with me: We can do this.