My Plastic Challenge to You: Stay Sane

So, it’s not a plastic challenge, as in a challenge that isn’t real. No, no. The plastic is very real, and so is the challenge. Funny, though, that the word “plastic” is used to describe things that aren’t real. Because it’s a fake-feeling creation. In the eyes of 20th century humans who started out the century mostly using things that were actually made from.. well.. real stuff, like wood, stone, clay, and natural fibers, plastic was a new-fangled, science-y substance that represented modernity (although plastic seems to have been “created” in the mid-1800s, following on the heels of rubber). The Free Dictionary online describes plastic in entry #9 as “marked by artificiality or superficiality; synthetic” and gives an example of “a plastic world of fad, hype, and sensation.” Used to be, it was a new sensation, a good sensation, even. How the tides have turned! Plastic is now the thing most things are made of, and if you look around you, you will be shocked and, hopefully, appalled at how much of your life has become about plastic. Double-meaning taken, to include credit cards, and the buying power of credit cards to purchase all this junk – and, to be fair – all the great stuff made of plastic. Great, life-saving devices, fun things, useful things, slinky and sexy and shimmery things. All that stuff. However, it’s out of control. Our consumption generally, yes, but moreover our consumption of things made of plastic that we could, frankly, do without.

Doing without is not what most Americans – and increasingly, the people in all those parts of the world who crave and mimic our disposable lifestyle – it’s not what we do best.  Pollute? Hey, we’ve got that down. But I want desperately to be a person more in solution mode than a person in problem-exacerbation mode, so this week, starting today, I’m taking The Plastic Challenge.

Check it out here: http://myplasticfreelife.com/showyourplastic/

I do love a challenge, and I have recently refreshed my knowledge of the horrors of plastic pollution. If you want a real shocking look at the end result of our plastic consumption (and who wouldn’t?!), check out this website: http://5gyres.org/

I was inspired by my friend Michele’s post of the TedxDelft video (not a real “TED Talk” but an independently organized TED event) of Boyan Slat, an aerospace engineering student at the Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands. (Thanks, Michele) He’s a cute guy (I know, is that really relevant?) who obviously possesses brains, talent, and passion, but apparently his invention, in it’s current design, wouldn’t stand a chance against the real-life challenges of cleaning plastic debris out of the world’s oceans – a project on the scale of… no other project on earth. But he is, at least, working on it, however new to the game he may be. Leading scientists and experts have dedicated themselves to the massive problem of plastic pollution collecting in astronomical quantities in the five great ocean gyres (large systems of rotating ocean currents), and have found it daunting, to say the least. As we know, plastic lasts “forever”, and although plastic is eventually “broken down” into smaller pieces in the ocean, that isn’t actually a good thing. In fact, it contributes to a larger problem. As the larger pieces are broken down by sun and sea into tiny bits – smaller and smaller as the environment works on them, until they are as small as the microorganisms that surround them – tragically, they enter the marine food chain at every level, and therefore enter bodies of our planet’s precious marine life along the way and eventually kill them – if the creatures haven’t already been killed outright by becoming tangled in and/or choked by the vast web of plastic infiltrating every square mile of what we used to think of as the unfathomable, infinite and ever-self-cleansing ocean.

Image

Photo credit: Mindfully.org. Bottle caps and other plastic objects found inside the decomposed carcass of a Laysan albatross on Kure Atoll, which lies in a remote and virtually uninhabited region of the North Pacific.

Unfathomable no more. The plastic pollution problem in our oceans is real, it has been measured (to the degree possible, given the scale of the task), and is sickening to contemplate. But the worst part – or the most maddening aspect of the problem, anyway – is that so much of the plastic currently trashing our oceans came from such frivolous sources!

The other day, I watched a checkout clerk put a large, plastic laundry detergent bottle – the ones with the huge, super-convenient handles – into a plastic bag for a customer. She did it mindlessly, with no thought for the future. La, la, la – like that. The customer – a strong, healthy young woman – just grabbed the bag that now held the already-designed-to-be-portable detergent bottle and placed it in her cart with the 15 or so other plastic bagfuls of double-, triple-, and quadruple-wrapped products we buy every day with the casual air of someone having no idea what they were doing to the planet. I, on the other hand, felt such a rush of insane, suffocating anger rise up from the depths of my tortured soul to the top of my head that I truly expected my head to explode on the spot, spewing brain bits all over the plastic-pushing grocery clerk and the plastic-toting customer. Serves ’em right! you might be thinking. Or perhaps not. Perhaps you are thinking, wow, what a nut-job!

It’s true. I’m becoming so obsessed with the environmental problems facing us now that I’m liable to lose my composure at any minute. Because it’s all real.

The poor customer, though I intuitively disliked her for her flouncy hair and happy-go-lucky air, seemed nice enough. Just a regular person, doing some grocery shopping on her way home from work. Boy, was she wrong!

Rather than leave my purchases on the belt and run out of the store screaming obscenities and ripping chunks of hair and scalp out with my bare hands, like I wanted to, I politely smiled at the grocery clerk and said (rather sweetly, I think), “Do you really need to put that in a bag? It’s already got a handle.” Well. If you want to piss people off, try making a remark like that at your neighborhood grocery store. The clerk looked at me like I was a very unattractive, slimy and possibly diseased bug that had just landed from Mars, and then , as if she saw such bugs every day, she just shrugged. She obviously didn’t have the energy to deal with me. The shopper, on the other hand, threw a withering look over her shoulder that left nothing to the imagination. I interpreted it as a combination of “Mind your own %$#@ing business, bi-otch!” and “What kind of freak are you?”

At these moments, I try to remind myself that life is not a popularity contest. But I’m human. I want people to like me. It does make me uncomfortable questioning the status quo like this. I am basically a nice, shy sort of person who forces herself to get out there in the world and interact with fellow humans in fun, productive, and loving ways. However, my growing rage at the casual attitude we all (or most of us) have towards abusing our lovely, precious planet (the one my beloved son is inheriting) and its innocent creatures is propelling me headlong into the kind of antisocial behavior that gets you uninvited to parties. I hope I will have the strength to further alienate myself in my small community going forward.

ImagePhoto Credit: Oceans Rock!

Only 5% of plastic waste is recycled.* So it’s up to us to cut down on consuming plastic items and stop accepting plastic packaging and once-used, unnecessary carrying bags. To see a grown man accept a flimsy plastic bag to carry two lemons in is the stuff that makes me want to either cry, right there in the checkout line, or get on my knees and hold onto his pant’s leg begging him to give back the bag. (But that begs the question: shouldn’t a man be proud to put two lemons in his pant’s pockets and stride out of the store?)

I know I can’t be doing that kind of crazy shit in the local grocery store. I have to make a living in this town. But we’re our only hope. Overworked, stressed out, earnest citizens who have a lot of other things they’d rather be doing, but in fact have nothing more important to do than dedicate themselves to reversing the destruction, one shopping trip, one takeout dinner at a time.

So… I’m taking The Plastic Challenge and collecting all the plastic garbage I produce in one week and taking pictures of it and filling out the form. I actually think it will be fun, in a twisted sort of way. Then I’ll recycle what can be recycled, and toss the rest of it on top of the plastic graveyard I have in my garage that is growing at a disconcerting rate. Plastic hoarding is unmanageable, in the long run. Already there’s no room left for the car. Ideally, the day will come when there will be a place I can bring it for recycling. So I wait. Because knowing my plastic garbage could end up in the belly of a whale or wrapped around some poor seal’s neck is just unconscionable to me.

That’s the thing about knowing stuff. You can’t un-know it. And then you have to take action or go mad.

Wanna join me? Taking action, I mean, not going mad!

*5 Gyres Institute. “What is the problem? Plastics: designed to last forever, made to throw away.” Online at http://5gyres.org/what_is_the_issue/the_problem/

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6 thoughts on “My Plastic Challenge to You: Stay Sane

  1. So, I’m up for the challenge, but maybe it’s also useful to then take a picture of the stuff that can’t be recycled, after all the recyclables are sent on their way. I’m pretty impressed that between our recycling facilities locally, and the various places that accept those awful plastic bags for recycling, a whole lot less is going into the waste stream. But I was just remarking to myself this morning that it seemed totally unnecessary to wrap a glass vitamin bottle totally in a protective plastic wrapping!

  2. Yes – so true that there are now ways to recycle even plastic bags, though, unfortunately, most parts of the country and the world, people don’t bother. And recycling is great, but usually only adds one round of life to an item, then it has to be thrown away (as I understand it… need to do more research on that!). #1 and #2 plastics are widely recycled, and now plastic bags, but in my town as in most, they don’t want to see the other types of plastics in the bin… so they go in the garbage (or in the growing plastic mountain in my garage!!) And YES – layer upon layer of packaging only benefits the plastics makers, and some very paranoid people.

    • Long overdue are pictures of my week’s worth of plastic. (Sadly, I can’t figure out how to attach pictures to this post…) I didn’t include my partner, as I couldn’t count on him to remember to put the plastics in the special bag, but I can reasonably say that this pile would be twice as large if he was included. The first picture I took was all the plastic that passed through my hands toward the trash this week, and it almost filled a (paper!) grocery bag. The second was what remained after the rest was sent for recycling. The pile was reduced by about 2/3 – about the size of my smallest cat, who was included in the picture for scale.

      We are blessed with single-stream recycling in our town, and I know the plastics aren’t just shipped from there to some third-world country, as I’ve done a bit of research. Between the stores that take back the plastic bags and the single-stream, it’s pretty obvious that a lot of the waste plastic could be diverted if municipalities were willing to take this on.

      Particular irritants – the newspaper that came wrapped in TWO plastic bags on a sunny day; the “safety” wrapping on a glass bottle of vitamins that completely covered it; plastic caps that still aren’t stamped with a recycling code and thus need to be put in the trash.

      You are absolutely right. This is a nightmare

      • Cory – You are amazing! I, too, collected my plastic and have yet to document it! It is sitting there, in a reusable shopping bag, waiting for me to do so and I’ve just been too busy. But you’ve inspired me to procrastinate no longer!
        There are so many unnecessary uses of plastic that irk me – your examples are good ones!
        I have yet to look into where our recycled plastic bags go that are collected at Price Chopper, but I have the name of the company that picks them up, and will report on that soon.
        Great job!
        Judy

  3. Little ‘ole me? I inspired this stroke (and luckily not yours in the grocery store) of genius? I am flattered…and also angry, like you, at the robotic world that accepts plastic as though it were the life blood flowing through their veins. Michael never seems to think we have enough of the offensive plastic bags in our house. I constantly argue with him to insist on paper only, at least, when a bag is even necessary. People had better wake up. I have tried to remind my daughter of the evils our nonstop “productivity” is doing to our lives and the lives of our wildlife. When she graduates from college, anyone pulls her aside and mentions the word “Plastics” to her will have me to deal with. It was cute for Dustin Hoffman, but not my kid.

    • I do sometimes forget my reusable, heavy grocery bags… but I’ve gotten a lot better at remembering them. The photos of where all the plastic ends up are so disturbing, so horrible. That one of the seal is one of the tamer ones.. at least it’s still alive. I’m horrified at how much plastic I’ve already collected this week (inner linings of cereal bags, granola bar wrappers, meat wrappers, it goes on and on. I pine for the days when you’d go to the butcher, baker or whatever, and they’d wrap your stuff in paper. What REALLY kills me is each pepper, or two ears of corn, on a styrofoam plate and wrapped in plastic! Does the plastic industry really have that much power? Answer: YES! As an animal lover, Michael would be very disturbed to visit one of these marine plastic clean-up organization’s websites and see all those pictures of poor creatures dead of plastic.

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