Scorning commercialism, my mother sent us outside to climb trees and explore. Without Star Trek action figures or Barbies, my siblings and I felt we had little to offer. However, we had one cool thing no one else did: plastic. My dad, working in the plastics division of a machine tool shop brought home big pizza size globs of twisted hardened plastics which were remnants from final products. These were shiny and sinuous with flowing patterns – none of my playmates could buy anything comparable in a toy store! I took friends to our dusty basement and showed them my claims to fame. Sometimes I cringe, when I think of how what decades ago I saw as my chance for status now seems ludicrous and backward.
Clearly, perspectives change. Society learns, we make mistakes, and we learn again. The 1950-60’s boom in plastics which was so integral to my father’s income has led to a situation in which America generates 34.5 tons of plastic yearly – enough to fill the astrodome over 1,000 times. Having blobs of plastic is hardly noteworthy. Americans not only generate this embarrassing amount of plastic but also ship it out to others to sort. Many of these recipient countries have minimal environmental regulation and mismanage up to 70% of what they receive. Mismanagement then often leads to dumping in the oceans.
While recycling offers one answer, it should not be the first but rather a last resort. Often times, recycling is merely a euphemism for describing the life cycle of a plastic bottle which takes a long and meandering route to only end up in oceans or in landfill. Americans might accept a belief that they are doing right by placing their bottles in recycle bins, but there is an ugly side to the story. The “out of sight, out of mind “mentality merely places the dirty burden on other countries.
Until recently, China accepted much of our plastic and made it into reusables andexported it. However, with concerns over toxic fumes, incessant foul stenches and the general health of its people and environment, China banned garbage from the United States. Our plastic was often too dirty/ too contaminated. Since China’s rejection, the United States has sought new asylums for its plastics. Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Senegal and Ghana are amongst the garbage collecting countries where now workers wear masks, plastic gloves and hats and fear drinking their own water. Despite the link between plastic’s toxic substances and developmental disorders and cancers, these countries accept the deadly burden. In short, our plastic is killing them.
To say marine life struggles would be a gross understatement. When plastic breaks up into smaller pieces, sea birds mistake the small color pieces for food and ingest them. Feeling full, these birds stop seeking food and die. The plastic in their bellies, after killing one bird, can be recycled to kill another.
Another example: sea turtles have been known to ingest plastic bags because they mistake them for jellyfish. Different sized plastics have different effects. Bottles and packaging can strangle birds and carry alien species to new areas thereby upsetting the natural balance. Smaller plastic pellets absorb toxic chemicals which when ingested, kill marine life. In the Pacific Garbage Patch, there is more plastic than plankton.
Think again. Might it not be better to reduce? Some families have made a list of all the plastic used in a week; the results are disheartening. However, the listing exercise does increase awareness and leads to a conscious effort to pay attention to purchases. If you don’t want to take on making a list of consumption, just try for a week be aware. What might you consider doing?
- Bring your own shopping bags – not just to the grocery store but also to the
library, the thrift shop, the pharmacy, the hardware store… etc.
- Stop buying water bottles and invest in a water filter.
- Buy aluminum straws – they are addicting and you will never want paper
again. Even kids who lose everything hold onto those straws.
- Buy clothes made with natural fibers – synthetic fibers often shed
microplasms during the wash cycle which then go down the drain.
- Think twice before buying double-cello-wrapped zucchini or apples.
- Skip plastic toys – consider wooden discovery blocks, tin children’s cookie
cutters and animal nesting dolls.
- Buy powdered laundry and dish detergents in a cardboard box.
The opportunities are endless. The hard part is changing the mindset. Become a savvy shopper and leave the conscious recycler as the last but still necessary step. The bizarre globs of plastic that I once cherished I now look to as a relic of the past. I know it is my job (at least in my own household and practices )to ensure it stays that way.
“How Plastic Effects Birds,” International Bird Rescue; “Where does Your
Plastic Go?” The Guardian (June 17, 2019); Earth Day Network (2019)