Novelist | Singer
“Ben, I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.”
“Are you listening?”
“Yes I am.”
“Exactly how do you mean?”
“There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”
Everyone past a certain age remembers that scene from The Graduate, released in 1967. I was seven years old, so I probably didn’t see the film for the next ten years or so. My parents would never have allowed it. When I recently reconnected with this scene, it struck me hard. He actually said, “There’s a great future in plastics.” He was right. We have already arrived at our great plastic future. There is plastic everywhere. And consumption is maniacal.
If I think hard, I can almost remember what life was like back then. We didn’t own much, didn’t buy much other than food or a few sets of clothing for the school year. Other than a couple of dresses (Easter and maybe something I could wear at Christmas) and some skirts, most of my clothes were from my two older brothers. Yes, hand-me-downs from male siblings, but fashion didn’t play a part in our childhood. Our clothes simply covered our bodies and kept us warm in the winter. We played outside with toys made by my dad or recycled from cousins or neighbors. We explored in the woods or at the nearby reservoir. It was a great way to grow up, almost free from adult supervision. Free to explore our world on foot or by bicycle. Oh, yes, and the bicycles were not new. They were also recycled hand-me-downs. The great thing was we didn’t feel poor or unprivileged. People pretty much lived the same. Possessions lasted a lifetime. I still own tools that my father had from before I was born.
Fast forward fifty years, and we now live in a high-speed world with frantic over-consumption, excessive garage disposal, overwhelmed workers, and environmental threats that exceed our mental ability to process them. Within my lifetime, we have gone from simple life with basic necessities to a society so excessive in production and consumption that it is literally choking our natural world.
Do a small experiment. Wherever you are at this moment, turn slowly in a circle and identify the plastic around you. In my home, this is a quick exercise, as I don’t have plastic items in many places, except for maybe my kitchen. Plastic is ubiquitous in the kitchen: the clock, utensils, appliances, containers, garbage bags, cutting boards. Then take a ride around the streets in your car and try the same experiment. Every couple of seconds, you will pass something made of plastic: signs, wire housing, fences, siding, car trim and bumpers, trash along the street. We are literally surrounded by plastic. And plastic is a wonderful thing; it lasts a long time, is not subject to decay like rust or rot, and withstands weathering effectively. We all use it. We all buy it. We all throw it away, or it blows away until it finds a resting place, by default, our ocean. We know there is a problem in our oceans, but recently, I have come across reports about plastic in our water. Not our ocean water—our drinking water.
By now, all of us are aware of the huge plastic patches in our oceans. The Pacific plastic “patch” (a misnomer, as it is not necessarily composed of visible pieces of plastic, but rather a plastic “soup” of microfibers) is estimated to be between the size of Texas and Russia. Though this is concerning, is way over there where none of us can see it. But the terrifying statistic involves invisible plastics in our drinking water. Evidently, 85% of tap water and 75% of bottled water contains plastic microfibers. Scientists have also discovered that when plastics dry in the sun, they shed microfibers small enough to be borne in the air and inhaled; small enough to fall to the earth in rain. We are literally ingesting plastic. Plastics that contain toxic substances. And when it enters our bodies, what happens? Do the microfibers stick to the alveoli in our lungs? Does it pass through our bodies or get stuck somewhere? I’m pretty freaked out about this. Shouldn’t everyone be? We can no longer ignore the results of our consumption and disposal.
So many of our environmental issues are out-of-sight, out-of-mind. We can carry out our daily lives without witnessing disposal problems. We separate our trash and set it out on the curb. In the morning, it is magically gone; something we don’t think about again. We don’t think about its ultimate fate; where it goes or what happens to it when it gets there.
Ideally, we separate paper, bottles and cans, rinsing them out carefully to make sure they don’t contaminate the rest of the load. I was shocked to read that ¼ of easterners do not recycle because it’s too much work. Funny. I’ve never noticed the “work” involved in recycling. You simply put the glass, plastic and paper in one container and the trash in another. I can understand to a certain degree not recycling if it is not available to you, like life in the south. But for us who have this free service–everyone should be willing to participate. Surprisingly, the Echo Boomers (age 18 – 30) are some of the worst offenders. One in three don’t recycle at all. In total, 23% of Americans do not recycle. That’s a lot—a lot of garbage that simply goes into the ground.
Add to this the other waste disposal method—composting. In our kitchen, scraps go into a container on the counter which gets transferred into the tumbler in the backyard, eventually becoming soil that goes back into the garden. I feel good about this; that I am doing my part to reduce the waste that comes from our moderate life style. It can be involved and physically demanding, but laissez-faire composters (me, for example) also have the option of simply dumping the scraps in the pile and throwing a shovelful of dirt over the top. Our resident microbes take care of the rest. The miracle that happens requires some delayed gratification, but oh what a prize at the end! And it’s free fertilizer to boot.
And yet food waste accounts for almost 15% of our garbage headed for the landfill according to the EPA. Organic materials produce methane in anaerobic conditions (our landfills), which is then release into our environment. Never mind that methane is a greenhouse gas with more warming potential than CO2, but those who have ever lived near a farm know that methane is not something you want to breathe. Maybe people don’t know how to compost, or maybe are afraid of attracting garbage raiding pests, but there are ways around it. I’ve finally foiled the rats who used to come over from the marsh.
Human beings are clearly the problem, but we can be the solution as well. With responsible disposal, the garbage flow could be slowed substantially. But how does one escape plastic in our world? We must start packaging goods in paper or some other biodegradable material. We must choose another option than a great future in plastics.