Living With Plastic
Updated: Oct 18, 2019
In the 20th Century, plastic took us from carrier pigeons to e-mail. Petroleum polymers transformed how we ate, dressed, worked, traveled, communicated and lived. I can't imagine life today without plastic. Susan Frienkel hit it on the head in Plastics: A Toxic Love Story where she wrote that she couldn't go a day without touching plastic. In fact, she noted that in one day she touched nearly 200 different plastic products. It's so ubiquitous that we don't think about what is or isn't plastic. It is so convenient, so useful, that I don't know how we can ever give it up.
And that terrifies me because I'm inundated with images of nature strangling on plastic. It was bad enough that there was one monstrous garbage patch floating in the Pacific Ocean, now I've learned that there are actually several patches around the world! When I went to Morocco last year, I saw plastic bags in the sand of the Sahara. When I walk out my front door, I see plastic bits and pieces dissolving into the ecosystem which means eventually into our food and into us. We have to face that we are both consumer and victim.
Because plastic is a monster. It's a zombie: it doesn't die even when its life is over. But there is no easy "chop the head off" solution to stop it. Burying it in a landfill isn't an option since, like the undead, it will still be there in 1000 years slowly weeping into the soil and aquifers. Burning it doesn't work because the flames release dioxins & other toxic chemicals. The sad fact is that plastic can't be "killed". It is not going away. So, like at the end of "Sean of the Dead", we have to find a way to co-exist with the zombie we've created.
Finding that balance is an unending battle. I would love to toss all my trash into one bag and be done with it. But no, I separate my trash by compost, paper, tin/plastic, and garbage. I always carry a reusable tote and a collapsable water bottle. Last year I purchased reuseable produce bags which I love using at the farmer's market. I also live in a city with a lot of public transportation options, so I haven't owned a car in over 20 years. I'm no saint. I fail often. But I never quit. Because I don't want the zombie to win.
But changing my consumer behavior alone wont stop it. Our survival will require finding some way to safely dispose of existing plastic while also sourcing alternatives that are cleaner to produce and wont live forever. There are amazing advances as scientists experiment with plastic eating nanotech and bacteria. And I am excited to see alternative materials like Igloo's paper & wax RECOOL ice chest, MycoWorks mushroom leather, and milk-based fibers and fabrics. The demand for innovation in waste management and "environmental management" has lead to more educational programs at universities around the country. These "students of plastic" are driving the search for solutions.
But those solutions will only happen if there is support. And by support, I mean money. The current politics of plastics focus their funds on traditional petroleum pouring massive amounts of money into Big Oil. Government subsidies keep the price of processing and refining artificially low, creating the illusion that plastic is cheap when the reality is that we've prepaid for it with our taxes. I wonder how recycling and research would change if we could divert a small percentage of those subsidies? Could we revamp the economics so that the cost to recycle plastic would be more profitable than manufacturing virgin plastic?
Bottom line is that plastic is here to stay. It has shaped our lives in ways we couldn't imagine 100 years ago. It changed how we preserve food and deliver medicine, how we build homes and travel around the world, what we wear and how we play. We're a fifth of the way into 21st Century and there are over 30 mega-cities around the globe with over half of the 7.7 billion people on the planet now living in urban instead of rural environments. With a smart phone, cell tower, and the internet, a boy in Nairobi has the same access to information as one in Arkansas. Plastic makes our lives easier, but we are just starting to pay the price for it. By 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean. Babies born today have 200 chemicals in their bloodstream, and so many animals are dying... all because of plastic. The short term choices we've been making are leading us to a plastic apocalypse. We have hard choices to make: do we want to live by plastic or die by it?