Sometimes I am so overwhelmed by a glut of information on a topic, the immensity of a problem or a challenge, that I quite literally don’t know where to begin. Plastic pollution is such a topic. Plastics and me have had a decades-long feud. Though I grew up in the early days of the plastic boom, love for the natural world and wilderness led me to associate plastics with everything cheap and shoddy. The preponderance of the growing available products—from cheap tourist souvenirs to Tupperware (remember the parties??!)—helped me associate the word “plastic” with things that lacked authenticity: cheap imitations, counterfeit, false, fake, superficial, synthetic, and MAN-MADE.
As I moved from my parents’ home, my older sister gave me a set of dinnerware; four each of plates, bowls, and cups—a generous gift to start my adult life. But I was horrified because they were PLASTIC! I’m sure she felt conflicted and confused by my reaction, but the plastic set was returned to the store and traded for a couple pieces of cast iron cookware. (I later settled on a set of ceramic dinnerware.)
Shortly after that, I discovered No More Plastic Jesus by Adam Daniel Finnerty that became a guide book for life. Once again here, plastic meant fake, artificial, and superficial. It has been my lifelong passion to seek genuine things. Some of those are indeed crafted by human hands (take pianos, for example, or the handcrafted furniture in my office made in my father’s woodworking shop), but they use what Nature provides, not what chemists can create by manipulating petroleum into indestructible other stuff.
Having studied a science discipline in my undergraduate curriculum, (geology, a “natural science”) I get testy when people sneer at science and scientists in general. I recall a class I took in preparation for a secondary teaching certificate in the physical sciences. It was called “Science, Technology, and Society” and was a forum to examine ethical questions behind scientific exploitation of Nature’s gifts. Just because we CAN do something, doesn’t mean we SHOULD.
Chemists are scientists too. Just because we know how to re-form the molecules in petroleum and natural gas into long, indestructible polymers, doesn’t necessarily mean we should. Discarded plastic products pile up in waste streams and emit the toxins added somewhat secretly by petro-chemical companies to enhance product qualities, clog waterways and swirl in our oceans. It’s becoming clear that even though we humans discovered how to make cheap single-use plastic products, we should not be inundating our planet with the stuff.
Environmental writers around the world note that some plastic products are very beneficial. In the medical field, plastics save lives. In transportation, they help make our vehicles more fuel efficient. On a piano keyboard, plastic saves the lives of elephants whose tusks formerly were used to cover wooden keysticks.
Most of the beneficial plastics are meant to endure for decades. Those we encounter on grocery shopping trips are meant to be thrown away. Single-use plastic products, packaging, and shopping bags have become a huge global problem. And that’s got lots of people riled up, justifiably.
This month of July has become the month of plastic trash awareness in my house. YES! Magazine issued an invitation to join their team for a “Plastic Free Ecochallenge” through July. On the website are hundreds of ideas to cut or eliminate personal plastic consumption in areas of food, personal care, life style, pets, family, and community action. There are campaigns against single-use plastic around the globe. Break Free From Plastic lists campaigns by the groups Beyond Plastic, City to Sea, GAIA, Greenpeace, People Over Petro, Plastic Free Seas, Plastic Pollution Coalition, Plastic Soup Foundation, Recycling Network, Friends of the Earth, Surfrider Foundation, and others. GAIA offers a “Zero Waste World Masterplan.”
I’ve been reading Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage by Heather Rogers, Turning the Tide on Plastic by Lucy Siegle, and Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too by Beth Terry. In addition, there are numerous blogs addressing plastic pollution with ideas for each of us to make a statement–and a difference–in various ways.
The pictures painted by each of these authors show a global emergency. If we don’t curtail the production and use of single-use disposable plastics before the plastics industry is a century old, there will be more plastic items in the Earth’s oceans than ocean life. No form of animal life –not even humans—will be free from synthetic polymers in the organs of their bodies. (Discover Magazine, “Microplastics are Everywhere, But Their Health Effects on Humans are Still Unclear”, Jillian Mock, January 11, 2020)
Plastic pollution is a global crisis and it’s driven by the petro-chemical industry. In my hometown, every year a group of volunteers cleans our beautiful park of plastic trash as an April, Earth Day project. How disheartening to see the confounded stuff return before May 1! Some trash blows in, other items are carelessly littered, still more is “harvested” from appropriate trash receptacles by roaming nocturnal wildlife.
Our homes are filled with the indestructible polymers. With daunting names like low density polyethylene, (LDPE), high density polyethylene (HDPE), polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene, (PS), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), polychlorotrifluoroethylene (PCTFE), nylon, or thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), these “poly-mers” are found in items from children’s toys to floor coverings, to toothbrushes, to water pipes, to cookware and grocery packaging to nearly everything else.
The Story of Stuff organization has produced a documentary, The Story of Plastic. This film takes a sweeping look at the man-made crisis of plastic pollution and the worldwide effect it has on the health of our planet and the people who inhabit it. Spanning three continents, the film illustrates the ongoing catastrophe: fields full of garbage, veritable mountains of trash, rivers and seas clogged with waste, and skies choked with the poisonous emissions from plastic production and processing. With engaging original animation, archival industry footage beginning in the 1930s, and first-person accounts of the unfolding emergency, the film distills a complex problem that is increasingly affecting the well-being of the planet and its residents.
Locally, we’ve been given a chance to view this highly acclaimed film as part of Marquee’s Green Screen summer film series, Saturday July 24, 7:00 pm in the lobby of the theater. Local residents are invited to come to the screening. There is no admission charge. To view the film’s trailer, check https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37PDwW0c1so. Bring questions and ideas about combatting the local glut of plastic trash. Be sure to RSVP on Marquee’s Facebook event page so organizers can plan accordingly. For a five-minute animated condensation of the documentary, see https://www.storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-plastic-animation/