Try out this scenario for logic: produce goods that are made for short term consumption, and package them in containers that are then thrown away, made from a material designed to last forever. The plastic bottles holding our water, the bags we carry our produce home in, the straws we’re given in restaurants, the utensils and cup lids we see lining our freeways and gutters. Of course, we need to drink water, shop for food, and buy meals on the go in our busy urban lives, but the disposable plastic empties that result have quickly become a global nuisance, and an ecological nightmare.
The idiocy and calamity that ensues as the result of two realities:
One: plastic is not biodegradable; plastics are forever. Made from petroleum, they will not disappear in human history. Such is our short-sighted genius – we have invented synthetic chemical products that will disappear only in geological time, not human time;
Two: there is no “away”. Away is here. And here is where we live, our blue planet earth. “Out of sight” may be for some “out of mind”, but it is not unfortunately “out of existence”. So millions of these plastic bottles, bags, cups, straws, and forks end up in our storm drains, rivers and streams, and ultimately out to sea. Here, they are swept up by slow moving oceanic current systems, or “gyres”, which are becoming a veritable plastic soup.
So “away” turns out to be our oceans. As documented by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, the hundreds of thousands of these plastic items that wash out to sea break down into increasingly smaller particles, which fish and other marine creatures now mistake for food. This now presents a problem for us: more and more of the fish we eat are either consuming plastic directly, or eating smaller fish that are foraging on plastic particles. Science is beginning to ask the question: are chemicals from these plastics winding up on our dinner plate? This is perhaps the ultimate metaphor for our consumerism on land gone awry: we are beginning to eat our own waste.
As this calamity inches its way into our consciousness, more people are beginning to puzzle over solutions. Can’t we just clean up this mess and then behave more responsibly? It turns out to be more complicated. The extent of the problem and the size of these plastic particles in our oceans are too small to sift out (think sifting the Sahara desert) without in turn removing tremendous amounts of life plankton with it.
Compounding the problem is the plastics industry itself, producing billions of tons more each year, and fighting any reform efforts with deep pockets and powerful lobbyists. The chemical industry would have us believe that the solution is better recycling. This is a delusion. First of all, our current recycling efforts for plastic are inefficient at best. Most of the plastic items we dutifully place in our recycling bins are either sent to the landfill, or overseas. Secondly, most of our plastic waste can only be recycled once, after which it generally becomes trash. In effect, plastic recycling means “one step away from the landfill”. Finally, if we are lead to believe that we can just recycle our way out of this mess, than what incentive do we have to stop buying these throwaway products?
We’ve simply got to begin making radical shifts in our highly consumer lifestyles. For one, we need to start by buying less stuff, period. If the rest of the world lived as we do, especially here on the west side of Los Angeles, we’d all be goners. When we do need “stuff”, we can make an effort to buy it used. Poking around in thrift stores, garage and estate sales, Craigslist, or even Freecycle, one can find perfectly good “recycled” items, saving both energy and money, an added perk in these economic times. We can make an effort to bring reusable produce bags, coffee cups, utensil kits, etc. when we’re on the go, to avoid adding plastic needlessly into our environment. And we can demand changes from our legislators. We can bet the industry will be making its voice heard.
Making these shifts won’t always be easy or painless, but the stakes of doing nothing are too high. What we’re really talking about is not “saving the planet” – the planet will be just fine, perhaps better, without us. What we’re talking about here is saving ourselves and our children, a price we must all be willing to pay dearly for.