Planet or Plastic?
The great sleight of hand.
As a young child, I spent countless hours hiking in beautiful pristine places. And when we packed food, we always took our trash back with us. I took it a step further, though, because I did not want to litter in any way. So I began a ritual of eating apples down to the stem not to drop cores on the forest floor.
That consideration of the environment has continued my entire life. If you are old enough to remember “paper or plastic,” you will recall that at the time, plastic was considered to be the more environmentally friendly choice since our virgin forests were rapidly disappearing. However, nobody ever bothered to inform us that it was a) not biodegradable and b) frequently not ending up in landfills.
I, along with other consumers, naively trusted corporations (except the tobacco industry) to act in the best interests of people and the planet. For example, when body washes came on the market, I was thrilled that I no longer had to deal with messy hair-caked soap bars. What would happen to the empty plastic containers never even crossed my mind — especially once the ubiquitous recycling symbol appeared on the packaging.
We were all duped — there was no plan in place to “Keep America Beautiful” — much less to protect earth from our wasteful ways. The iconic ad from the 1970s featuring the fake Native American who originally cried a single tear meant to encourage us to end pollution was, in fact, sponsored by big beverage and packaging corporations!
The joke was on us. Companies dodged culpability and lay responsibility for the preservation of the environment at the feet of consumers. They had no compulsion to change their modus operandi. Yet, we continued to believe that they were “doing the right thing” and that the “system” contained and managed our waste to the point where it was not an issue.
Fast forward 40 years. By now, every human on the planet is aware of the toll taken by our consumerism. It is a widely held belief that there will be more plastic in the ocean by the year 2050 than fish! If that is not a scary statistic, then what is?
Yet, in industrialized capitalist nations, we are still enmired in our wasteful habits, and most corporations have yet to do their part to end the flow of non-biodegradable or non-sustainable products. Worse yet, plastic production is slated to be increasing in the future instead of being scaled back! This is unsurprising, as manufacturers are looking for a way to keep their profit margins because their other cash cows (oil and gas) are finally dropping off.
Up until now, wealthy countries have not had to bear the burden of their trash. Ironically, the expense of not changing the system now will result in a deadlier future, where money may no longer matter.
The term “recyclable,” which companies use to get themselves off the hook, is nebulous. Just because something is theoretically recyclable does not mean that it will ever be in a position to be recycled since every ordinance has its own rules. The sobering truth is that less than 9% of all plastic has ever been recycled. Furthermore, now that China since 2018 is no longer taking any of our “recycling” (i.e., plastic trash), we find ourselves in a quandary about what to do with all of this supposed bounty. In this particular case, one person’s trash does not amount to another person’s treasure.
Furthermore, plastic even impacts climate change, emitting methane and ethylene as it breaks down.
So what can we personally do, besides taking the defeatist attitude that we are all doomed?
Loop de Loop
Thankfully there is finally legislation being considered to hold manufacturers more responsible for their lethal ubiquitous darlings. Reintroduced in March of this year, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (BFFPPA) will also work towards environmental justice. Communities of color, low-income communities, and Indigenous communities have always disproportionately suffered the brunt of health issues from plastic production as well as disposal.
Unsurprisingly, plastic makers (i.e., Exxon and other fossil fuel giants) are vigorously pushing back with their own tried and true agenda. They, for the third time in 5 decades, are touting recycling as the answer to our woes, believing that consumers will fall prey to that tactic yet again.
Next, take heed of Lily Allen’s perfect rendition of materialism and egoism, and refuse to succumb to the race to have the latest and greatest of everything. Do you really NEED another (insert your favorite indulgence)?
Make Convenience a Dirty Word
Recalibrating purchases to align with values sends a clear message to manufacturers. So look for alternatives to the convenience of the norm. To be more specific, if you have a choice between a product in a plastic container and a nearly identical one using environmentally friendly materials — choose the latter, even if it means spending a little bit more. Easy switches include soaps, e.g., going from body wash back to bar soaps. I did so two years ago, and the aforementioned hair issue hasn’t been nearly as bad of an inconvenience as the consequence of more conveniently packaged products. In fact, I also switched to shampoo and conditioner bars, which are becoming more readily available every day.
Remember that all the monetary wealth in the world won’t buy another habitable planet.
All that Glitters is not Green
Be aware of hypocrisy, or green-washing. A “vegan” t-shirt packaged in a plastic mailer conveys mixed messages. And Instagram is full of scammers appealing to your desire to do good. Recently, I received a message from a fake organization wanting me to become an ambassador for their supposed earth-friendly cups. Just a little digging revealed that the product and company are bogus.
Finally, use your own knowledge to educate others. I am astonished at how many people are still not aware of their individual impact on the environment:
More to the point, our devastating collective impact:
In the words of the Immortal Lorax, “Unless.”
Despite all of this, we still have the opportunity to turn things around, if everyone rises to the challenge. If consumers start to favor the environment over convenience. If corporations decide to spend their resources on innovative technology that closes the loop instead of marketing campaigns putting the onus on end-users. And if we care enough.
I, for one, am imagining a future in which our planet is thriving and we have finally cleaned up our act. How about you?