With the coming of spring, I've started looking around a little more, and a few weeks ago I noticed several plastic bags trapped in the branches of the tree outside my house. And then I couldn't not notice them: they crinkled malevolently at me, reminding me, every time I stepped outside or looked out of my bedroom window, of all the bad news I'd been hearing about plastic. I imagined them there for years, decades even, torturously out of reach, refusing to degrade.
Plastic has, in fact, quickly come to seem like History's Greatest Monster, with its ocean-choking, plankton-mimicking, hormone-disrupting, lasting-a-million-years, in-everything, on-everything, bio-accumulating ways, and every bottle or bag I see in the gutter or on the sidewalk now conjures images of same floating free in the ocean, tangling with marine life or killing another few square inches of the ocean's floor. Was I the only one who saw this, obsessed over the implications of billions of plastic items that would never die?
Nope. At dinner out with my friends Catherine and Brennan, Brennan quickly followed our drinks order with a "No straws, please" request to the waiter, something I often forget to do. Catherine carried her own take-out gear in her bag, so at the end of the meal she could pack up what remained without taking any disposables from the restaurant. Two easy steps that saved at least six pieces of plastic from entering the waste stream.
Then I watched the insanely informative film Addicted to Plastic, a documentary account of the effects of plastic on the environment, and the efforts of scores of craftspeople, businesspeople, scientists, manufacturers and activists to lessen the impact of plastic on our world. I started to feel just a tiny bit hopeful: from the company in Texas that makes railroad ties (which are the same size and shape everywhere in the world, and usually made from wood, which means cutting down trees) out of unsorted consumer plastics, to the manufacturer of a rapidly degrading bio plastic suitable for food packaging, to Indian and African entrepreneurs making functional objects from plastic waste, it seemed as though the tide might be turning on plastic. There was even a scientist turning plastic back into fuel, and another breeding bacteria that could digest plastic.
Solutions are out there. The icing on the cake was a Sun Chips ad I saw online: apparently eager to position itself as a "green" chip, it pledged that Sun Chips packaging would be totally biodegradeable by 2010, and showed a dramatic time-lapse of a chip bag melting away into soil.
Of course, I believe that less consumption is the key to a better environment, and that a green initiative by a huge chip company (Frito-Lay) needs to be looked at skeptically. But I have to take a little bit of comfort from the fact that, for whatever reason (consumer demand? economics? the zeitgeist?), a huge chip company is actually taking a major step and replacing billions of non-degradable bags with degradable ones. And if they get enough thanks from eaters out there, maybe they'll switch their Doritos and Lays and Fritos chips over too. I can dream, can't I?
I know I've written a lot about plastic, but Addicted to Plastic has given me another push toward going completely plastic-free. I'll take another few steps: eliminating beans that come in cans with plastic linings, and making my own yogurt and soy milk (again... I've gotten lazy lately). I'm also reviving my crazy-lady program of picking up plastic bottles in the street, and putting them in recycling bins — anything to keep them from washing straight into the ocean. If Norway can recycle 90 percent of its plastic bottles, we can certainly do a little bit better than our measly 5 percent.
I also noticed that Petco is taking back the heavy plastic bags that pet food often comes in for recycling: I'll be sure to bring in the dog food bags we generate instead of reusing them as garbage holders, the only thing I could think to do with them...hopefully other pet owners will do the same.
The plastic bags are still in "my" tree — I'm trying to figure out how to afford the $450 telescoping bag snagger that could deal with them. (Any generous billionaires out there? I'll share it with anyone who needs it...). In the meantime, I'm letting them stand as reminders of all the ways we can eliminate plastic, and all the alternatives that exist, rather than letting them make me crazy with plastic-induced despair. Some day my snagger will come.