Breaking the Addiction

04/29/2009 4:00 AM |

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

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
, 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

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
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.