Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
--The Graduate, 1967
Before British Petroleum botched the most spectacular oil disaster in the history of our petro-based culture [addendum: the most spectacularly publicized oil disaster: turns out NIGERIA HAS IT WORSE, but no-one knows about it or gives a fig], I was already thinking about petroleum. Or using less of it. I'm a conscientious person; I don't want to use more than my fair share of resources, nor do I embrace the notion that if I can buy it, I should. I want to live lightly without becoming a monk; I would like to share the wealth of natural resources without raping the earth for them.
I'm an American Consumer, but I do my best to keep my insatiable desire for convenience in check. I've got the cloth bags for groceries, using them most of the time but forgetting them some of the time. I bought our son little reuseable lunch bags; we have a Mr. Bento food jar for him to take hot lunches to school. We drink from metal water containers. Our family has one car which gets 50 miles to the gallon on the highway by merit of its awesome diesel-ness; we can fill it with Biodiesel when it's available (although biodiesel has turned food crops into fuel crops in certain parts of the world, making a huge rice shortage in Asia--a consequence of any "alternative" fuel is that it has unintended ones). We've had it almost ten years; we hope that we'll just drive it to its obsolescence, though once in a while I think how nice it would be to have more space. But that's what Zipcar is for.
We're wimpy bicyclists, I'm ashamed to admit. I need to buy better rain gear, but since I can't be bothered to buy myself regular clothing it seems that practical rain solutions have just fallen right off the list.
This is not my concern, however. I've been trying for years to figure out how to eradicate plastic out of our lives which, with the passage of time seems absolutely paramount in not completely destroying ourselves and everything else.
Plastic: convenient, ubiquitous poison. The road to hell is paved with it.
I don't quite remember what it was like to look around a house and not being able to identify fifty different things which were composed partially of plastic. Maybe it never happened in my life. My parents had Tupperware after all, and I had that Fisher Price Corn Popper push toy which, looking at a photo of it, is made completely out of plastic. But with all the news about Bisphenol A and floating islands of toxic plastic garbage in the ocean (the size of Texas or larger and growing); water bottles filling landfills after you drink their tap-water contents, it seems like we've become too accustomed to welcoming plastic into our lives unquestioned and unchallenged.
Here's a list of petroleum-based products from my vantage point on the sofa. I'm looking no further than what I can see; I'm not going into the kitchen where god knows what sort of plastic horrors await me.
- DVD and Wii Game cases, with the discs themselves.
- Cables and plugs running from our computers to speakers and television
- speaker housing
- computer cases
- remote controls
- keyboard and mouse
- laundry bag made of nylon
- packing tape on Amazon box
- dog crate made of nylon or acrylic fabric
- Ikea storage drawers
- acrylic wall paint, plus dyes
- spiral binder
- Drinky the Crow (admittedly awesome)
- paperback books with stain-resistant coating on their covers, hundreds of them
- dog toys
- polyurethane on the fir floors
- iPhones (two)
- shoulder bag
- acrylic stuffing in leather sofa
- vinyl Oregon Zoo decals mounted in our window
- inserts for throw pillows
- adhesive on non-skid feet for our tables and chairs
- dog collar and one dog tag
- step stool
- cotton-poly blend curtain backing
- outlet and light plates
- Toys, in such great numbers that I can't help but swoon a little, including:
- A "Marble Maze" (fifty pieces or more)
- Legos (thousands of individual petroleum pellets)
- Fisher Price Camera
- Crayola markers and pens
- Hyper Dash (one plastic controller and four plastic disks)
- Playmobil (again, hundreds of little petro-pellets in the form of awesome birds, pirates, bicycles and treasure)
- Bag containing binoculars, plus the binoculars themselves
- Rody the Ride-On Pony
Shockingly, I'm relieved there isn't more. We've gone out of our way to buy furniture that is either antique, used or made of natural wood, not MDF. Our house is filled with photos and paintings which have wood frames and glass instead of plastic, and most of our tchotchkes are ancient fripperies which, by merit of their ancientness are made of metal or porcelain or wood. Not all, certainly, but most. Many of our son's toys were bought with avoiding plastic in mind; Automoblox are wood with plastic parts; his building blocks are wood; Tinker Toys, wood with plastic parts.
But I've looked through my house on numerous occasions looking for ways to go on a plastic diet. Why are all of our shampoos and liquid soaps, household cleaners in plastic? Glass, of course, is too heavy to ship and adds cost in FUEL. I buy bulk shampoo and bulk conditioner but fill them from plastic jugs. My husband shaved his head twenty years ago and never looked back, eradicating the need for hair products in any form; maybe I should do that, too.
But his razors? Plastic, with metal blades. Is it straight razor time? A good idea, but I fear he would never sharpen the damned thing and always be nicked. Plus, I don't know if I would want him to shave the back of his head without a safety razor. Call me crazy.
I've tried to prune the plastic storage containers out of our kitchen by replacing them with glass, not just because I want to stop the petroleum glut but because there are so many studies about chemicals leaching into food and beverages. But food comes from stores...in plastic. Yogurt comes in plastic tubs which don't even have lids anymore which makes it impossible to reuse them. Even hippy-health-nuggets come in plastic containers; buy cookies with organic flour blessed by virgins and they're still wrapped in cellophane-wrapped extruded plastic sepulchers. If you buy bulk, the bags are plastic. The grease pens used to write on the tag: plastic.
Buying local is of course the best way to cut down on your petro-consumption, not just because the distance the food travels is shorter, thereby lowering your petro footprint, but you inject money into local businesses, farms and growers which need less packaging to transport their goods. By buying at your farmer's market you're often just plucking veggies from a box and putting them in your cloth bag. Win-win!
That's great for me here in Portland, Oregon where we can grow food almost year round. What about you people stuck up on a mountain top? Or in the desert? What are you gonna eat? Stuff that's been shipped, and wrapped in plastic.
I bought some lotion in a glass bottle, hoping that I would somehow be lightening the load; the pump is plastic. Our toothbrushes: plastic. Dental floss: plastic. I've never seen a cardboard container for dental floss; maybe it's not practical. But how do we decide which is the most necessary plastic to hang onto and which is okay to stop producing? Obviously, we want our hospitals and doctors to have access to hygienic plastic doobobs and sterile plastic this's-and-that's so that they can keep us alive when we show up. But what about the crackers I buy? You remember when crackers came in waxed paper bags inside cardboard boxes? But do we even need the boxes, much less the bag inside?
Blister packs, cheese wrappers, cellophane on popsicles, laundry soap packaging, grocery bags, soda bottles, mayonnaise jars, pepper grinders, disposable pens, patio furniture. When did Grey Poupon go to plastic? I bought excess mustard the other day just so I could get the glass jar instead.
You outdoorsy types (I'm embarrassingly indoorsy in the Great Backyard of Oregon) appreciate nature in all it's splendor and thus it attunes you to the necessity of conservation and environmental protection, but you're all stomping around the wilderness in your Gore-Tex and Weather-Blok Super Materials made from various chemically bonded magic beans and petroleum. Your tents are made out of them too. As are your boots and your hats and gloves.
Do I have an alternative for you to consider? No.
And this is the problem, I think, with all of us. We don't know how to unwind the Gordian knot of petroleum which has threaded our entire lives in scads of plastic. I want to be the best, wisest, well-informed consumer I can be, but some things I just can't figure out how to get away from. Buy bulk, sure. Drive less, yes--oh, yes. But the cheese I buy from the tiny local market down the street--they wrap their cheese in butcher paper...coated with plastic.
And I don't know what's right. Research is conflicting about paper vs. plastic. Paper doesn't biodegrade any better than plastic when it's anaerobic. That's why we have 2000 year old Egyptian papyrus scrolls from ancient dump sites. Cut a tree down, you've lost a great air filter. Some studies point to plastic bags making far less of a carbon footprint than paper for a whole host of reasons from the production process to the loss of habitat. What to do?
And I don't mean my grocery bags. What about all the food that is in my grocery bags?
My husband and I were deliberating about this the other day. I remembered a story about an American woman living in a small Italian town where every year during the olive oil pressing, people would grab their jugs and wander down to get their supply for the year. Wine too. Everyone had some barrels or jugs in which to store their staples, not terribly different from the Roman, Greek and Phoenician amphorae of ancient times.
Would I be comfortable buying a barrel of wine to keep in my basement, along with a jug of olive oil? Could I split a barrel with my neighbors? Every year, could we buy a share of wine from a local winery? I know people do it with cows and pigs; there are CSA's for organic vegetables (good way of avoiding petroleum; no petro-based fertilizers or pesticides). Can we extend the method? How about my crackers? Could I just purchase them not in a box at all, but a bulk bin where I stash them in my handy-dandy metal cracker tin (standardized so that the weight PLU's would be easy)? How can we peel away the layers and layer of plastic and replace them with honest to god solutions?
I don't ever want buy a CD or DVD again; if it's digital data, I want to download it. No more goddamned plastic cases. No more DVD coasters with crappy slideshows on them. No more plastic deck chairs and MDF landfill furniture. And stop with the "goody bags" at kid's birthday parties, already. I don't need them and I can't remember if my son ever played with any of the plastic junk that was in them anyway. Bring back waxed paper for wrapping things, go to Depression-era standards of frugality instead of post-war standards of excess. Keep up with the Joneses by keeping plastic out of landfills.
Maybe I'm being utopian and naive. The back-to-the-land movement was idealistic, but in the end completely impractical. We can't all be homesteaders. We can have Victory Gardens, but it won't supply our grain needs. We can buy locally baked bread, but the flour isn't being ground at the mill next door. It's being trucked in. We can't all spin our own yarn from our pet sheep Lulu so as to avoid wool sweaters polluted with spandex and petro costs shipped from Turkmenistan.
But I'm comfortable with the hypothesis that something's got to give. Building high-speed rail would help, as would more of us riding our bikes. I don't think it's enough, though, and I don't want to contribute any more to the enormous flotilla of garbage in the Pacific. I want less plastic. I want corporations to produce less plastic. I want the chemical devastation of plastic-creation to cease, or at the very least drop dramatically. I've wanted less plastic for years, but the BP oil spill has only emphasized the point in a radical and devastating loss of land, ocean, livelihoods and sea life. As if I needed any convincing.
But maybe I can convince someone who makes my crackers or olive oil. Or someone who wants to loan me their sheep.