These days, perhaps one of the most indelible images in my mind is of a dead sea bird, not covered in oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but whose rotting carcass is filled with bottle caps that had been fed to it by its own parent. I cannot shake it. It haunts me, the pain of knowing that a bird, trying to provide its offspring with nourishment in its most basic biological imperative, instead fed it pointless waste from a soda or someone's old prescription bottle. How many sea birds are represented in that one photo? How many birds have I myself unwittingly fed with the detritus of our disposable culture? And what other animals can be inferred, dining on a diet rich in petrochemical bottle caps and nylon thread, old athletic shoes and SpongeBob Squarepants toys? What is the depressing irony that a cartoon character delighting in his ocean home is winding up there in the form of free plastic give-aways from fast-food kids meals?
This is on my mind all the time these days, and once you see, you cannot unsee.
Now I look around my house and instead of seeing toys and efficient storage solutions, I see massive consumption and disposal problems which have the potential to end up in an albatross's crop. I was already cognizant of the problem and bought the Sigg water bottles and the biodegradable dog poop bags and the grocery totes. But there's more and more plastic lining up in front of me and I feel overwhelmed and horrified at my complicity in the unfolding plastic apocalypse.
It is with these new eyes that I picked up a prescription for my ailing father at Walgreen's the other day. There was a question about his medication which needed to be resolved before I could take it home and I had several terrifying minutes surrounded by what seemed to be less a store about health and wellness than a fantasy beyond giant petrochemical companies wildest dreams. Every product lining every shelf was plastic. The products inside the bottles were irrelevant; the real coup was the plastic itself. It was as though the cancer was growing in plain sight for years, but so slowly that no-one noticed. Walgreen's was selling only one thing: plastic.
My father's medicine was also in plastic bottles, of course. And I wonder, how I can change that? What can I do to alter the consciousness of the entire pharmaceutical industry? I'm stumped. Can I go into my own pharmacist with my old prescription bottle and ask them to re-use it? Does anyone make glass prescription bottles anymore?
What sort of compact with the devil was made to ensure that every single product was sold to us in plastic bottles and jars?
I feel ill as a result of this epiphany. I pulled out a large number of plastic bottles from our medicine cabinet this morning, most of them empty. I've been saving them up for years hoping to find a use for them, rather than just putting them in the recycling bin and pretending they'll end up where they're supposed to, into the hands of recyclers who know what they're doing and re-using the plastic for good. Because in general, I don't trust us. Not when the reports about tech recycling is so profoundly depressing, when our old toxic hard drives and CRT screens and batteries end up in steaming dump sites in Asia, and untrained workers without protective clothing pick through it to find stuff to re-sell.
These are tough days. I don't have many solutions, but I am struggling to find them in my own ways, pulling out the plastic which has threaded itself through our lives like morning glory, choking out every other thing. The cheap sunglasses that have adorned my pink guinea pig eyeballs will eventually be replaced by either nothing, or sunglasses from a thrift store, perhaps ancient Jackie O shades which will make me look ridiculous. The recycled toilet paper which is wrapped in plastic will have to be replaced by something; I've only found one company which makes TP in a recyclable box. My lip balms, full of real deep and abiding relationships for me, will all go the way of the dodo except for the ones packaged in tins. There is even one packaged in cardboard, an innovation I dare other "natural" cosmetics companies to follow.
I want my cotton balls packaged in paper or compostable material. I want my clothing to be rid of that pernicious 2% poly-dacron-nylon-spandex that gives it stretch. Can I have my bulk coffee beans bagged in paper with no plastic lining again? I'm combing the web for answers, I'm combing thrift stores for glass storage containers. I'm keeping the plastic storage I have, hoping that like magic it will find some happy destiny storing nails or pins or something. I'm cleaning out my empty plastic bottles saved for years and recycling them, hoping against hope that they will end up where they're supposed to.
Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times writes in an editorial,
Traditionally, we reduce cancer risks through regular doctor visits, self-examinations and screenings such as mammograms. The President’s Cancer Panel suggests other eye-opening steps as well, such as giving preference to organic food, checking radon levels in the home and microwaving food in glass containers rather than plastic.
In particular, the report warns about exposures to chemicals during pregnancy, when risk of damage seems to be greatest. Noting that 300 contaminants have been detected in umbilical cord blood of newborn babies, the study warns that: “to a disturbing extent, babies are born ‘pre-polluted.’ ”
But the crux of it is, I don't think my writing about it will change anything in the hallowed halls of petroleum and chem industries because they have been acting with impunity for years despite all the research and warnings from all corners of science and medicine. I think the only way to get their attention is to vote. And the only vote they understand is cash vote.
I'm going to take as much of my family's cash out of the hands of these companies as I can, those I suspect care very little about the albatross feeding its young a diet of bottle caps; that care little about your children who have more than 300 different chemicals in their blood by the time they're born. That care little about you and your future with cancer caused by their wanton disregard for basic human decency.
But I care very much about them, so I'm voting.