Once upon a time, even in my lifetime, plastics were the future—the former and temporary future.
In the film The Graduate, the main character, Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), graduates from college and returns to his parents’ house for a celebration. His parents’ friends are interested in asking him—and telling him—about his future. One of these friends, Mr. McGuire, pulls Ben aside.
“Come on with me for a minute. I want to talk to you.” Once they are alone outside, he leans in close to tell Ben, “I just want to say one word to you, just one word.”
“Are you listening?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Exactly how do you mean?”
“There is a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”
“Yes, I will.”
I thought about it.
Plastics were a temporary future, a 20th-century aberration. Plastics are becoming part of our past as the late 20th-century becomes so obvious as a time of excess whose many debts and externalized costs will take a long time to pay off.
We start to pay that debt now.
In reaction to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I’ve heard calls for boycotts. How far would we boycott, though? Are we prepared to go all the way? About 4.6% of U.S. petroleum is used to make plastic. Demand is expected to increase in Canada and in the U.S. for petroleum products.
But, don’t we recycle plastic? Doesn’t that mean we use less of the non-renewable resources? Yes, sort of. Less than 1% of plastic bags are recycled, and about 25% of plastic bottles are recycled. So, yes, some plastics can be recycled, but there is a fairly low expectation that they will be. Most municipal solid waste is still just garbage. We may notice more what goes into landfill, but the biggest garbage dump in the world is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch covers millions of square miles of plastic bits breaking into smaller and smaller plastic bits just moving with the currents. When the plastics do break down, they leave toxic chemicals that enter the food chain, which eventually leads to us.
Recycling isn’t preventing the massive plastic dump and the toxic stew that follows.
Wait, What about Cleaner Energy Sources
With massive oil spills and smaller oil spills, more people are asking if it is really necessary to take such risks. Some seem almost desperate in their defense of petrochemical products, unwilling to consider that we might have to think beyond oil and gas.
We don’t have to turn to oil, though, right? We can squeeze every drop out of tar sands. Plastics can be made from oil or from gas. It’s all part of the same process. If we are to believe natural gas advertisements and advocates, natural gas is much better for the environment. I think they are referring to a tidily bounded portion of the lifecycle of natural gas, though. What I hear about natural gas as the clean fossil fuel does not fit with the picture I saw as I watched Gasland this past week. This is a heart-breaking documentary about the consequences of natural gas exploration. If you haven’t heard on the news about people across the U.S. setting light to the water out of their faucets, you need to see it to believe it. Devastating costs of petrochemical and mineral extraction have to be internalized in order for us to be honest about the real impacts of our wreckless lifestyles of stuff.
Another issue that will slap us in the face soon enough is that petrochemical resources are finite. We will (or have) hit the peak of oil and gas production, then further extraction will become more difficult and more expensive. We may find that the economics help us to rethink our dependence of plastics and other petrochem products.
Eventually, desperate defense will give way to change.
The End of Plastic
“This is the Petrochemical Age.”
No. I choose to lessen my dependence on oil now. It has been a long process, and it is ongoing, but I won’t give in. Great bloggers like Plastic Manners and Fake Plastic Fish are chronicling their efforts to give up plastic. It may feel overwhelming at first, but it’s possible, and you aren’t alone in your efforts to find another way to live.
The movement against single-use plastic is growing. There are many organizations dedicated exclusively or in part to plastic pollution education, reduction, alternatives, clean up, and so on. They provide guidance on lessening plastic dependence and suggest actions to make bigger change as well.
Beyond the Age of Stuff and Waste
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about all of the great natural and non-toxic products parents can use to replace children’s products that are made out of plastic—natural fiber diapers, wooden cars, natural rubber chew toys, stainless steel straws, and silicone popsicle molds. These are easy changes that don’t interrupt our lifestyles but just replace one product with another.
I think we need interruption, though.