We are the Albatross

Lately I have been wondering how on earth it was possible to live without plastic.

I’m not even talking about marvelous inventions like disposable contact lenses, PVC piping, or neoprene wetsuits.

I’m just thinking about my kitchen routine, and how much I rely on—and take for granted—a never-ending stream of plastic wrap, plastic bags, and plastic containers as I go about my daily business.

I am so habituated to using plastic that I really had to ponder a while on the question of alternatives, until finally I remembered glass.  Of course, my grandmothers must have had a big shelf full of glass jars that they washed and re-used to store food in.

I also remembered that back in the 1980s, when I visited my in-laws in Mexico, I was surprised to see that they did not have any plastic wrap or boxed plastic bags in their kitchen.  They put things like cold cuts on plates, covered with another plate.  They left their leftover soups, stews and rice in the cooking pots, and placed them in the refrigerator with the lids on.

It also astounded me to see that in that household of seven, with numerous friends and relatives always dropping in for a meal, there was no trash container in the kitchen.  My mother-in-law saved plastic bags that she got when she went, once every couple of weeks, to the supermarket, and used these to collect the small amount of garbage that accumulated day to day.  Their little dog ate most of the food scraps, and they just didn’t generate that much of any other kind of garbage.

Why?

Because they bought their meat and produce from the little market down the street, carrying it home in their heavy-duty mesh bags (once made of straw, by the 1980s these were made of plastic threads).  My mother-in-law had a round wire egg basket that she’d bring to the market to refill.  The poultry would come from the butcher stand wrapped in paper, and rice or beans would come in brown paper bags.

There was just hardly any packaging.  And packaging, I’ve come to realize, is what generates most of the kitchen garbage in an ordinary American household like mine.

Here in Canada, we are mandated to separate our garbage carefully.  The bottles, cans and plasticized paper containers go in one bin, the paper and cardboard in another, and the compostable items in a small bin under the sink.  Then there’s the “trash.”  That’s the one where all the miscellaneous plastic packaging and used plastic bags go, and it tends to be the most bulky.

Since I watched the marvelously poignant and persuasive film BAG IT a few weeks ago (shout out to my friend and neighbor Anni Crofut for making us dinner and sitting us down to watch the film!), I have not been able to look at plastic trash in the same way.

The film starts from a simple question: why on earth would we use as our primary disposable material an indestructible synthetic chemical known to be an endrocrine disrupter and carcinogen?

And yet we do, over and over, in vast quantities.  We buy our drinks in plastic bottles and toss the empties in the trash.  We walk out of the superstore with carts piled high with groceries packed into small plastic bags.  We bring home our carrots in one plastic bag, our potatoes in another, and if they don’t come pre-bagged, we pull off a plastic bag from the conveniently placed roll and fill it ourselves.

Most of these bags will be dumped into the trash bin by the next day, and we’ll put them out of our houses in bigger plastic trash bags, and not give another thought to what may become of them next.

Some of our plasticized culture is being used to build huge land-fill mountains visible from space.  But a lot more of it is ending up in the oceans, where it becomes an indigestible, non-degradable part of the food chain.

These photographs by artist Chris Jordan, of dead albatross on Midway Atoll, near Hawaii, tell a tragic story.

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Look a little deeper into what’s happening to our thoughtless use and disposal of plastic, and you’ll learn about the vast gyres of rotating plastic trash out in the oceans, some as big as the state of Texas.

You’ll discover that the chemicals that compose plastic are gyrating around in human blood streams and fat as well, causing cancer and hormonal malfunction. 

American plastics are exported all over the world.  My Mexican mother-in-law now has plastic wrap and plastic bags in her kitchen, and if the plastics industry had its way, so would households from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe and beyond.

Plastic is a fabulous, miraculous material and of course it’s not something we can imagine of doing without.  But there is such a thing as compostable plastic, made of  plant-derived chemicals that do break down again.

IMG_2956IMG_2954Once the Canadian government mandated that compost had to be disposed of in compostable bags, manufacturers like Glad stepped right up and began producing the necessary product.

It’s not even much more expensive than petroleum-based plastic bags—this box of 20 bags sells for $2.99 here in Nova Scotia, and I bet if I shopped around I could find them for less.

This is an issue where ordinary consumers can have a big impact.

We can remember to bring our reusable bags to the grocery store, including the small bags or containers for produce and bulk foods.

We can wean ourselves off plastic bottles for drinks, except on those unavoidable occasions, like in airports where we’re not allowed to bring in our own bottles of water or other liquids.

We can be much more thoughtful about our use of plastic wrap and other disposable plastics in the kitchen.

We can talk with our friends and families like my friend Anni did with me, trying to gently raise awareness.  We can even bring it up with our local government officials and see if we can get local ordinances passed banning plastic bags in supermarkets.

I am proud to say that the little town of Great Barrington, MA, where I live, is one of the first towns in the country to do just that.

The plastics industry would like nothing better than for everyone to use as much plastic as we possibly can, and throw it away just as fast.  What happens to the trash is not their concern.

But if we care about the health of our oceans, airs and land, as well as the very chemistry of our bodies, it is our concern.

And we have more power than we realize.  The fossil fuel industry depends on the docile cooperation of all of us fossil fuel addicts.  Sometimes I really think that there’s some kind of conspiracy going on between the fossil fuel, agri-chemical, pharmaceutical and insurance industries, who act as a giant many-tentacled cabal that sucks us in, addicts us to their products, and then watches complacently as we become sick and dependent on expensive tests and treatments.

We do not have to fall for this any longer!  It’s not hard to eat healthy, it’s not hard to bring your own bags to the supermarket, it’s not hard to ride your bike or at least decide to purchase a hybrid car next time around.

IMG_3145 copyWhat is hard is to isolate yourself from a contaminated natural world.  It simply can’t be done.  Our land, oceans and air are an extension of us.  We are the world, the world is us, as Joanna Macy recognized long ago.  That’s why we have to be concerned about what’s happening with the plastic trash in the oceans, or the greenhouse gases in the air, or the toxic chemicals in the soil.

The bottle caps and syringes that the poor albatross is carrying around may be bigger and easier to see, but the truth is that each of us carries an unbearable burden of toxins in our own bodies every day.

And we’re doing it to ourselves, by our own unconscious collaboration with the industries that are sickening us and our world.

It’s time to say ENOUGH, disengage ourselves from the herd, and stand up for what we know is right.  Be the change.  Be the change.

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8 Comments

  1. Dean

     /  August 7, 2013

    Thank you for reminding me yet once more. I, and millions of others need to keep hearing it until we change…….someday?

    Reply
  2. Carole Spearin McCauley

     /  August 7, 2013

    Dear Jennifer, Yes, I too recall the transtion from glass containers to plastic to waxed paper to Saran Wrap. Glad to know about bio-degradable plastic. It’s certainly late-time for that. I couldn’t get into WordPress so am commenting here.

    Reply
  3. Beautifully written and so true. I am happy to say that I never use glad wrap or saran wrap in my home and drink only from glass jars or bottles. Water tastes so much better that way. It’s really easy to start using glass and putting leftovers in glass containers. Mason jars work really well and there are even glass straws to go with them and a recycled BHA free plastic insert called a Cuppow (http://cuppow.com/)
    It’s good to know that there is biodegradable plastic. Gotta love Canada! Home of mandatory recycling and composting!
    Thank you Jenny for writing for change!

    Reply
    • Dean

       /  August 8, 2013

      I’M very interested! Will follow up. Apparently there;s a store in Sherman Oaks for me to visit.

      Reply
  4. Great piece, Jennifer. We have gone in the opposite direction: from plastic to glass. Aside from the concerns you list, we began to notice that the food we saved in plastic containers, even when refrigerated, had begun to acquire a slight plastic taste. We have gone back to old-fashioned glass containers, with tight-fitting lids. Yes, the lids are plastic. Guess we cannot get away from it completely.

    Reply
  5. Dean

     /  August 9, 2013

    Since yesterday, the “Cuppow” outlets here in and near Los Angeles seem to have disappeared. 😦

    Reply
  6. Jennifer, This post really resonates with me because it makes me think back on your post Being the Change, Beyond Hope, Beyond Fear.
    I commented then that there are things I try to do every day to have less of damaging impact on the environment. Another reader commented that these small changes aren’t enough to make a difference. I get her point about it being time for drastic changes, but I also believe that if everyone was making these small, completely do-able changes it would have an impact.
    Imagine if everyone in the U.S stopped using non-biodegradable plastics! I started eliminating plastic from my daily use a few years ago. When I go to the grocery store I bring my own canvas bags. I have stopped putting the produce I pick out at the grocery store into a plastic bag. It just makes no sense to me to put apples in one plastic bad and broccoli in another, etc. I just put it all loose in my cart. It doesn’t hurt it at all to mingle!
    I use glass storage containers. I try to avoid plastic wrap, but I have to admit I am happy to learn there is a compostable alternative. I only buy drinks in plastic bottles as a last resort. Of course, I haven’t figure out how to eliminate plastic completely, or anywhere near completely. There are many products that come in plastic. But as you pointed out, we as consumers can have a big impact on this.
    Thanks for writing a blog that shows how really important this is.

    Reply
  1. Plastic bags & bottles – but what about the plastics we can’t see? « Pip Marks

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