On Plastic

Ode to Plastic

Bending and unyielding;
Soft as flesh or hard as bone.
Inanimate.  And yet there is
No form you cannot assume,
No task to which you are not applied.

Shaper, connector, keeper;
All the tools of this great race are
Fashioned from you and by you.
No child of these generations will know
A world without you.

Useful, so precious;
Abundantly serving an abundance of need
Previously unknown.  So easily discarded.
You are the simple solution to every problem
And the problem to which there is no simple solution.

Immortal: deathless, lifeless.
In your decay you are not unmade,
Merely broken, divided, and torn;
Smaller pieces of yourself
Freed from labor, roaming the earth.

I walk the seam where waves lap sand, and
In the foamy ridge that marks the ocean’s reach
Is a textured rainbow.  The gathering of nations
In bits and pieces of you.

– Lillis

One of the student groups at school has worked hard to raise awareness about plastic consumption.  At the end of last year, the students successfully lobbied the administration to prohibit plastic drink bottles from being sold in the cafeteria.  The caterers now serve fresh juice in paper cups – an admirable (if expensive) change, and the number of plastic bottles thrown away this year has dramatically decreased.

For the last few years, I have been a regular chaperon for our school’s coastal intercultural trips.  I have gone twice with the 7th grade to Malindi, and twice with the 10th and 11th grades to Mida Creek.  On all four trips, we have visited local marine coastal preservation groups; organizations like Turtle Watch, A Rocha, and Friends of Arabuko Sokoke.  Also on all four trips, we have made the kids comb the beaches for trash and then talk about what they find.  It’s amazing how much of the trash is plastic.  Exponentially more amazing to me is the amount of plastic trash we can’t even begin to pick up because it is like sifting out pebbles that are evenly dispersed across the whole beach.

The image of all of the plastic trash has been nagging me for several years.  That, combined with the work the student group did last year, has made me start thinking more seriously about it.  I decided to do a little inventory – a plastic inventory.  How much of my world is made of it?  Here’s my initial and far from definitive list:  (purely off the top of my head)

Pens, markers, rulers, staplers,
Wrappings on every form of food,
CDs and DVDs,
Computers and phones,
Wiring and sockets,
Pieces of cars, microwaves, washing machines, coffee pots,
Mosquito nets,
Sponges, scrubbers, brooms, mops,
Tupperware, plates, cups, bowls, utensils, spatulas, measuring cups
Bottles, Bottles, BOTTLES: for food, drinks, soap, lotion, cleaning supplies
Bags, Bags, BAGS: for keeping, carrying, shielding, collecting,
Flower pots and baskets,
Trunks and suitcases,
Shower curtains and picture frames,
Tubes of toothpaste, lip gloss, medicine,
Combs, brushes, hairdryers, toothbrushes,
Linoleum, carpeting, siding, roofing, insulation,
Synthetic fibers of nylon and elastic, polyester and acrylic
Jackets, flip-flops, soles of shoes …

All this and more is NEW in the last 100 years.  Consider that a moment.  How many thousands of years have humans been on this planet?

What are we doing?  Burying our world beneath a mountain: a plastic mountain that is growing by the minute.  How can I even put a figure on it?  Recycling is a one solution, and a necessary one, but it does not decrease the amount of plastic being produced.  It only slows the rate of acceleration.  But by how much?  How much of what we produce can actually be recycled?  Or even reused?

With the population of the planet only growing, the demand for affordable and readily-available products will only increase.  As a modern resource, plastic allows that demand to be effectively and even creatively met.  To advocate a change in production would necessarily produce higher demand in other areas.  Let us say for example that we demand a wood or metal substitute for plastic in every case where it is possible.  Suddenly the rates of deforestation and mining spike to highs never before seen and we have a different set of problems.  We would still have to consider the energy use, cost, and by-products of production.

On the other hand, the problems of mining and deforestation have at least more in the way of positive potential than the problem of plastic.  Firstly, wood and metal both degrade naturally.  They decompose.  When we are through with them, they go back to earth.  Plastic does not.  When we talk about plastic “degrading” we actually mean that it is only breaking apart.  It does “decompose”, but not into pieces that can be reabsorbed into the environment and used for something else.  Mostly plastic just piles up.  However, when it does break down, it just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces that interfere with natural biological systems.  Only recently have biologists begun to create plastic that is truly bio-degradable, but that is only because they have genetically engineered a bacteria that will feed on a very specific plastic compound not currently present every plastic product.  What does this mean?  We have a product that never existed before a hundred years ago, that nothing in our environment will eat; so we have to make a new organism that never before existed on the planet to eat the problem that we created.  But what effect could that solution itself have?  We have absolutely no way of knowing.

Another positive potential of organic products such as wood and metal is their recyclability.  Wood can be recycled with some effort, though there are high energy costs.  Metal products (and even their by-products) are relatively easy to recycle.  Plastic on the other hand is difficult to recycle due to the diversity of chemical compounds used to create it.  Go through the list I made and think of how different all the kinds of plastics are that are represented on the list.  Most plastics are also mixed with other non-plastics in the final product which means that, in order to be recycled, they would somehow have to be separated from the non-plastic parts.

A third positive potential of non-plastic products is a bit more controversial, but still has merit: renewability.  Wood is a readily renewable resource and, with creativity, can be sustainably cultivated for production.  Metal is not exactly renewable – it is finite and mines can be exhausted.  However, most minerals are (as discussed) easily reused and can therefore be kept from becoming environmentally destructive waste.

Aside from pure rubber, plastic is not only non-renewable, it is problematic to recycle or reuse, and offers nothing to natural ecosystems.  It is collecting in parts of the ocean, and some biologists are wondering if we won’t have a new all-plastic landmass in a few hundred years.  If enough of it gets caught in the North Pacific ocean currents and pushed together, who knows what could emerge?  Take another minute to read about The Great Garbage Patch.
(Sorry to cite Wikipedia as a source, but the article has great references and links to other sources)

So, what am I to do?  Go “au naturale” and advocate for a plastic-free world?  As I look around and see how integrated plastic is in my own life, I am highly doubtful that it is possible.  And even if I could do it myself, it would mean stepping almost completely out of my community and culture.  However, being curious and, at the very least, willing to try something, I am going to experiment and see how much plastic I can eliminate from my daily world.  I’ve started simply: drinking bottles and grocery bags.  I’m going to start being more creative with other things too.  This month, for example, I replaced all of my sponges with cotton washcloths.

There is a website that a colleague recently introduced me to: www.reuseit.com
They are not a “plastic-free” organization and their products are a bit expensive, but they do have some really great ideas on reducing and eliminating waste in different parts of daily life.

I welcome any thoughts and/or ideas from you all.

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