Friday, July 6, 2018

Thoughts on plastic, waste, and what really needs to be done.

Welcome to Plastic Free July. After a little bit of thought, I decided to jump into it this year. In doing so I realized that I've been at this for a while.

Whenever I see some nifty new vegetarian or vegan product, I have three reactions. The first: "Ooh, I've got to try this." The second: "Ugh, there's so much packaging." (FYI, the second one isn't usually articulated with words as much as it is a visual of me trying to dispose of said packaging, and let's be honest, we know that most of it isn't recyclable but will simply end up as garbage.) The third: "Maybe I can buy the ingredients to make this myself? That will probably be cheaper anyway." As much as I love grocery shopping--I'm an anomaly, I know--that bit of dialogue gets exhausting after several years (or decades).

When I initially heard about this challenge, I curled my lip. I compost, I make an effort to be realistic about the waste I'm producing, and for the last two years one of the most disheartening things I face is how much recycling my family produces. I'm already conscious, I'm already trying, go bother someone else.

However, after seeing so many people talk about this on the internet, I decided to give it a shot, and I've been pleasantly surprised by how much better I feel. Proactively eschewing plastic means that I don't enter into my local food co-op with a vague sense of uneasiness. It also means that I now no longer have that feeling when I'm in my kitchen that my packaging is going to leap out and touch me. Finally, it doesn't hurt that most of the items without packaging tend to cost less (the revelations of bulk shopping deserves its own post).

But having said all of that, I'm calling b.s. on the entire thing.

Unfortunately it's not that simple

The American economy is dependent on consumption, and as such it behooves us as consumers to be conscious about what we're buying, where it comes from, and where it goes when we're done with it. It's nothing to be proud of that we're also a throw away culture, especially because most of what we're throwing away ends up landfills. Let's be conscious, let's be thoughtful, and in general let's buy less.

But let's also be objective. We are a throw away culture because our products have planned obsolescence built into them. Our smartphones--these powerful miniature computers that are so advanced most sci-fi couldn't have conceived of it--aren't meant to last more than three or four years. (Please; we all know it's really two.) Same with laptops, and if you are the person who happens to stretch out your consumer tech, people look at you not with admiration but pity; why are you holding onto something that went out of date six months after you bought it? And if you decide to buck convention and repair something rather than toss it, you're told that it's "not worth it" because the repairs will cost more than buying a new version. I speak from experience: the slightly cracked screen the broken camera lens on my phone aren't worth the expense of fixing, the Acer Chromebook I bought about two years ago is unusable because no one--including Acer--makes a replacement for the power cord which stopped working nine months ago; and I've been the owner of a convection toaster oven since September when I decided that it was ridiculous that I was looking at my third fix for my oven igniter in four years. (I'm not joking--this is what happens when you bake as opposed to buy for your family.) And before you ask, yes, I did have to use the warranty to exchange the toaster oven already.

I am not going to solve any of these problems by not using plastic straws or bringing my own utensils when I get take out. And while the real solution for a lot of those issues is now in reach for my family--make an investment purchase in something that will last a decade and not a year--that's a recent development and I would never suggest that that's the answer for many people because it's just not possible. When we're debating whether people should get a living wage or a minimum wage, it's ridiculous to insist that they spend hundreds of dollars on something they can barely afford to spend tens on.

Finally, know this: even if every consumer in this country stops buying things packaged in and/or made of plastic, we're still going to have a plastic pollution problem because we're more than just a bunch of consumers. Think about the plastics used by medical, construction, hospitality, computer and electronic manufacturing, apparel, fishing, printing, and almost any other industry you can think of. Now ask yourself how they dispose of them, even if it comes down to tiny widgets. That adds up as well.

None of this is to say that we as individuals shouldn't do our part, but we need to recognize that our part doesn't end with not using a plastic bag. It's the least sexy solution in the world, but talk to your family, friends, and representatives about limiting or eliminating plastic not only for consumer products but also for industry. And keep talking about it, because plastic isn't going anywhere any time soon.