Years ago, my husband’s firm made an investment in an asbestos-removal business. The owner of the company told my husband: “Yep, I spent the first 15 years puttin’ it [asbestos] in, and the last 15 years takin’ it out.” Asbestos, a naturally occurring silicate, became widely used early last century as a fire-resistant insulating material. It was wonderful – until asbestos dust was found to cause cancer and other serious illnesses.
This story reminds me of the scene from “The Graduate,” when new college graduate Ben (Dustin Hoffman) is talking with a friend of his parents, Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke).
Mr. McGuire: “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.”
Ben: “Yes sir.”
Mr. McGuire: “Are you listening?”
Ben: “Yes, I am.”
Mr. McGuire: “Plastics.”
In 1967, plastics were a technological marvel. As the scene indicates, they were the future. Naturally occurring plastics, such as rubber, have been used since 1600 B.C. They were a key part of the industrial revolution when Charles Goodyear figured how to alter natural rubber to make it more durable. The first fully synthetic plastic was created by Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland in 1907, but it wasn’t until World War II that mass production of plastics began. The first high-density polyethylene plastic bag was produced in 1965 by a company called Celloplast.
Fifty years later, plastic is as ubiquitous as air. It’s in almost everything.
It makes up 20 percent of cars. Piping and siding on houses are a form of plastic. Meat from the grocery store is packaged in plastic. Drinks at sporting events come in plastic. Water bottles, utensils, toothbrushes, computers, appliances, DVDs, video games, pens and printers are made of plastic. Toys are often made of plastic, from Legos to action figures. Those toys are tied in place in their shipping packages by plastic. In fact, packaging products comprise around a third of the trillion-dollar plastics industry.
When I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s, milk and juice came in paper cartons or glass bottles. Appliances were built to last for decades and furniture a lifetime. Store purchases were bagged in paper. We generated minimal trash. If you wanted a cup of coffee, you drank it at home, work or in a restaurant. Likewise water. If you exercised or were on a sports team, you drank water out of a fountain or from a reusable thermos.
And now? Americans generate more waste than any country in the world
– officially 4.1 pounds per person per day but likely higher. Much of it is plastic, and bagged in plastic bags. While we have become better about recycling, we generate more waste than can be recycled.
We are running out of landfills and exporting our trash. Who knew until our current trade wars that China had been taking our excess plastic recycling, and that their facilities are overwhelmed?
Most people have seen the horrible photos of marine animals that have been maimed by the plastic from six packs or straws. Those images, and others depicting acres of trash, mostly plastic, washed up on beaches around the world or scattered through our deserts have convicted me, in the religious sense of the word. We, collectively, and I, Denise, have to do something about plastic waste. We simply can’t go on this way.
But try going even one day without using any plastic product. How will you brush your teeth? How will you get to work? How will you button your shirt? How will you get your work done?
This issue has to be tackled from both the macro and micro levels. Policy wise, I am a convert to the idea that plastic bags should be banned. On a personal level, I’m trying to buy hard plastics that can be refilled. I’m also trying to convince organizations to which I belong or patronize to package take-home foods in paper rather than plastic.
These are admittedly small steps, and even those are difficult. Sometimes I
forget to bring my reusable bags into the grocery store and stand at the register filled with guilt as my goods are bagged in plastic.
One thing that keeps me from despairing is my belief in human ingenuity. Better, more biodegradable forms of plastic will be invented. In fact, many are in process now. More efficient means of recycling will be developed.
In the meantime, it’s small steps, like avoiding plastic straws. Besides, I recently read that straws give you gas.
The writer is publisher and executive editor of the Alexandria Times.