Fatal Attraction: Our Endless Affair with Plastic

Plastic chairby Julie at ProgressiveKid

Since its rise to prominence in the 1950s and ’60s as humanity’s go-to manufacturing material, plastic’s planetary proliferation has been staggering. The fact that this hardy polymer compared to any previously known standards lasts “forever”—that it will take hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of years to biodegrade through Earth’s natural processes—didn’t seem like a liability until recently. If anything, plastic’s space-age indestructibility was a selling point. But now, half a century, billions of users, and trillions of products later, plastic is starting to collect. Imagine, if you dare, every piece of plastic ever made still out there, somewhere, in our ever-contracting world. The Tonka trucks, Barbies, matchbox cars, and GI Joes. The airplane, car, and boat parts. The sandwich bags, freezer bags, garbage bags, and grocery bags. The razors. The Tupperware. Halloween masks and tampon applicators, beach balls and buckets, diapers and garden pots, fishing lures and tackle boxes, sippy cups and baby bowls. Forks, knives, and spoons. Computers, radios, clocks, flashlights, shower curtains, and yogurt cups. Appliances. Trash bins. Sheds, sleds, slides, kiddy pools, and squirt guns. Soda bottles and water bottles and packaging debris.

Where is it all? In his book The World Without Us, Alan Weisman tells us that quite a bit of it is floating in the oceans, drawn by circular ocean currents called gyres to form vast trash islands, at least in one case as big as Africa. The rest is collecting in landfills, alleys, roadside dumps, storage units, backyards, and our shelves, drawers, and floors. But it doesn’t stop there. Inevitably plastic also is collecting in our bodies, in the living tissue of Earth’s resident species, from turtles to phytoplankton to puffins to our kids and ourselves. Fragmented into ever-smaller pieces by waves and rocks, micro plastic parts are now permeating seawater and being consumed by every level of the food web. Plastic is leaching into our lunches, our water, our fast food and TV dinners. It is rubbing off on our permeable skin through diapers, toys, furniture, bags, and the innumerable other collectibles of our lives.

It’s not all bad. We built an economy on it. We made our lives easier and more expansive in countless ways. But as cancer and neurological disorders rise, ocean species populations plummet, garbage piles up, and our reliance on petroleum is irrevocably altering the very climate around us, clearly we need to end our affair with plastic, and quick. We may well find ourselves happier without it. In his latest book Deep Economy, Bill McKibben tells us that we have three times more stuff than we did before the middle of the century (when plastic became popular), yet we report being less happy now.

So how do you break up with plastic? Most likely it will be a gradual separation. A good start is to stop using plastic bags and buying plastic bottles, instead replacing them with reusable substitutes. Avoid food and other products with plastic packaging. Use cloth diapers. Look for nonplastic toys, dishes, and food storage options. Look for things like plastic sleds and kiddy pools at garage sales and free cycles. Try to recycle the plastic you already own and do need to continue to buy. And next time you’re tempted to buy that plastic lawn chair imagine it long after you’re gone, floating into perpetuity in the Pacific, and ask yourself if that is the legacy you want to leave behind.

Julie Hall is the author of A Hot Planet Needs Cool Kids: Understanding Climate Change and What You Can Do About It, due out in October.

Image CC 2005 by Zorilla (Barry)


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