Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

–The Graduate, 1967

 

Before British Petroleum botched the most spectacular oil disaster in the history of our petro-based culture [addendum: the most spectacularly publicized oil disaster: turns out NIGERIA HAS IT WORSE, but no-one knows about it or gives a fig], I was already thinking about petroleum. Or using less of it. I’m a conscientious person; I don’t want to use more than my fair share of resources, nor do I embrace the notion that if I can buy it, I should. I want to live lightly without becoming a monk; I would like to share the wealth of natural resources without raping the earth for them.

I’m an American Consumer™, but I do my best to keep my insatiable desire for convenience in check. I’ve got the cloth bags for groceries, using them most of the time but forgetting them some of the time. I bought our son little reuseable lunch bags; we have a Mr. Bento food jar for him to take hot lunches to school. We drink from metal water containers. Our family has one car which gets 50 miles to the gallon on the highway by merit of its awesome diesel-ness; we can fill it with Biodiesel when it’s available (although biodiesel has turned food crops into fuel crops in certain parts of the world, making a huge rice shortage in Asia highlighting the fact that the consequence of any “alternative” fuel is that it has unintended ones). We’ve had it almost ten years; we hope that we’ll just drive it to its obsolescence, though once in a while I think how nice it would be to have more space.

But that’s what Zipcar is for.

We’re wimpy bicyclists, I’m ashamed to admit. I need to buy better rain gear, but since I can’t be bothered to buy myself regular clothing it seems that practical rain solutions have just fallen right off the list.

This is not my concern, however. I’ve been trying for years to figure out how to eradicate plastic out of our lives which, with the passage of time seems absolutely paramount in not completely destroying ourselves and everything else.

Plastic: convenient, ubiquitous poison. The road to hell is paved with it.

I don’t quite remember what it was like to look around a house and not being able to identify fifty different things which were composed partially of plastic. Maybe it never happened in my life. My parents had Tupperware after all, and I had that Fisher Price Corn Popper push toy which, looking at a photo of it, is made completely out of plastic. But with all the news about Bisphenol A and floating islands of toxic plastic garbage in the ocean (the size of Texas or larger and growing); water bottles filling landfills after you drink their tap-water contents, it seems like we’ve become too accustomed to welcoming plastic into our lives unquestioned and unchallenged.

Here’s a list of petroleum-based products from my vantage point on the sofa. I’m looking no further than what I can see; I’m not going into the kitchen where god knows what sort of plastic horrors await me.

  • DVD and Wii Game cases, with the discs themselves.
  • Cables and plugs running from our computers to speakers and television
  • speaker housing
  • computer cases
  • remote controls
  • keyboard and mouse
  • television
  • laundry bag made of nylon
  • packing tape on Amazon box
  • dog crate made of nylon or acrylic fabric
  • Ikea storage drawers
  • acrylic wall paint, plus dyes
  • spiral binder
  • Drinky the Crow (admittedly awesome)
  • paperback books with stain-resistant coating on their covers, hundreds of them
  • dog toys
  • polyurethane on the fir floors
  • iPhones (two)
  • shoulder bag
  • acrylic stuffing in leather sofa
  • vinyl Oregon Zoo decals mounted in our window
  • inserts for throw pillows
  • adhesive on non-skid feet for our tables and chairs
  • dog collar and one dog tag
  • step stool
  • cotton-poly blend curtain backing
  • outlet and light plates
  • Toys, in such great numbers that I can’t help but swoon a little, including:
  1. A “Marble Maze” (fifty pieces or more)
  2. Automoblox
  3. Legos (thousands of individual petroleum pellets)
  4. Fisher Price Camera
  5. Crayola markers and pens
  6. Hyper Dash (one plastic controller and four plastic disks)
  7. Playmobil (again, hundreds of little petro-pellets in the form of awesome birds, pirates, bicycles and treasure)
  8. Bag containing binoculars, plus the binoculars themselves
  9. Rody the Ride-On Pony

Shockingly, I’m relieved there isn’t more. We’ve gone out of our way to buy furniture that is either antique, used or made of natural wood, not MDF. Our house is filled with photos and paintings which have wood frames and glass instead of plastic, and most of our tchotchkes are ancient fripperies which, by merit of their ancientness are made of metal or porcelain or wood. Not all, certainly, but most. Many of our son’s toys were bought with avoiding plastic in mind; Automoblox are wood with plastic parts; his building blocks are wood; Tinker Toys, wood with plastic parts.

But I’ve looked through my house on numerous occasions looking for ways to go on a plastic diet. Why are all of our shampoos and liquid soaps, household cleaners in plastic? Glass, of course, is too heavy to ship and adds cost in FUEL. I buy bulk shampoo and bulk conditioner but fill them from plastic jugs. My husband shaved his head twenty years ago and never looked back, eradicating the need for hair products in any form; maybe I should do that, too.

But his razors? Plastic, with metal blades. Is it straight-razor time? A good idea, but I fear he would never sharpen the damned thing and always be nicked. Plus, I don’t know if I would want him to shave the back of his head without a safety razor. Call me crazy.

I’ve tried to prune the plastic storage containers out of our kitchen by replacing them with glass, not just because I want to stop the petroleum glut but because there are so many studies about chemicals leaching into food and beverages. But food comes from stores…in plastic. Yogurt comes in plastic tubs which don’t even have lids anymore which makes it impossible to reuse them. Even hippy-health-nuggets come in plastic containers; buy cookies with organic flour blessed by virgins and they’re still wrapped in cellophane-wrapped extruded plastic sepulchers. If you buy bulk, the bags are plastic. The grease pens used to write on the tag: plastic.

Buying local is of course the best way to cut down on your petro-consumption, not just because the distance the food travels is shorter, thereby lowering your petro footprint, but you inject money into local businesses, farms and growers which need less packaging to transport their goods. By buying at your farmer’s market you’re often just plucking veggies from a box and putting them in your cloth bag. Win-win!

That’s great for me here in Portland, Oregon where we can grow food almost year round. What about you people stuck up on a mountain top? Or in the desert? What are you gonna eat? Stuff that’s been shipped, and wrapped in plastic.

I bought some lotion in a glass bottle, hoping that I would somehow be lightening the load; the pump is plastic. Our toothbrushes: plastic. Dental floss: plastic. I’ve never seen a cardboard container for dental floss; maybe it’s not practical. But how do we decide which is the most necessary plastic to hang onto and which is okay to stop producing? Obviously, we want our hospitals and doctors to have access to hygienic plastic doobobs and sterile plastic this’s-and-that’s so that they can keep us alive when we show up for their services. But what about the crackers I buy? You remember when crackers came in waxed paper bags inside cardboard boxes? But do we even need the boxes, much less the bag inside?

Blister packs, cheese wrappers, cellophane on popsicles, laundry soap packaging, grocery bags, soda bottles, mayonnaise jars, pepper grinders, disposable pens, patio furniture. When did Grey Poupon go to plastic? I bought excess mustard the other day just so I could get the glass jar instead.

You outdoorsy types (I’m embarrassingly indoorsy in the Great Backyard of Oregon) appreciate nature in all it’s splendor and thus it attunes you to the necessity of conservation and environmental protection, but you’re all stomping around the wilderness in your Gore-Tex and Weather-Blok Super Materials made from various chemically bonded magic beans and petroleum. Your tents are made out of them too. As are your boots and your hats and gloves.

Do I have an alternative for you to consider? No.

And this is the problem, I think, with all of us. We don’t know how to unwind the Gordian knot of petroleum which has threaded our entire lives in scads of plastic. I want to be the best, wisest, well-informed consumer I can be, but some things I just can’t figure out how to get away from. Buy bulk, sure. Drive less, yes–oh, yes. But the cheese I buy from the tiny local market down the street–they wrap their cheese in butcher paper…coated with plastic.

And I don’t know what’s right. Research is conflicting about paper vs. plastic. Paper doesn’t biodegrade any better than plastic when it’s anaerobic. That’s why we have 2000 year old Egyptian papyrus scrolls from ancient dump sites. Cut a tree down, you’ve lost a great air filter. Some studies point to plastic bags making far less of a carbon footprint than paper for a whole host of reasons from the production process to the loss of habitat. What to do?

And I don’t mean my grocery bags. What about all the food that is in my grocery bags?

My husband and I were deliberating about this the other day. I remembered a story about an American woman living in a small Italian town where every year during the olive oil pressing, people would grab their jugs and wander down to get their supply for the year. Wine too. Everyone had some barrels or jugs in which to store their staples, not terribly different from the Roman, Greek and Phoenician amphorae of ancient times.

Would I be comfortable buying a barrel of wine to keep in my basement, along with a jug of olive oil? Could I split a barrel with my neighbors? Every year, could we buy a share of wine from a local winery? I know people do it with cows and pigs; there are CSA’s for organic vegetables (good way of avoiding petroleum; no petro-based fertilizers or pesticides). Can we extend the method? How about my crackers? Could I just purchase them not in a box at all, but a bulk bin where I stash them in my handy-dandy metal cracker tin (standardized so that the weight PLU’s would be easy)? How can we peel away the layers and layer of plastic and replace them with honest to god solutions?

I don’t ever want buy a CD or DVD again; if it’s digital data, I want to download it. No more goddamned plastic cases. No more DVD coasters with crappy slideshows on them. No more plastic deck chairs and MDF landfill furniture. And stop with the “goody bags” at kid’s birthday parties, already. I don’t need them and I can’t remember if my son ever played with any of the plastic junk that was in them anyway. Bring back waxed paper for wrapping things, go to Depression-era standards of frugality instead of post-war standards of excess. Keep up with the Joneses by keeping plastic out of landfills.

Maybe I’m being utopian and naive. The back-to-the-land movement was idealistic, but in the end completely impractical. We can’t all be homesteaders. We can have Victory Gardens, but it won’t supply our grain needs. We can buy locally baked bread, but the flour isn’t being ground at the mill next door. It’s being trucked in. We can’t all spin our own yarn from our pet sheep Lulu so as to avoid wool sweaters polluted with spandex and petro costs shipped from Turkmenistan.

But I’m comfortable with the hypothesis that something’s got to give. Building high-speed rail would help, as would more of us riding our bikes. I don’t think it’s enough, though, and I don’t want to contribute any more to the enormous flotilla of garbage in the Pacific. I want less plastic. I want corporations to produce less plastic. I want the chemical devastation of plastic-creation to cease, or at the very least drop dramatically. I’ve wanted less plastic for years, but the BP oil spill and the Pacific Garbage Patch have only emphasized the point in a radical and devastating loss of land, ocean, livelihoods and sea life. As if I needed any convincing.

But maybe I can convince someone who makes my crackers or olive oil. Or someone who wants to loan me their sheep.


The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

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QUENBY MOONE used to be a graphic designer who wrote once in a while. After her father came down with a touch of Stage IV prostate cancer, she became a writer who did graphic design once in a while.

She's written a book called Living in Twilight (no relation to vampires - unless dying of cancer is a part of Edward's story) in which her design skills came in handy, and includes some of her stories featured on The Nervous Breakdown.

31 responses to “The Road to Hell”

  1. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Yeah, I hear you. You rant on my behalf, too. I re-use everything as often as I can. I’ve often wished that we had a place to get milk, yogurt, shampoo etc. that would allow reusable containers.

    Several years ago when I was doing research for the novel I thought I’d write next (so maybe it’s #3 or #4 now), I was reading a lot about ecology. That got my attention. I was moderately attentive to my choices before, but afterward became more vigilant. I do my best to do my part. I do believe each individual matters, but there comes a point when individual efforts must reach a critical mass to create a real shift.

    One of the things I read about was about regionalizing–that wasn’t the word used but that’s the way I remember the concept. It meant that everything was manufactured and produced then distributed within a small radius. Food, clothing, material goods, etc. weren’t moved over oceans or hundreds of miles of land. It seems that if we had a model like this, we could meet part of the need for jobs again. Yes, that might mean things cost more per item. I do pay more for my vegetables at my farmers’ market than if I get them at a supermarket. However, I see the people who grow my food and my money pays them to keep doing it, locally.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      The locavore movement is big here in Portland, but as I note, what about all the people living in Phoenix? Clearly, they’re just gonna have to move!

      I think we just don’t know how to peel back all the layers of plastic anymore, no matter what. We shop in our local store, eschew plastic bags when we buy veggies, but then you buy something else…wrapped in plastic. Or with plastic webbing.

      We had sod planted; little did I know that the bedding for the soil has a base of PLASTIC WEBBING. So now our lawn has grass and plastic. If we ever want to rip it out, that thin plastic webbing is going to shred into millions of tiny pieces of plastic litter we’ll never get rid of.

      And I ask, WAS THERE NO OTHER OPTION? TO PLANT A LAWN WITH PLASTIC?

      Had I but known, seeding is the only way to go.

      Chemical fertilizers: petroleum.

      Organic fertilizers: the only way to go.

      Anyway, it drives me insane. I hate plastic with a virulent, self-hating hate.

  2. dwoz says:

    you can’t borrow my sheep, but I can definitely send you some wool fleece.

  3. Zara Potts says:

    Ugh. Plastic.
    It’s everywhere. To be fair, I’m not the world’s most ecologically minded person, but I do get mad when I see things plastic wrapped that just don’t need it.
    For all my life, the vegetable section in the supermarket always kept its produce free of plastic – so you’d just grab a bunch of scallions or a lettuce head. Now, it seems every individual vegetable or piece of fruit is wrapped in plastic. Ridiculous.
    Having said that, I was pleased to see that things like spices and herbs are now being packaged in cardboard which makes me happier.
    Sometimes, it’s just too depressing to think about how badly we are fucking up the world. I read the latest WHO report which stated that in a few years time we will lose the fight against bacteria because of over-prescribing of antibiotics. Of course, we all know that antibiotics are pumped into our food chains, so even if we aren’t prescribed them, we are still consuming them. Another good reason to eat organic.
    I can see this becoming yet another social divide. The ‘rich’ will be those people who are bacteria resistant, while the new ‘poor’ will be those who are susceptible to bacterial disease.
    Meantime, I think I’ll go eat another Easter egg. One that’s been wrapped in foil.
    Great piece, Q.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      It’s too depressing indeed. There were tests of the watersheds around Portland, and because of the footprint of drugs, illegal and otherwise, geologists have a pretty good idea of what drugs are produced where. Meth is high in some places, heroin in others. There are various hotspots of anti-depressants in the water, not to mention all the pedestrian medicines we’re not sure about.

      So eat more fish! Don’t worry about radioactivity from Japan; worry about the hormone therapy drugs you’re ingesting!

      Aren’t I a RAY OF SUNSHINE?

  4. Irene Zion says:

    Quenby,
    Had I a sheep, I would loan it to you.

  5. Laura Tims says:

    I was reading recently about the creepiness of plastic. It doesn’t biodegrade – it just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces until there’s tiny bits of plastic in pretty much everything we consume. Delicious.

    I thought about typing out a list of everything plastic nearby, but it’s too late at night to depress myself.

    • Gloria says:

      Have you seen George Carlin’s bit about plastic? I don’t know if I agree 100% with what he’s saying, but I do know it’s hilarious and I do agree with most of it. 🙂

    • Quenby Moone says:

      That little plastic tidbit was in LAST week’s essay: Being and Oneness with the Apocalypse. As a matter of fact, Gloria, who also responded to you, also wrote about an Apocalypse. I guess last week was Apocalypse Week on TNB.

      This week, though! WOW! PLASTIC! Happy Easter, everyone! Don’t forget your plastic eggs, your plastic grass and your plastic baskets! Chocolate which tastes like plastic!

      YAY!

  6. Quenby, you’ve gone right to my wheelhouse, to the ranty, aggrieved, appalled place that I sometimes live. See previous post (scroll down to #6) concerning nurdles and The Great Trash Island.

    I was just at RAW last night, which is this super progressive pizza place that makes bizarre pie combinations and doesn’t use cardboard boxes! I was sitting there thinking “How great. I wonder how many hectares of virgin oldgrowth is spared with each sale non-boxed?” Of course, then the other part of me, the cynical, doomed, relativist part, had to admit that each hectare saved probably went to the plastic bag that held the cardboard box that held the molded plastic sleeve that held the cardboard kitchen scene that held the plastic “Mommy’s Cooking Time” doll that my daughter had just picked out and was now combing the petroleum-blond hair of.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      That’s it, right? You’re wondering if, in the terminology of the environmental movement, you’re being greenwashed: told a pack of stories which make you feel better but is a load of the same crap you’ve been fed forever.

      And then you think: really, does it matter? And then you go and buy your kid Legos.

      Wait. That’s me.

      Anyway. I really, really hate plastic, although it has it’s claws in me and everyone else. I really, really try to not buy plastic if at all possible, BUT IT’S NOT. I bought a kid’s birthday present last week: a wooden catapult. Super, duper cool. What were the munitions of said catapult? PLASTIC PING PONG BALLS. Seriously, WTF, Sean?

      Those balls go pretty damned far, though, I have to say.

  7. Gloria says:

    I had to Google Drinky the Crow. That does look pretty rad.

    I agree about the goody bags at kids’ parties. It’s a waste of money and time. I’m pretty anti.

    I like the motto take what you need and leave the rest. I think a needs assessment is important in this question.

    Honestly, I think that this problem won’t be solved until it becomes a crisis that can’t be ignored one second more. And then we’ll do what humans always do – adapt or die. I think that damage control works on an individual basis but I’ve yet to see it work on a large, global scale. Yep, I’m a cynic.

    Thoughtful post, Q.

    • Quenby Moone says:

      Drinky the Crow is one of the coolest presents we ever got. Although I’d feel more comfortable if he was made out of real crow.

      HA!

      Yes, I believe I remember an interview about paradigmatic shifts: they only happen where there’s no other choice. Humans don’t change unless that change is forced from without.

      Pathetic.

  8. jmblaine says:

    Amen
    & now the same
    rage again
    to all the plastic
    peoples

    (count me
    in on the
    crackers)

    • Quenby Moone says:

      What happened to the waxed packaging? WHY DON’T WE USE TINS?

      I wrote a follow-up to this essay which has the horrifying moment when I walked into a drugstore to pick up a prescription and didn’t find medicine, but aisles and aisles and aisles of plastic bottles filled with whatever brightly colored liquid you thought you needed.

      I realized it wasn’t where we went for health, but where we went to prop up the petroleum industry.

      Grim.

  9. pixy says:

    i am, admittedly, VERY naive and know not a whole lot about the recycling thing and the plastics and what not, BUT, can’t they just start gathering up bits of the plastic state of texas in the pacific ocean and recycle it into the parts needed to make us awesome high-speed rail?
    do the ubiquitous “they” have to just leave it sitting out there? what’s the deal with “recycling” anyway if it’s just gonna go into the plastic texas in the pacific?

    i am a bad, ignorant portlander, but i’m willing to learn.

  10. Quenby Moone says:

    I think one of the problems is there’s no “there” there. It’s a flotilla that moves around, it’s toxic, there’s nothing to stand on, no way to really gather anything up. It just grows like bacteria in a petri dish, and like bacteria, it’s not solid but amorphous and elusive. And growing and growing.

    What really needs to happen is the petro-lobbies need to be de-fanged. We need to STOP MAKING new plastic. Plastic is incredibly difficult to recycle, and because there are so many different types of plastic, some of which are toxic and some of which are brittle, and some of which are clear, and some which aren’t, there isn’t one method of recycling. And it’s low melting point and high toxicity add another level of complication.

    Glass only becomes more purified with more recycling. Plastic is toxic and does not lose impurities. Paper can be formed into all kinds of things, and, properly disposed of, will biodegrade. Plastic never biodegrades but becomes more and more brittle, and then breaks apart into smaller and smaller pieces, which are then ingested by everything, everywhere. Plastic is at the base of the food chain now. You eat plastic whether you want to or not because everything does.

    Your prescription bottles, for instance, do not recycle. The plastic is so bad and brittle that there’s no way to melt it down to make it into something new. Where do all those little brown bottles go? Into landfills or the ocean. There’s literally no-where else for them to go.

    So I don’t have any answers, but I have a lot of questions. Thanks for your interest, though. Just try to not wash your plastics in the dishwasher or microwave; recent research suggests that those two acts alone contribute to us ingesting quite a lot of plastic.

  11. I’m an organic freak, and about a month ago I was given a plot of land behind my apartment that I was told I could turn into a garden. Great! I used to work on a farm and so I know my way around organic crops and so on and so forth. I thought, “Now I finally can stop eating vegetables grown in human shit! No more pesticides! No more hundreds of layers of plastic wrapped around each carrot!”

    Which is all well and true.

    But the area behind my apartment is typical Chinese land. This country is big but with a billion people there isn’t really much that isn’t covered in plastic and wrecked concrete. I’ve spent countless hours sifting through shit, and the worst thing is that people keep tossing bags of crap out their window, even when I’m working there, cleaning up their messy country.

    Bastards.

    But fuck ’em. I got my garden and it looks awesome. Now I just spend two minutes a day removing the new layers of plastic that people dump, and all I have are the mental scars from moving probably in excess of a ton of plastic that was previously there. To be fair, someone had tried to get rid of it before me… by burning it. Yeah.

  12. Greg Olear says:

    Legos will be the death of us all. How many must there be in the world? More than there are rains of sand on the beach? Stars in the sky? Ugh.

  13. Matt says:

    I’ve been likewise attempting to consume less plastic, though my attempt to plant a balcony vegetable garden turned into a miserable failure. While I don’t have a solution for all the BIG stuff, I can give you a few bathroom tips:

    About a year ago I started using a WWI-era safety razor, the kind that uses a single steel blade. You can get a new one for $30-$40 online. For one thing, it gives a GREAT shave (especially when used with a shaving soap & brush combo), and the blades are usually excepted for recycling by any place that takes scrap metal. There can be SOME plastic in the packaging of modern-day blades, but you can also order vintage (and sometimes ridiculously sharp) blades from sites like razoremporium.com, and they almost always come packaged solely in paper and carboard. Some of the package art is neat, too!

    They can be hard to find, but you might want to look into seeing if you can get your hands on any solid shampoo bars at markets in your area. I swear by them. Since they don’t have the damaging chemicals in them that most shampoos to, you don’t need conditioner, and again, they usually come wrapped in eco-friendly paper. Each bar usually lasts me about six months, too.

  14. Erika Rae says:

    Ah, Quenby. This is something that weighs heavily on me, too. I want to stop using plastic, but I honestly don’t know how. I have a friend whose sister lives in Italy, though. The thing that I’ve been struck by most in the way she now lives (which is on a farm) is how self-sufficient she has become. She raises her own veggies. Kills her own chickens. Presses her own olive oil. They pick lemons and raise tomatoes. When the broccoli is ready in the garden, they eat 4 weeks of broccoli. 4 weeks of eggplant. They make their own pasta. And on and on. They eat what they have when it’s available. They buy supplies in bulk. When I first learned about how she was living, the very first thing I thought was, wow – I’ll bet that cuts down on the wrappers. But as you say, I’m one of these stuck on a mountaintop. What the hell am I going to eat if I can’t get things shipped in? Difficult. Yes.

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