Curtain Raiser

The Plastic Oh, No, Band, Colltalers

‘I just want to say one word to you. Just one word… Are you listening? Plastics.’ That was the career advice offered to Benjamin Braddock, in the 1967 movie The Graduate. If the word was just a joke then, almost 50 years later, it now defines our way of life and may point to our demise.
Its presence permeates almost everything considered essential to our living in this planet, plastic may also choke to death its lifeline, the oceans. Everyday, millions of discarded pieces of it reach the world’s waterways and join what’s an already incalculable amount of floating garbage.
In fact, in this past half century, we’ve seen how insidious plastic clogging the world oceans has become: it has been found everywhere, from vast extensions, forming giant invisible islands of flotsam, to deep under the Arctic seas, and out of dead seabirds’ bursted open stomachs full of it.
As part of our daily life, it’s also all over: in the computer where this post is being composed to cellphones, medicine bottles, to product packaging, food containers, to throwaway utensils. It’s almost discouraging to realize how hard it’d be for us do dig ourselves out of this lifestyle hole.
But perhaps not all is lost. Two of the more ominous of its uses may represent both a way out and a method to wean ourselves from such pervasive product: plastic bags and bottles. They both encapsulate extremes of our societal behavior and offer interesting metaphors to our way of living.
Take bags, for instance, banned this past week in California, which may be one of the most important steps taken against plastic pollution since recycling rules have been instituted in the U.S. A positive sign, indeed, that should ignite a chain reaction and lead to a nationwide ban.
Created solely out of convenience, these bags are utterly replaceable, and yet, have a level of adherence in all walks of life that would baffle social scientists searching for common habits shared by all classes. It’s, however, one of the most environment-damaging habits we could possibly partake.
So a ban, as it’s being pursued in New York and other states, and following some European countries, would represent a big step towards controlling ocean pollution, where they inevitably wind up, after decades in landfills. Would a ban also instill a reflexion on our shopping obsessions? Nah.
The other ominous use of polymers is even more ridden with the contradictions of our very own highfalutin approach to a natural lifestyle: bottles. Drinking bottled water became one the most terrible by-products of the ‘living healthy’ movement, one that added millions of tons of plastic to our already expanding garbage piles, beating even, oh, the irony, bottles of soda. And the makers of these products are still unaccountable for it.
No wonder. Even those professing respect for nature have no problem paying top prices for water, spending thousands of dollars every year that could as well be directed to improving treatment plants. That would, arguably, result in better potable water coming from everybody’s taps.
That’s not the point here, though. While a ban on bottles would be unpractical, recycling has made strides into curbing their waste. One would be surprised with the creative ways that even some very young people have come up with for recycling, turning plastic into fuel, street pavement, finding other uses for it, including art, filtering, composting and combining with natural elements, the list fortunately goes on and on.
Across the world, thousands of volunteers have been cleaning beaches and resorts, collecting by hand tons of pieces of plastic that others leave behind, or the sea brings ashore. Most of what was once a toothbrush, or a container’s cap, or even a refrigerator door, is usually found as a fragment of eternal garbage, bound, if not picked, to remain there ages after everyone you know is gone from this earth.
Science has also played a part in the efforts to reverse this toxic trend of civilization. Some types of fungi, for instance, have shown to feed on polyurethane. And research continues on bisphenol A, or simply BPA, a synthetic carbon compound known to emulate the effects of estrogen in the human body, found in most polymer products. Over or under exposure to estrogen can wreak havoc with human hormones, behavior, and brains.
Apart from that, there are myths and misconceptions about both how sustainable the use of toxic products in our daily life is for the environment, and how pointless may be current efforts at recycling and reusing the same materials, so to extend their natural life cycle even longer. At the same time, we’re prone to sit and sulk over whether to change, while years go by and we still keep doing the same things over and over again.
An interesting piece of trivia is that, while the first viable method to create plastic was developed by Leo Baekeland (remember Bakelite?) in 1907, according to Wikipedia, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has recently detected propylene, used to make plastic food containers, on Saturn’s moon Titan.
Much closer home, the also recent discovery of rocks formed out of clumps of plastic on the shores of Hawaii is way more disturbing, as it shows the artificial element combining with the environment to form something at least as unpalatable to life on earth as an ocean choked up on plastic.
And while we still argue about whether banning plastic bags, or recycling bottles for sports teams’ jerseys, are shortsighted approaches to the imminent danger of losing marine sea life at a catastrophic rate, at least they’re both things that anyone can do about the survival of this planet.
As we mentioned, one promising componente of current research on the recyclability and/or elimination of plastic is the work of teenagers from all over the world, contributing with their enthusiasm and clever solutions. They should put to shame anyone with doubts about their generation. Much more than previous ones, including ours, theirs is one engaged in fostering their own future, right now. Besides, of course, complaining about it.
So before becoming preachy or having to pile up tons of links and references, to keep you abreast of what’s going on, let’s end it here. Surely you can manage it without our help. But today is the first day of a new month, as good as anytime to start something new. Why not get acquainted and, if at all possible, jumping into the fray of like-minded citizens, searching for a way out of plastics? Have a great Labor Day and see you in September. WC


2 thoughts on “Curtain Raiser

  1. Old Jules says:

    Hi Wesley. Those plastic dunes on Titan are intriguing. I smile to myself and construct scenarios of them having started as oceanic garbage patches of the earth variety
    created in the corner of the eyes of little green men living their busy lives until it all caught up and the plastic garbage patches became sand dunes that don’t even drift the way good civilized dunes drift. When we get all those earth plastics recycled maybe we can send Sierra Clubbers and [only after earth if pristine] Earth Firsters up to figure out how to retroactively save Titan and the Titanians. So much to do and so little time. Jack


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