Our Tragic, Plastic World

One thing that distinguishes human beings from other species, according to human beings anyway, is our use of tools. There are a few other animals that use primitive tools but they are quite limited in number and scope. We, on the other hand, are so damn smart! Not only did we invent shovels, we used them to dig up stuff that could power the shovels so we didn’t have to hurt our feet anymore. We found fossil fuels and ushered in the Age of Oil.

Sometimes shovels break. For the last two months, we’ve watched oil spew from the ruptured seabed in the Gulf of Mexico. The media has focused on this unfolding event and the blame game is in full swing. Everyone would like things to get back to normal. Even the CEO of BP said he would like his life back.

For a moment, let’s assume that the shovel did not break and the oil, rather than spewing forth uncontrollably into the sea, was instead sent to a refinery and turned into “useful products.” Roughly 80% of the oil is burned as gasoline and other fuels to move people and stuff around. The rest is used in thousands of ways to make millions of household items: everything from tires to deodorant and from crayons to bubble gum. Many of those things are made from another byproduct of captured oil: plastic.

Just about everything made from oil still ends up “out there” in the environment. Burned fuel releases millions of tons of carbon (dioxide and monoxide), sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, volatile organic compounds, particulates, etc. Almost all the other stuff eventually gets thrown “away” (which is nice, except that there really is no “away”). What we collectively think of as “away” are usually either landfills (into the earth), incinerators (into the air), or the oceans (into the water). Plastic is especially insidious because its toxic chemical content lasts almost forever.

The point of all of this is that no matter how we release stored carbon from within the earth, there are always consequences. A big oil leak gets a lot of attention but the day to day impacts of using oil products are barely noticed, even though in the end, they still pollute our environment. Our homes act as a conduit for a lot of plastic that is also having a major impact on the ocean.

Plastic doesn’t biodegrade but it does break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Our oceans are becoming a mix of plastic soup and it’s entering the food chain from the bottom up. No one has documented this more poignantly than photographer Chris Jordan (chrisjordan.com). In “Midway: Message from the Gyre,” his heart-wrenching photographs show the impact of our throwaway society on thousands of albatross chicks. There’s no such thing as organic wild-caught fish anymore. Everything has been contaminated. It can’t be cleaned up. Can we honestly say that this is any better than what’s happening in the Gulf? The best we can do, what we must do, is to stop the contamination from getting worse. Now.

So much of what we buy and bring home is either made of or packed in plastic. Reducing our use of plastic is the highest priority. Beyond that, we must responsibly recycle what we do use. The problem is that not all plastic can easily be recycled. So it’s time to reach for new (old) tools. For example, if you haven’t done so already, please stop using plastic bags at the supermarket! Get some sturdy cloth bags that can be reused over and over. I keep several in my car and they’ve lasted for years. I keep a stash of smaller reuseable bags that are handy for veggies and fruit.

Buy in bulk when you can. Look for products that minimize packaging or that use green options. A company called Be Green Packaging manufactures high-quality compostable packaging that has a Cradle to Cradle certification. It may not be common yet, so talk to your store manager about it. We all have a voice and together we can influence businesses to make more responsible decisions to reinforce the ones we’re learning to make every day.

The real oil tragedy has been building for over a hundred years. We’ve come a long way, baby – right to the brink. We’re so damn smart…can we grow up now?

Additional Resources:

“Only we humans make waste that nature can’t digest.” – Captain Charles Moore

Watch Captain Moore’s presentation at TED. This is must-see video:

The Majestic Plastic Bag narrated by Jeremy Irons: