We live in a world inundated with plastic, and it’s not just the high-profile disasters that pop-up in the news; the 5 large garbage patches or gyres in our oceans, the rivers of plastic and garbage running through towns and cities throughout Asia, or the microplastics that have now been detected in most major rivers throughout the world, and in the majority of bottled water as well. Plastic exists at that scale because it exists at that relative scale in our everyday lives, we rely on it for nearly every aspect of our daily existence. We have created these global catastrophes by living in a plastic paradigm.
Look around you now, how many items do you see that are plastic? How many of them can you not imagine in any other format? This is not to make you feel guilty, rather to simply understand how wide-spread and prevalent plastics have become; they have inundated in our lives at every level. This prevalence of plastic is bound to the many benefits it bestows. Benefits that we have not only accepted, but embraced, and internalized as necessary. We have done all of this in a few short generations, with one of the earliest forms of plastic being discovered as recently as 1862. Research into natural and synthetic plastics quickly escalated, and by the early 1900s plastics were revolutionizing industries, and creating new ones. By the mid-1900s we had invited them into every aspect of our lives, and with reason.
Plastic offered us sterility, allowing huge advances in the field medicine. It is easily molded, yet can be rigid when set, allowing it to quickly become the material of choice for a wide range of both industrial applications and consumer goods. As an inexpensive, light-weight, and durable material it eventually became the preferred form of packaging and shipping. Critically, plastics are cheap, greatly facilitating its pervasiveness. Indeed, we have developed such inexpensive means of manufacturing plastics that “one-use” plastics alone have become a hot-topic item. They are the shopping bags that we use for 10 minutes, the straws that we drink a scant 250ml with, the bottles that we use to transport less than a liter – once, and the wrappers that cover the fruit and vegetables we wash and peel regardless.
More than simply permeating our material lives, plastics have insinuated themselves into our values and the values of our societies. We have an obsession with sterility, we demand rampant convenience, expect inexpensive access to the latest trends and gadgets, and insist it all be delivered to our door, neatly customized for our consumption.
This is not to say that these values in isolation are to be demonized, rather that the short term perspective we typically use hides the costs and exaggerates the benefits. Valuing sterility has improved our public health, and our ability to deliver effective medicine and treatments. Convenience has gifted us with more time, although using this time for the truly important things in life is often still difficult to accomplish. Lowering the price of goods and services has allowed more people in our societies to delight in the latest and greatest. (Although the darker side to rampant consumerism, beyond simply plastic, is enough for several separate articles). Improving our ability to ship and transport goods has enabled some population groups, such as the elderly or home-bound, to lead more independent lives.
These values, when taken to the extremes we have collectively accepted, become distortions of their previous selves. Our obsession with sterility is suspected to have led to an increase in deadly allergies, and possibly also contributing to a variety of neurologic diseases, as our gut-biome becomes hindered by a lack of diversity. Our demand for increasingly inexpensive goods and services is one of the drivers of stagnant wage growth and oppressive conditions for laborers. Supreme convenience has led to laziness, and a shucking of responsibility for ourselves, as many of our daily demands can be easily ordered and delivered in a neat plastic bundle. Delivering everything from lunch to our latest whim direct to our doors has led to an increase in waste, pollution, and congestion. Plastic underlies all of this, facilitating our own corruption, and filling our world with something that can take hundreds or thousands of years to biodegrade, if it ever does.
Our short-term perspective has only exacerbated these issues. The use of plastics seems innocuous if we only contemplate the short-term. If our consideration of using a good or packaging ends when we throw it in the waste or recycling bin, then we will treat plastic the same as we might treat cardboard, glass, or aluminum. When we begin to consider a longer timeline, however, various inequalities begin to mount. Is the convenience of take-out worth leaving a 450 year legacy behind in the form of a plastic container, utensils, and plastic bag? Does a straw really add enough delight that it should leave behind a 200 year mark? Does the ease of grabbing a plastic bottle of water on-the-go validate it’s 450 year+ existence? Are we really so concerned with others touching the fruit we will wash and possibly peel that we want to leave behind a 10 – 500 year wad of plastic? To end with a touchy one, given the difficulty of raising children, do we really need our baby diapers outliving us, and the next 5 generations of our offspring? Our demands for low cost goods and services, offering us convenience, sterility, and personal comfort coupled with a narrow perspective has led us to answer ‘yes’ far too often, without understanding the full repercussions.
With a longer-term perspective, we can begin to see how the benefits plastics promise often do not offset the costs they incur. We have gotten very used to using plastics, but there are plenty of alternatives. With a few changes, we can all begin leading our lives in a more conscientious manner. We can do this while maintaining all or most of the convenience that we have gotten used to, it simply requires a bit of planning and foresight. In part 2 of our blog, we will share with you some of the changes that we have been making in our own lives to reduce our own plastic footprint. There is hope, if we create it. With interest in the plastic problem growing, and individuals inspiring their own social circuits, community and institutional level change will follow, but your own actions and decisions will be a critical aspect of this. We hope you will join us in living a reduced plastic existence.
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If you would like to explore more on your own, here are the sources used in writing this blog:
1) General plastic waste
2) Oceanic waste & Plastic gyres
3) Rivers of plastic
4) Microplastic in our rivers and fresh water basins
5) Microplastic & contaminants in bottled water
- Definitely use the one above
6) The gut-biome can affect allergies
7) The gut-biome can factor into autism spectrum disorders
8) Waste production as a function of affluence
9) Poor working conditions underlay hyper-consumerism
10) Food delivery app use is growing