The War on Plastics
I became obsessed with plastic in the Spring of 2018. I had just gotten an Instagram account at the suggestion of a friend who was attempting to live a low-waste life and I became inspired to reduce my own waste and become a more conscientious consumer. I have always been “good” at reducing my waste consumption. I make most of my food home-made, pack a lunch everyday with my own silverware and lunchbox, buy produce without plastic bags, and carry a water bottle and coffee canister wherever I go. After all, I grew up in Seattle, where the leading regional faith is liberal green progressivism. However, when I began to see the facts, filtered through the Internet, of the ways that people went to extremes to live zero waste lifestyles, I started to realize just how far I had to go if I wanted to achieve any sort of impact.
Leaving My Liberal Bubble
Following a spring of lecturing my mother on her usage of plastic produce bags, or my friends on their to-go coffee lids, I planned two different trips to countries that I had no idea would challenge my new ideology so strongly. It hadn’t occurred to me until then that traveling itself is an incredibly wasteful pastime. This evaded me mostly because I had traveled to other westernized countries and because the bulk of my traveling occurred prior to this newfound obsession with reducing waste. That spring I was planning a summer visit to a friend who was living in Mexico City, and then I hoped to be traipsing around by my lonesome through Thailand and Vietnam. Why? Because I worked a lot, I have the privilege of not paying much for school, and I like to jet away from the city I was born and raised in. So, I found myself in foreign countries where water cannot be drunk from the tap and where, in contrast to my supposedly liberal-thinking city, plastic straws and bags were very far from being banned.
First, I spent a week in Mexico City. The muggy heat, coupled with the fact that not all the delicious street tacos I consumed were equally enjoyed by my bowels, meant that I needed a lot of hydration. This hydration came in the form of water in plastic bottles. My friend and I tried to buy bigger containers to keep at the apartment and to fill up our reusable bottles as we went. But unfortunately, it never proved enough, especially as we would be tromping around the city all day in sweltering heat, coupled with some digestive issues that lead to a heavy water consumption rate. It felt like each purchase of water bottles was a direct attack on myself or the planet. The guilt tainted the taste of the water until I finally grew numb to this, and my friend didn’t want to hear my cries of disgust when necessity overrode my efforts to avoid wastefulness. Questions of the wastefulness of travel in general swirled in my mind, but my love of discovering new places continued to win out over recognizing the impact my whims make.
Then, it really hit me in Southeast Asia. First, I noticed that every person seemed to consume daily at least one drink in a plastic cup, with a plastic lid, straw, holder, and—finally—bag around it. The street food, when taken to go, would come to you in plastic bags for each component, which were then put altogether in one or two plastic bags. After 5 days on Koh Samui with my sister and her boyfriend, the pile of plastic trash in our Airbnb was spilling out of the garbage can, covering our countertop, and sinking onto the floor. I was aghast. The final straw (no pun intended) was when I spent an afternoon motorbiking across the Island of Koh Chang to find a secret beach behind a bizarre, abandoned resort from the 60’s. We left our bikes at the road and wandered through the old resort, exploring the past and finding our way down to the beach with white sand and the most beautiful teal water. I dove in immediately, tossed by the waves, and then—oh, what’s this? A piece of unidentifiable plastic garbage sits atop my head as I surface. I notice that I am swimming in trash; it piles around us as we try to enjoy the serenity of a beach that has now become littered with the forgotten pieces of our convenient lives. The shoreline was not covered in pebbles and seaweed that had been left as the waves crashed, but in old chip bags, Styrofoam flip flops, and the cups from which I had been drinking a few too many Thai iced coffees. My travel companion and I tried to pick things up and fill the black garbage bags floating in the mix with other trash. But all we could do was bring these up farther into the abandoned resort and leave them to find their way back in a future monsoon storm.
This experience left me a bit heart-wrenched. We live in a beautiful world, one I crave to see as much as I can—to swim in natural bodies of water, climb through jungles and forests, and even wander aimlessly through streets of foreign cities adorned with creations of the human mind and might. Yet, so many of these places now contain the leftovers of our take-out food, the coffee cup from our grab-and-go in the morning, or the remainders of the fast fashion we consume conveniently. This swim in the ocean got me thinking much more about the way we are choosing to consume nowadays—the movement away from processes that take time (and therefore produce a better, longer-lasting product) and towards something that goes hand-in-hand with our increasingly shorter attention spans. It seems that we have become so willing to take bad quality for convenience and speed rather than a longer-lasting product that will be friendlier to ourselves and to the earth we live on. We spend our lives trying to make money so that we can escape to tropical beauties such as this hidden beach on Koh Chang, yet when we arrive there, it is alongside the forgotten waste of our daily lives.
In addition to realizing the size of our problem with plastics, what this trip, this new found obsession with the war on plastics and my own questions about the ethics of traveling in this exploratory manner got me thinking about was class privilege. I have been lucky enough to receive influence and support from my family to travel, to have a father that teaches at my university and to receive scholarships so that my education was very inexpensive, which allowed me to save my own money from working to take trips like this one. This trip also made me blaringly aware of my own class privilege and the ability I have even to make the decision to mostly avoid single use and other forms of plastic or waste. Upon returning, I felt it was almost more necessary to try and cultivate a life away from this, because others around the world don’t necessarily have an opportunity to do so.
What Does Feasible Change Look Like?
National Geographic magazine’s June 2018 issue focuses largely on plastic and its impact on our oceans, on animals, and—consequently—on us. This material that was created just 150 years ago and has changed everything, from the medical field to the way wars may be fought, is now revealing what happens when you do not prepare for how to get rid of something like this once you’ve created it. More than 40 percent of the plastic in the world is used just once. Around nine million tons of it ends up in the ocean each year. The article details many aspects of this issue. In one photo, we see a seahorse swimming along carrying a plastic Q-tip. In another, a young Indian girl wades through a sea of plastic bottles that her mother or grandmother then sorts to make her living. A turtle is captured by a discarded plastic fishing net, so caught in it that it would have died if the photographers who took the photo hadn’t found them and released them after snapping the photo. Ocean plastic is estimated to kill millions of marine animals a year. And how long will it take for different plastics to biodegrade and situate back into the atmosphere? Somewhere between 450 years and never.
So, what can one individual do? Bon Appetit magazine just ran a few pages of simple changes we can all make to better consume, particularly around food. First, some very easy changes can be made, like carrying a reusable grocery bag with you in your car, your bag, or even your pocket for when you may need to stop by the store and pick something up. Second, utilize the bulk bins which have become a fad not only in your local hippie grocery store but even in Fred Meyer, Safeway, and QFC. These bins stock nuts, seeds, and other goods that can be bought using your own containers, like Mason Jars or Tupperware. If you’re like me, then the aesthetic value alone of this switch may convince you, even if the suffocating turtles and babies born with micro plastics won’t.
How about packing your lunch? Make a little extra dinner the night before, and while packing it in your glass Tupperware to be stored in the fridge, put some in a smaller glass container (Goodwill and Grocery Outlet are great places to get these items for cheap!) so you can quickly grab it and throw it in your reusable lunch bag, equipped with silverware and, perhaps, a cloth napkin? My packed lunch ends up being the best part of my day every day.
Turning Cynicism into Change
Flash forward to the Spring of 2019. I have been berating my mother for every plastic clamshell of prepared greens she buys, trying to adhere to my weird dietary restrictions, and yet still not doing everything right as I live under her roof and eat the meals she customizes for me. At my university, I find myself becoming irrationally irritated by one of my theatre cast mates who claims that the single plastic straw we all are supposed to be using to drink water—so as to avoid spilling on our costumes—is not going to do anything to the environment. I slowly climb off my high horse before I can begin the spew of correctness my mouth so badly wants to vomit.
Really, does it matter how much we all try to change individually? Is the pollution from the top corporations in our countries simply going to run us into the ground, or like many other things, will a cultural shift created by a few and followed by many perhaps have the chance to change things for the better? How does one go about trying to make these decisions and inform those around them without sounding like a complete asshole, which can be just as likely to get the opposite results due to the feelings of spite it creates?
In an era when there are so many issues out of our control, it seems we should jump on the opportunity to act where we as consumers can have control through the purchase of our goods. People are denying global warming or the existence of racism or sexism, and a man is appointed to the Supreme Court despite allegations of sexual abuse by a smart and powerful woman. This can leave one disheartened and apathetic towards the state of our society. But the issue of plastic no one can deny. We see our streets littered with it. We can walk through the grocery store and physically touch all the packaging that our food comes in. We can google the glob in the ocean and realize that this isn’t going anywhere. To say that one straw won’t make an impact is probably true. But if 7 billion people all keep saying this and fail to make any changes to the lives they live, especially those of us who have the means to compensate for people who don’t, this issue will continue to grow and create irreversible damage. For the sake of our own sanity, perhaps we should all start fighting this war together, one that goes beyond the divisiveness in our society and has the potential to pull us together for a common cause.
About the Author: Madeline McDonald studied Sociology and Philosophy at Seattle Pacific University, where she just graduated in the Spring of 2019. She plans to stay in Seattle working on sociological research and cooking at an Italian restaurant for the summer before hopefully taking another extended trip or moving abroad.