Plastic is everywhere. It has made hospitals cleaner and cars lighter. It holds tons of strawberry yogurt and "fresh scent" laundry detergent. It encases untold amounts of vital information inside of cellphones and computers. Our children chew on it, play in it and float upon it. Plastic has entwined itself into our modern world. It is a part of us.
And yet, with all of this progress and convenience, there is one small problem. This substance is going to be around for a long, long time. When plastic breaks down, it does not biodegrade. It photodegrades. This means it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. Plastic's petro-polymers are so small, they can easily float in our water, and become part of our soil.
Plastic has simultaneously made our world safer and more dangerous. It is the perfect metaphor for the modern world.
Last year, Americans used about 100 billion plastic bags. About 12 percent of those were recycled.
So what becomes of the 88 billion bags that don't make their way to the recycling plant? Some are sealed in landfills, blooming like stalagmites in an underground Tartarus of trash. They float on the breeze, dangle on power lines, and stack up against buildings like modern day tumbleweeds. They go on a holiday at the beach and end up bobbing peacefully in the ocean, impersonating jellyfish, becoming toys for dolphins. And eventually they break into bite-sized pieces, wiggling their way into our food chain. Animals eat the plastic, we eat the animals, and the magical chemicals that become plastic become a part of us.
As a citizen of the modern world, I benefit from thousands of advances in science and chemistry. At the same time, I am threatened by thousands of chemicals and pollutants. In this modern conundrum, what is a concerned citizen to do?
One small thing I do is take my plastic use seriously. I consider each container with the knowledge that it's never going away. Whenever possible, I skip individual-sized products and go for bulk. I avoid buying bottled water as much as possible. I recycle as much as possible. And I do not use plastic shopping bags.
As numerous as they are, plastic bags are a small piece of the environmental picture, but they are an incredibly easy thing to get rid of. I have a collection of reusable bags that I keep in the back of my car. Every trip to the grocery store, I use my own bags instead of plastic. I have found that this makes unloading the car much easier as a typical trip results in four reusable bags, instead of 15 plastic bags. Also, many stores offer a five-cent credit for every bag you bring.
In my purse, I carry a reusable bag that rolls up to the size of a large pack of gum. This works well for when I am running small errands that don't merit my giant grocery bags.
Even so, my pantry is somehow full of plastic bags. My newspaper arrives every morning encased in plastic, and my husband's dry cleaning is always accompanied by a clear billowing sheet. Add to this the produce bags, the plastic that encases toilet paper, bread bags and air pillows that protect items during shipping. These grow in my pantry into soft plastic clouds until I remember to drop them off for recycling at the grocery store.
Taking plastic use seriously is a small thing. I have no illusions that it will change the course of the world. But life is a collection of small things. And sometimes, once in a while, a small thing matters.
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