I hate plastic. So much so that I believe were I to be crawling across the desert, cartoonlike, dying of thirst, and I came across a Coke machine that only had plastic bottles, and I actually had $1.25 in quarters, I would have to have a serious conversation with myself before I actually decided whether dying was not better than buying a plastic bottle of Diet Coke or Dasani. My husband hates driving with me on long trips because I am constantly pointing out the plastic bags in the trees and skipping along the roadsides. (Well, that, and the fact that I have very odd taste in music, and I always force him to listen to my CDs or Ipod, which is kind of just because he is always forcing me to watch basketball games between teams I don’t care about on the only one of our two tvs that has a DVR.)

By the way, the next time you drive anywhere, make it a point to pay attention to the trash on the roadsides. It will forever ruin you.

So, I’m watching some ridiculous – but oddly fascinating – event during the Olympics last night, and a commercial comes on for Beneful dog food (or dog fud, as I have spelled it ever since that Far Side cartoon with the cat and the clothes dryer and the dog, where the cat has written “Dog Fud” with an arrow to the dryer door, and the cat is thinking, “Oh, please. Oh, please.”) But I digress.

Beneful was advertising single servings, packed into lovely little plastic bowls. Like it’s too freakin’ hard to actually open a bag of dog fud and actually put said dog fud into a bowl. I would have thrown a shoe into the tv, but it happens to be the one with the DVR, which I was only watching because my husband is out of town.

And that got me to thinking about the plastic that we buy on virtually a daily basis, plastic that is not easily recycled and that can live, like Dick Cheney, far past its actual usefulness. We go to the Publix, and we check out with plastic bags full of tomatoes, lettuce, string beans and broccoli. And that’s not counting the meal-in-a-minute prepared crap or the ketchup bottles or the barbecue sauce or the plastic bags that all the other plastic bags eventually go in, so that you can tote them to your car.  I personally use cloth bags, and, if ever I forget to take them into the store with me, I tell the store clerk to just put everything back in the buggy for transfer to the forgotten cloth bags in the car. And I feel sad when I see the customer schlepping a buggy filled with 30 plastic bags, some of which contain just one package of chicken breasts.

Many countries, including Ireland, Italy, South Africa, Eritrea, Rwanda, Kenya, Switzerland, Australia and Belgium have either banned plastic bags altogether or begun charging a fee for their use. Bangladesh banned the lightweight plastic bags in 2002, when studies showed that the drainage system, which contributed heavily to damage from floods, was clogged with them. In the US, San Francisco has banned their use, but other cities attempting to do so have run up against powerful lobbies like the Progressive Bag Alliance (funded by the plastics and polymer  industries), the American Chemistry Council and, wait for it, Walmart, which was fighting the bag ban at the same time it was attempting to sell itself as a ”green” company.

It’s all well and good to say that we aren’t part of the problem because we recycle our plastic, but the fact remains that very little (about 27 percent of plastic bottles, for instance) are actually recycled. In 2008, volunteers for Keep America Beautiful’s Great American Cleanup collected 189 million plastic bottles from highways, waterways and parks.

In fact, just because you put a piece of plastic into your recycling bin does not mean that it will be recycled. Check out The Ecology Center’s seven misconceptions about plastics recycling: http://www.ecologycenter.org/ptf/misconceptions.html. Number three says, “A chasing arrows symbol means a plastic container is recyclable. The arrows are meaningless. Every plastic container is marked with the chasing arrows symbol. The only information in the symbol is the number inside the arrows, which indicates the general class of resin used to make the container. The attorneys general of 11 states objected to false and misleading claims about plastic recyclability. The recent settlement that they reached with the American Plastics Council paves the way for a first-ever definition of what claims can or cannot be made about plastic recycling and recyclability.”

Plastics are fast becoming one of the world’s deadliest trashes. In 1997, sailor Charles Moore, returning home after a sailing race, came upon what is now called “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a sea of mostly plastic garbage that some say could be larger than the continental US. “I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic.,” Moore later wrote in an article for Natural History. “It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.” No one knows just how big it actually is, because plastics tend to break down into small particles that never become benign and remain deadly to marine and bird life for decades.

There are numerous accounts of chick mortality among albatrosses and other seagoing birds because of parents ingesting bottle caps,  fishing line and other detritus to their young, which then, because the plastic clogs their innards, die of starvation.

Sea turtles, too, die when they ingest floating plastic bags that look like the jellyfish they feed on. So do dolphins, seals and other marine mammals.

Moore eventually founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which organized the JUNK Raft project to raise awareness about plastic pollution of the oceans. According to his research there was six times more plastic in Great Pacific Garbage Patch than the zooplankton that feeds ocean life. Another study, in 2002, showed that plastic outweighed zooplankton by a factor of 2.5 off the coast of California.

Yet, somehow, we keep being bombarded with new products that are plastic-bound. Chicken now comes in “individually sized portions,” each in its own plastic cocoon. Try buying a bottle of ketchup or jar of mayonnaise or peanut butter in something other than plastic. It’s “convenient.” It’s “easy.” It’s also killing seabirds and marine life. So next time you go to the store, pay attention. You will not be able to completely get plastic out of your life. But you can make some changes that may save an albatross. Here are my suggestions:

Use cloth bags at the grocery store, the Target, the Lowes, the Home Depot.

If you don’t have cloth bags, just carry the items to your car in a buggy. Most of what you buy can be easily transferred to your car sans plastic bags and carried into your house.

Don’t put three tomatoes in their own plastic bag. Use your cloth bag.

Don’t buy drinks in plastic bottles. Aluminum is much more easily recycled.

Don’t buy Beneful “single servings.”

Write to Beneful (Purina) and every other company you see marketing products in plastic that don’t need to be in plastic. Tell them you won’t buy anything unnecessarily packaged in plastic.

The birds, turtles and dolphins will thank you.

Janet Ward

Janet Ward

Janet is a long-time Atlantan, grammar and punctuation Nazi and public relations manager whose hobby is hating Republicans. There is not enough room to list her various jobs, but she is currently happy in her position with the City of Atlanta, where she spends much of her time explaining to water/sewer customers that, if they let their toilets run, they should expect their bills to be high. Janet lives in Candler Park with her husband, Jack Wilkinson, a likethedew contributor, their dog, Jack (hey, he’s a rescue. He came with the name.) and Rosie the Cat, named, of course, for the Springsteen song. She has an inexplicable thing for the Monkees.

  1. Frank Povah

    Thank you Janet. It would also be nice if US supermarkets made their “cold bags” so that they actually functioned as such. As for roadside litter, Kentucky is ghastly but our legislators are obviously too busy getting bills to make “Bible literacy” part of schools’ curricula. South Australia had compulsory deposit legislation on pop bottles passed many years ago and later, before they were actually banned, charged for plastic bags. One consequence is that you can drive for hundreds of miles through that State with hardly a sight of roadside litter. Funny though – when other States talk of introducing container deposits, the bottling companies say it would make them unprofitable. So why do the still do business in South Australia?

  2. We live in the Georgia mountains, and our county is full of trash, either cans or plastic. My husband had an idea…Why not charge the stores that dole out plastic an extra trash tax. We have traveled all over the country, but have never seen as much trash as we do in Union County.

  3. Montgomery, Ala., used to collect recyclable trash once a week (in special orange plastic bags) at curbside. But the mayor decided that the city was not making enough money on the recycling, and he stopped the program altogether. Now, every single ounce of plastic goes into the landfill or the waterways.
    Thank-you, Janet, for this excellent reminder.

  4. Thanks Janet for expressing my rant so well. We’ve created such a monstrous mess with our throw-away economy while we blithely fail to realize that there’s no such place as “away.” It’s appalling to watch the flow of plastic bottles wash down our creek on to the river with every gully washer.

    The corporation that makes Beneful single servings, Nestle (who acquired Purina in 2001), has had a long history of global deception with their marketing of infant formula. A boycott was begun against them in 1977 and continues today because of their continued practices. That’s just one more reason not to buy their “instant trash” products.

  5. Janet,

    I agree with you 100% on the trash – that’s an oxymoron. But the issues are far more complex than many people realize. The problem isn’t the material per se. There are very valuable products made of high tech plastic (cars, for example), it’s the throwaway (and not caring where you throw it) mentality.

    In addition to the flimsy grocery bags that break almost before you put anything in them there are sturdy plastic bags that you can use over and over again. There are also high tech plastic products that people just throw away. Take the CDs and DVRs you mentioned. These are made of an expensive engineering plastic called polycarbonate. Yet there is no wide-scale recycling of this at the moment becaue it is too expensive to separate the plastic from the other material. The alternative is downloading all your music and movies.

    In addition to the optical storage media (tech-speak for CDs, etc) we actually buy, think how many free CDs we get a day, a week, or month – in magazines, for example. Due to the lack of reycling facilities, we can only throw them away. Ideally, nowhere except in the garbage, but even that is not good. Besides the emissions issue in waste incineration,you’re throwing away a product that didn’t need to be made. Waste before it’s even used.

    In any case, it isn’t true that aluminm is easier to recycle than plastic. It’s not, and the production of aluminum is less environmentally friendly than producing plastics. Glass manufacture is not especially environmentally friendly, either. The important thing is to buy something that is durable, no matter what it is made of, and use it over and over again.

  6. Janet Ward

    I should have said that aluminum recycling rates are significantly higher than plastic. Unfortunately, aluminum production has largely been moved offshore (my understanding is someone has put a smelter in the Brazilian rainforest). So you are right that aluminum production is not benign, but it isn’t any less so than plastic production.

    One thing that drives me crazy is the plastic bags at Subway that they put your sandwich in for no discernable reason. You are using that bag for all of, what? 15 seconds? Grrrrr.

    1. They put your sandwich in a plastic bag so all the mayonnaise and other gunk won’t drip out until after you’ve left the premises!

      It’s not a bad thing for American air that aluminum is moving offshore, although it is too bad for the rainforest.

      As to recycling, whether plastics or aluminum, it’s better not to manufacture things that are to be thrown away after using only once. Reusing is better. Both glass and plastic bottles can be refilled, but I never heard of anyone refilling an akuminum can!

      1. Janet Ward

        By the time that sandwich goes into the plastic bag, it’s already wrapped so well that no mayo is gonna drip on you. I always tell them to hold the plastic bag, and I haven’t gotten dripped on yet.

  7. Mandy Richburg Rivers

    Janet, few have the skill to be funny AND poignant about plastic, but you nailed it.

    Add Canada to the list of countries that charge for plastic bags. Another thing they do (have done as long as I can remember) is package milk in bags. Everyone has a little milk-bag shaped pitcher that you slip your bag into. Snip the corner and you’re golden.

    Garbage service is free for recyclables too. That really only leaves organic waste which can be put down the garbage disposal or tossed in the compost pile.

  8. Right on, Janet. Reposted link on Facebook. My wife and I make a sincere effort to reduce our footprint, including reducing our purchases of plastic-housed stuff as much as possible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back to the car to get my cloth bags. We shop a lot at natural food cooperative (yea! Sevananda), which offers many items in bulk, avoiding the need for some plastic–especially for produce items. And, we’ve found that Emory recycles 1 through 6 plastic. Sundays I get some of my biggest kicks out of making the run to the recycling center. The stories about the swirling Pacific plastic crap heap are heartbreaking! More laws, more fees. Fine with me! Great story!

  9. Janet Ward

    Hey, Lee, where at Emory is the plastic recycling?

  10. Steve Krodman

    Ahhh, plastics. The convenient bogeyman.

    I think the real issue here is, as Quincy Dee points out, not with plastics per se, but with the “use it once and chuck it” mentality we Americans have grown comfortable with. Those plastic bags in the supermarket weigh a lot less than the paper bags they replace, and their manufacture is way more environmentally friendly. Ever spend much time in a paper mill… or downwind from one?

    It makes a whole lot more sense to bring reusable bags to the market. Mine are made of woven polypropylene coated with polyethylene. They’re indestructible – way more durable than a cloth bag. And I can carry a metric buttload of groceries in a single bag. No need for throwaway bags!

    If you want to give a shot in the arm to plastic recycling, require a deposit on all “disposable” plastic containers. It works for single-use glass bottles.

    Plastics may be a contributor to our solid waste problems, but they have their benefits. When I’m in the shower, I’m glad we have plastic shampoo bottles. Ever drop a glass shampoo bottle in the tub? I’m old enough to remember how unpleasant that can be.

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