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Plastic doesn’t biodegrade so where does it all go?

Every piece of plastic that has ever been created . . .  still exists. Think about that. I certainly do as I cast my eyes across all the plastic shampoo and other bottles in the shower every morning, as I look at all the plastic containers in my pantry and fridge, when I toss plastics into recycling, never sure if they will actually be recycled. Our world is built on plastic and will die from plastic overload. Each of us is trying her best to be environmentally conscientious but the odds are stacked against us. No matter how hard we try to eliminate plastics from our lives, it’s an uphill battle. Third world countries are still dumping it into the streets which flow into the drainage systems, which drain into creeks and rivers, that drain into oceans and collect until a green-minded environmentalist tries to collect it with a net, to be deposited . . . where?

Plastic drinking straws are small in size but huge in the overall impact of pollution on our planet. The banning of plastic drinking straws and other single-use plastics is a controversial and growing problem. It’s horrifying to see pictures of creatures in the wild starving because there’s a plastic packaging ring wrapped around their mouths making it impossible to feed. Autopsied whales have revealed huge amounts of plastic waste in their stomachs, giving them the sensation of having eaten while gaining zero nutrition.

The most gratifying part of my Mothers’ Day surprise lunch from Harvey’s was not the food itself but the fat orange paper straw in the (waxed) paper cup full of Diet Pepsi. The Harvey’s orange straw wasn’t like the ones we sipped our cherry Cokes through in the 50s and 60s that disintegrated before you were finished. This one had heft. It’s a small step but a long overdue and much-appreciated option to single-use plastic straws. Paper is recyclable and a replaceable resource.

I’m trying to be conscientious about reducing pollution but I feel it’s not working. Today when I rolled those giant bins out to the curb and took a last peek inside, I was shocked to see that my recyclables were twice the amount of my regular garbage. While recycling should be a good thing, viewing my own garbage only illustrates what a wasteful society we are. All those plastics that are being manufactured and distributed every day are only bloating our planet’s wastes. I diligently tear paper labels off cans and bottles before rinsing and disposing of them into the appropriate recycling bin. And I discreetly take things my honey has inadvertently dropped into the trash bin and move them into recycling. But, it’s discouraging to learn that much of what we put in our recyclable bins still goes to landfill.

We managed just fine in the ’50s and ’60s (my boomer frame of reference) without plastic grocery bags, plastic straws, plastic bottles and all the other items we use so ubiquitously today. That got me thinking about what substitutions could easily be made without too much disruption in function. Many plastic items could easily be replaced by paper or wood products which could be sourced from Canada’s vast renewable lumber industry:

Don’t forget your reusable bags.
  • Plastic grocery bags – Paper or reusable cloth bags
  • Styrofoam takeout food and drink containers – Paper
  • Plastic straws – paper or reusable stainless steel
  • Plastic cutlery – wooden or bamboo utensils
  • Plastic produce bags – cotton net bags much like the ones we use for laundry delicates
  • Single-use bottles of water – refill stainless steel containers from the tap

And the list goes on. Every time I drop something into the garbage, I’m plagued with guilt. It’s hard to avoid when most of our everyday consumer goods are wrapped in or made of plastic. I have a giant 30-ounce stainless steel thermal cup and stainless steel straw I use to tote my daily supply of water around in the car. I use the same kind of cup for my refills at Timmie’s. It’s gratifying to see some plastic items being replaced with paper but we have a long way to go.

I’m restricting my consumption of discretional consumer goods like clothing and do-dads. We already have more than we need and I’m getting too old for all the work involved in staging a yard sale. I’ve donated boxes and bags of goods to various charities but our house is still chock-a-block with stuff, plastic and otherwise. I’m not really prepared to go full-on Marie Kondo yet but I know we could live a lot more simply than we do. Do I contribute more to landfill or let it continue to fill my home?

Remember in the fifties when we used to take fish and chips home from the chip shop wrapped in newspaper? Groceries were packed in large paper bags that our mothers reused for garbage disposal. We owned one car per family if we owned a car at all. We had one television, one telephone on the kitchen wall, one winter coat, one pair of good shoes for Sunday and special occasions and another pair for every day, one white purse for summer and a black or brown one for winter.

We could learn so much from adopting so many of the methods our parents (The Greatest Generation) used to reduce and save waste. Most boomers probably remember our fathers resoling their work shoes rather than tossing them and buying a new pair. We’re shameless consumers with more shoes, jeans, tops, coats, purses, and toys than we need or even use. We need bigger houses with bigger closets and kitchens to store all the crap we’ve accumulated over the years. As boomers, it’s scary to even think of the work involved in downsizing. It’s tempting to just dodge our responsibility and leave everything for our kids to dispose of after we die. Imagine how thrilled they’ll be to inherit all our old china, out-of-date furniture, worn-out linens, and mismatched crystal glassware.

Shame on us.

I’m not suggesting we turn back the clock but affluence has come at a terrible cost to our planet. Third world countries are sending back our garbage. I didn’t even realize we were shipping it overseas until China and Malaysia went public with the news they were no longer accepting it.

Baby boomers are a generation of serious polluters who begat generations of even greater polluters. We’ve realized the error of our ways and most of us are trying to make amends but the problems seem insurmountable. I’m actually in favour of tough laws at a federal or provincial level that forces us to reduce consumption and pollution.  We need a strong and united political front to lead the charge. Outlawing plastic bags and straws seems like a tough and perhaps unworkable measure, but that’s what we need to consider doing.

I’m willing to pay more for products in glass reusable bottles that require a refundable deposit. Collecting and returning scavenged glass pop bottles as a kid guaranteed I had a steady income stream for Dubble Bubble and red licorice. That system could work again. I’m trying to reduce my own personal consumption. We have to keep trying. And we have to vote for politicians who will make the difficult decisions needed to get the ball rolling. I’m not sure we’ll be able to make much of a difference in our lifetimes, but it’s imperative that we convince the upcoming generations of the seriousness of the situation and trust them to do the right thing. Can we? Will they? It’s a scary prospect and I hope someone steps up to the plate before it’s too late. If it’s not already.

 

 

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