Because nothing says ‘I love you’ like a $120 box of individually styrofoam-packed strawberries. As Captain Moore says, “Plastic, like diamonds, is forever.”
We are obsessed with absolutes. Ban bottles. Zero waste. BPA free. A world with good and bad neatly slotted on either side. You are with us or against us. At the same time, we can’t do everything, so we applaud ourselves for tiny efforts. Refill a bottle. Bring a bag. Doing something is better than nothing, and maybe little moves can change the world, or at least make us feel a lot better.
Thinking in absolutes while acting through small compromises is one strategy for dealing with a complicated world. We simplify to get by, living mostly by habit, as it is impossible to carefully consider each and every move. When it is time to think about change, we like lists. 4 facts you didn’t know about plastic. 10 canned foods to avoid. Suggestions for shopping that neatly organize the world into good and bad objects. Easily digested consumer choices that fit with how we already live.
But what needs to be challenged is how we live, and how we live with plastic. We need to make big moves, but not totalizing ones. Responsibility cannot come from unbendable rules but from constantly engaging with – and responding to – the messy world we have made. We need to think more of rather than less of plastic; deal with not demonize; approach as powerful, not just bad.
In the spirit of resolutions (and yes, lists), I offer a set of numbered provocations for thinking about and living with plastic. These are suggested starting points for proceeding responsibly through complicated worlds where facts are constantly in motion and solutions cannot always be mapped in advance. What if we live everyday by treating plastic as if:
1. Plastic has a life of its own. It will always do things that humans can’t control. Getting into oceans, escaping from our best plans to recycle or bury it. To justify production or use based on assumptions of best-case scenarios is to underestimate plastic’s own powers.
2. Plastic is toxic. Plastic is not stable or inert; it leaches and attracts chemicals. Like household bleach, it is sometimes necessary in small doses, but even tiny amounts of the chemicals in plastic can cause devastating effects to living creatures. To be free of BPA is to be full of something else that just hasn’t yet been deemed dangerous.
3. Plastic is durable. Plastic does not always remain in a form or place that is immediately useful to humans, but it does not disappear. It is often made to break or made for single-uses, but it could be made differently. To confuse disposable with short-lived is to fill the world with plastic.
I’ve always been an environmentally minded person. When my father cut down the acre of forest in our backyard, I felt so bad for the trees that I vowed not to speak with him again (I caved sometime after dinner, several hours close enough to eternity for a 10 year old). I stopped eating meat years ago, have always been suspicious of where recycling really goes, and have an uneasy relationship with shopping for anything, especially if it comes in a package.
Since starting my plastic project, I’ve been systematically cutting down on the plastic in my life. I’ve substituted metal and glass for plastic containers, cotton and wool for polyester and nylon, cellulose for synthetic sponges. At any give time, I likely have a reusable bag, bottle and pair of chopsticks within reach. So when I asked my students to write down all the plastic objects they touched in 24 hours, I decided to check in on my own plastic habits and do the assignment along with them. The results? My life, as the 67 item-long list documents, is far from plastic free.
Some of the items represent things I can’t easily control: the synthetic carpet in grad housing; a strong glasses prescription. But many more are things I am not willing to go without, plastic objects part of important daily practices I feel I could not otherwise perform. Most concerning are the 17 things that could be considered single-use, containers not meant to be refilled, razor blades that cannot be sharpened, food packages that will long outlive their contents. I do not often possess the skills that alternatives would require (I am mortally terrified of wielding a straight razor), competency lost as disposables and ready-mades proliferated long before I was born. In other cases it’s a matter of time. While I enjoy making and baking all kinds of things from scratch, I would have to seriously re-arrange my life in order to supply myself with homemade staples like laundry-soap and almond milk on a regular basis.
Trained to think about systems, not individuals, I try not to beat myself up or judge others too harshly for plastic habits. After all, plastic is part of the ways we have learned to be capable participants in everyday life. I do not like alienating people or myself (always in danger of being labeled an eco-freak). But understanding these complicated commitments is only part of the process. There is a fine line between not blaming and not doing anything at all. Every time I tell a group of students about my research, someone sheepishly hides a single-use plastic bottle under the table. But we don’t need to feel bad about plastic, we need to put the bottle back on the table, think about how it is connected to the politics of a shared way of life and capitalist mode of production, and look for the cracks through which it can be changed.
As I grade my students’ reflections on their plastic days, can’t help but notice that I am still surrounded, sitting in a plastic chair at a plastic table, with a plastic cup and straw (oh boba, how I can’t leave you), beside my plastic sunglasses, grading with a purple plastic pen. It seems I have done more to change my ability to see plastic (in pretty much everything) than to give it up. I don’t have an easy solution for my plastic life, but there’s one thing I do know: an individual giving up the bags, bottles and cutlery symbolic of plastic habits might be a place to start, but it is far different from systemic change.
How much plastic is in your life?
24 hours, in order:
Glasses! Contact case Contacts Hairbrush Milk carton/cap Kitchen floor Toothbrush Soap Toothpaste tube Scissors Stapler Tupperware Dishsoap bottle Shower curtain Bodywash Shampoo bottle Razor Shirt? (no tag) Flip flops Credit card Screen door Detergent bottle Washer door Floss (nylon and possibleyTeflon – eeew!) Pepper grinder Bottle top Bike key/seat/pedals Bathing suit Shorts Goggles Student card Kickboard Deck chair Ice cube tray Folder Messenger bag Chair Sunglasses Tack This pen! Fan Computer cord Veggie peeler Colander Knife handle Phone Carpet Fridge door handle Micro-suede couch Knitting needles Chip bag Salsa container PB jar Garlic bag Compost bin Remote Chocolate package Toilet seat Keyboard/cover ipad case USB stick Saline bottle Nintendo 3DS Powder bottle Blinds Lamp Light switch
It’s summer teaching time! A selection of books inspiring my senior seminar (COGN 150) on the role of plastic and plastic things in everyday life. I’m super excited about the class and can’t wait to see my students’ final projects.
The details: Plastic Culture & Consumption Syllabus
Google sleuths and polyglots! I need your help solving a collection of (s)pacific mysteries. Instincts honed in the 80s served me well in identifying the green lump of plastic above as a battlecat saddle from He-Man (Panthor’s actually based on the colour), but do you have any ideas about the rest of these objects found washed up on Kamilo beach in Hawaii?
Much of the plastic circulating the Pacific remains anonymous, even after it gets caught in nets or picked up off beaches. Broken into pieces, labels and contents long gone, there are few if any clues to help trace waste to its possible place of production, consumption or disposal. Identifying objects and bits of writing is not only incredibly satisfying (especially compared to counting bits of confetti), this information helps researchers track where waste comes from and how it circulates in the ocean.
The owner loves the shirt but would like to make sure it’s not advertising something offensive before she wears it.
Last weekend I was fortunate to accompany an Algalita member giving a talk for a local women’s group. It was a great presentation, covering all kinds of marine plastic problems and Algalita’s efforts to research and to educate. The audience was clearly captivated, even with the trash talk encroaching on lunchtime.I really enjoy watching people give these kind of presentations on marine debris and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In part, because I can almost always count on an audience member to make some kind of comment that is amazing-to-me, yet so telling of general sentiment.
I was not disappointed. Illustrating what Algalita and others have been calling the 4th ‘R’ – refuse – the presenter pointed out that restaurant beverages, even humble glasses of water almost always come with straws that aren’t necessary for conveying liquids to mouths from containers designed exactly for that purpose. Seems reasonable, but an audience member was quick to interject, “but the glasses are dirty,” soliciting nods of approval from the crowd.
Thinking about how to handle such comments, I remembered Max Tempkin’s poster (posted above but unfortunately sold out), that circulated the interwebs in the recent past. I think it’s a great example of the technological fix in all its absurdity. It helps shake the strange logic out of what have become ‘reasonable’ common practices, like declaring plastic straws necessities instead of washing dishes or asking yourself why you frequent restaurants that you do not find clean.
This nature-culture crossing poster comes to me from Hanie (thanks lady!). I like it because it offers, if only in jest, the possibility of waste ‘acting’ like other dangerous creatures of the sea. Roaming free, bottles, bags and batteries threaten not humans (as goes the usual understanding of ‘dangerous’), but the wellbeing of the ocean: human waste left unchecked poses “ a threat to the seas.” Imagining plastic-monster fish that swim around when we’re not looking seems like a productive way to remember the unintended consequences of synthetics.
The poster’s powers, though, seem equally grounded in the impossibility of just that: waste is not or should not be equated with wild creatures. These are species that should not meet. The poster relies on (maybe even produces) audiences that know that types of waste do not count as species (there are scare quotes around “species” in the imgur post title). So how to make sense of a poster that is effective because it at once connects and separates kinds of waste and kinds of fish? That mixes nature-creatures and culture-waste so effectively, but ultimately makes an argument for their untangling?
My initial excitement gives way to suspect that the ‘danger’ here, is a poster that only flirts with giving agency to waste to produce the familiar divisions between fish and plastic, nature and culture. Perhaps this ultimately reinforces the kind of thinking where humans are separate from the environment, and the kind of acting that is part of all the making and throwing away of synthetics in the first place. OK, OK, so it’s also eye-catching and fun and I have to admit, the bottle fish are pretty gosh darn cute.
(And yes, STS crowd, I have indeed been perusing Haraway’s When Species Meet).
Plastic is so entangled with everything we do, that is seems pretty much impossible to stop using it cold turkey. My computer is plastic, my contacts, even my toilet seat. The last time I purchased eyeglasses I was told that getting my prescription filled with actual glass lenses would leave me with spectacles so heavy as to prohibit their staying on my face in any useful fashion. I am, however, still trying to reduce my plastic use as much as possible. I think one of the best strategies for doing this on an individual level (but never at the expense of systemic change!), is consciously cutting out items, one by one. My clarinet teacher used to say that it took 28 days to break a bad habit: it takes many conscious repetitions to turn carrying a reusable bottle or bringing your own bags to the grocery store from an exception into a new routine.
The next question, of course, is what items? Speaking with beach-clean up and plastic waste educators, the items most often cited are single-use disposables, especially those commonly found on their respective local beaches and easily substituted or done without. Plastic bags and bottles (don’t forget the caps!) seem particularly charismatic examples, and ones that most people would probably be quick to name. But to my surprise, plastic straws also top many worst offender lists. While small in comparison to whole cups or bottles, they are items far less likely to be reused or disposed of carefully. And they float.
Unlike my glasses, I generally use plastic straws for only a few short minutes. In fact, despite my admirable bag and bottle habits, I am so used to straws, that I was actually annoyed by their absence on single-serving tetra packs of coconut water. I associate drink-box packages so closely with bendy straws that the ‘problem’ of consuming the contents without caused me to pause. I actually had to think for a minute to figure out that I could very, very easily lift the little foil tab and drink right from the container. But after picking up a generous handful of straws (many in Starbucks green) off the beach near my parents’ house, I’ve finally been motivated to work on cutting them out of my routines – one by one.
How to be plastic straw-free:
1. Do without – request “no straw” with your next iced coffee/soda/G&T
2. Can’t imagine your iced tea tasting the same sipped straight from the cup? Carry your own reusable straw. Stay classy with stainless steel
3. Can’t imagine how we ever lived without plastic straws? Encourage your local beverage establishment to switch back to paper
PS If anyone finds a reusable boba (bubble tea) straw let me know!
In preparation for the expedition I’ve been ordering electronic bits and pieces off the internet. While rarely pleased with the amount of packaging that accompanies my purchases, I was especially dismayed to have a single, tiny camera battery arrive nested among plastic pillows in a giant box:
As it turns out, Amazon has a packaging feedback button build right into order histories – the internets were awaiting my complaints about packaging size and ease of opening in multiple choice, text and image form. While consumer-me feels somewhat vindicated having uploaded the above image, academic-me is at best ambivalent about the Amazon feature as a market mechanism and voluntary response to systemic problems. Amazon’s responsibility is to customer satisfaction, making me feel better about consuming, not addressing relationships with people, waste and the environment.
In more promising news, a zero waste grocery store is opening in Austin (thanks to Hanie for the link), that will encourage re-usable containers while providing compostable plastics as an alternative. Interestingly, the store is billed as ‘package free’ as if re-usable and biodegradable containers somehow don’t qualify as packaging, or more likely, as if packaging has become a dirty word.