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
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.
I’ve been in Honolulu the past few days, half holidaying, half-researching. My trip started with strange and serendipitous encounters – an airplane seat neighbour that claimed to be Steven Segal’s body guard buying me 10am champagne, and randomly recognizing fellow expedition mate, Tim Silverwood, in the hostel lounge.
Early Friday morning I took a taxi to Pearl Harbor with a youth hostel friend, securing a coveted ticket to the memorial. I tried to politely offer my version of the ‘factual’ exhibit. The “road to war” display begins with Commodore Perry landing in Japan and thus ending a long period of isolationism – or, white American man magically changes the entire course of history the second his foot lands on foreign soil. I was most enrage-amused by a large map that marked all the sites of “Japanese Expansion” across Asia and the Pacific but neglected to explain exactly what the US was doing in Hawaii (not a State until 1959) and the Philippines. While overall a careful, interactive exhibit that gives much credit to a technologically advanced, meticulously planned, daring attack, and acknowledging the naïve and arrogant mistakes of the US navy at the time, the exhibit designers still manage to label the Japanese as enemies. Perhaps the most striking contrast from the Hiroshima memorial, is the promotion of American patriotism, not peace, as if what is carefully framed as an event in the past still justifies current (and unacknowledged) presence in Japan and the Pacific. With the mandatory movie explicitly instructing the audience to “mourn the dead,” and remember the event as “monumental history,” Pearl Harbor is a memorial to military sacrifice, not a plea for humanity.
Oahu, of course, is more than a crossroads for textbook history. Waikiki’s transient tourist community has an especially prominent Japanese presence. The grocery store carries bento-box lunches and other Japanese style to-go food with multi-language labels, but offers only plastic forks, not chopsticks at the check-out. There’s an Aloha sushi chain, ubiquitous bilingual reminders that tips are not included in restaurant bills and taxi fares, and local guys cat-calling after pretty girls in awkward Japanese, “kawaii desu ne!” (pretty, isn’t it?). The commodified, superficial mix of cultures (as food/shopping/kitsch), is perhaps most obviously materialized as ‘spam musubi’ – Hawaiin pork, American processed into Japanese convenience food:
At the end of the day, Waikiki reminds me as much of Vegas’ tourist infrastructure as of other beach cities. The towing hotels connected by malls, designed for consumption alone make Cuba’s Veradero seem quiet and quaint in comparison. What is otherwise mostly a typical Hawaiin holiday is increasingly punctured by reminders – as I stare across the sea, hear others speak of flights home or stumble across signs numbering the miles to North America – that I am about to embark on my own monumental crossing of 2705 (4354 km) to Vancouver.