Plastic Nightmares (an infographic)

I’ve been asked if I would like to share this plastic pollution infographic from OnlineEducation.net. I’m a bit wary about posting since it seems to be part of a series designed to promote an online college resource website, rather than plastic pollution research and activism more specifically. But the graphic is kind of cute, and I would hate to miss an opportunity to complicate the shiny-happy recycling ending (comments follow).

So I really like the style. It seems thoughtfully constructed, and they certainly know their (website target) audience. The milk jug cyclops and angry bag bunnies are especially cute examples of the ‘plastic monster’ trope. These kinds of characters help audiences relate to a problem without feeling like they are being attacked, meaning that people are more likely to read than run. Even the color scheme tells a neat story as it progresses from black and gray to many shades of green. But maybe the story is a bit too neat…

I’m going to try not to get lost on a recycling rant here, but this is a great example of the tendency to present plastic recycling as a magical ‘simple solution’. Yes it is better to put a bottle in the recycling than in the regular trash. Yes recycling uses less oil and less energy. But the process is not so simple. Almost all the plastic ‘recycled’ on the West Coast of the US (San Francisco included) is shipped across the Pacific for processing. Not all of this recycling necessarily results in new consumer things – sometimes plastic is burned for fuel releasing toxins into the atmosphere and making for dangerous working conditions. Moreover, recycling plastic almost always requires the addition of new that plastic that takes so much energy to make – you can’t make a plastic bottle straight into a new bottle the way you can with aluminum cans.

I totally understand that space is an issue in making these kinds of things, you need a simple message to follow through and don’t want to add a lecture on the problems of global inequality when you’re trying to keep things positive. But I can’t help but feel that supporting recycling alone is supporting consumption as usual rather than challenging the ways things are made and used. The calming lull of the recycling rhetoric (just put it in the right bin, and carry on) is not the antidote I seek for my plastic nightmares. I think the new R’s I’ve seen from various nonprofits, and more importantly, the order in which they are presented are a much better ‘simple solution’: Refuse. Reduce. Reuse. And then, only then, recycle.

Thoughts?

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Occupy Trash Island?

Making slides for a recent conference presentation, I googled across this image:

Intrigued, I click though to its source, an article titled “Paradise Recycled: Architects Dream of Turning Great Pacific Garbage Patch Into Habitable Island,” which outlines plans for a floating metropolis to be made from plastic waste gathered from the sea. I gaze in wonder at images of occupants lounging canal-side outside plastic high-rise homes, no longer convinced that stories of people ready to invest in garbage patch real estate are only jokes.

While the article implies that ‘trash island’ is not already existing as such, explaining that ‘new land’ needs to be made not simply found, the project is clearly inspired by accounts of a large, dense mass of plastic at sea (“as big as France and Spain combined”). Such grand plans, however, do not emerge exclusively from the image of garbage patch as island. A few weeks ago, after an Algalita presentation on ‘toxic soup’, I listened politely as one audience member continued to insist on the possibility of filtering plastic fragments from entire oceans without harming marine life. He refused to be swayed by reminders of the elusiveness of plastic bits or the vastness of global seas. We do not, it seems, suffer from a lack of imagination or conviction when it comes to grand technological fixes that ensure consumption as usual.