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  • March 26th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

“I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics. There is a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?” That’s ranked number 42 among the 100 most famous movie quotes of all time. From the 1967 movie, The Graduate. More prophetic words never were spoken, although not in the context meant by the speaker, who was giving career advice to young and confused Benjamin.

Fast forward to 2018 and the news that in the Los Angeles area alone, ten metric tons of plastic fragments—like grocery bags, straws soda bottles— are carried into the Pacific ocean every day. I recently saw a video of a person underwater in the ocean swimming through what looked like a blizzard. The water was virtually opaque with bits of white material. Snow? No, it was particles of plastic clogging the ocean with a frightening curtain of a substance which will still be there decades if not hundreds of years in the future. Plastic does not deteriorate. It just endures, an everlasting example of man’s inhumanity to his environment. Mother birds collect the droppings, eliminated by their babies and carry them from the nest for disposal elsewhere. Man, unlike so-called lesser creatures, routinely shits in his own nest. Where is man’s mother bird when we need her so desperately?

I am the scourge of grocery clerks from Hawaii to Maine. When they see me coming they hide under the checkout counter because they know if they even reach a hand toward a plastic bag I am going to jump down their throats, snarling and growling and roaring, “I don’t want your rotten plastic bags! Don’t even think about putting my groceries in one!”

And I slam a recyclable grocery bag on the counter, two or three if necessary, and fix the innocent clerk with a misguided glare. It’s not the clerk’s fault— it is the fault of the management that trains clerks to stuff all groceries in plastic bags regardless of the lack of need to do so. Somewhere in the manual of grocery store management is a clause which reads, “It is a firing offense to fail to diligently put all groceries in plastic bags, and contribute to the defiling of the environment.” That clause must be in the manual, because they all do it and they do it because they are stupid, careless, ignorant, and uncaring about the world we have to live in.

Or, more likely, the world our descendants will have to live in, contaminated by plastic debris so thick that it will be difficult to find what little soil is left to raise the food that today we are so dedicated to stuffing in plastic bags. If you want to be bumfuzzled by statistics: about 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide every year more than one million plastic bags are used every minute of that year.

I hate statistics because they depersonalize the human element in a crisis. But the figures are undeniable—we are drowning in a sea of plastics. More than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped in the oceans every year and more than 100 billion plastic beverage bottles are sold in the US every year. The estimate is that about 50 per cent of all plastic used in various ways is just used once and then is thrown away.

Once, I was canoeing down an Ozark stream when I saw a great blue heron in distress. It had gotten tangled in the plastic holder of a sixpack, legacy of some previous and obviously uncaring boater. I managed to free the bird, wary of its stiletto beak and we went our separate ways— perhaps the bird to become further tangled in a snarl of monofilament fishing line discarded by yet another careless river user, or maybe in another sixpack snare.

In 1952, the year I remember buying a cup of coffee for the first time— I decided to pull an all nighter study session at the University of Missouri, thinking that was what college students had to do to pass tests. I was a freshman from a literal backwater town (it once bordered the Missouri River, but the capricious River went away).

The coffee cost me a nickel. And there probably were free refills, although this being University coffee it probably was so bad I didn’t want any. After a cup or two, I decided I knew the subject of the test well enough that I didn’t have to stay up all night drinking coffee to get ready for it and I never again pulled an all night marathon. I passed the test. I could have bought two glasses (in a glass) of beer at The Shack for the price of the two cups of coffee, although I might not have passed the test the next day.

Now, Starbucks, the business most associated with a cup of coffee, will stick you more than two dollars and up to almost five dollars for various coffee concoctions. And they will throw in a nonrecyclable plastic-lined cup which you can pitch (and most drinkers probably will) when you are finished, and thus contribute your own little bit to the deterioration of the environment. In 2008, Starbucks promised to cut its plastic waste by switching to recyclable cups, but in spite of that promise they continue to litter the landscape with about 4 billion of those cups annually.

To be fair,in a classic case of better late than never, Starbucks has announced a $10 million challenge, offering grants to anyone who can come up with a disposable cup. Starbucks does add a surcharge in England to penalize those who use throwaway cups.

Other companies are joining the effort to limit trash, including McDonald’s which hopes to reach 100% recyclable packaging within 10 years. Dunkin’ Donuts is getting rid of all its polystyrene cups by 2020, Evian Water promises to make all its plastic bottles from 100% recycled plastic within 10 years and both Coca-Cola and Pepsi have similar plans. All these are optimistic and encouraging signs, but the uncomfortable truth is that 1000 years from now what’s already in the environment will still be there.

Roadside trash not only is endemic, but it also is mostly plastic—what is not aluminum beer cans pitched there by the local redneckery. Some years back, Texas instituted the nation’s first Adopt a Highway program where volunteers would clean up sections of the roadway. Good for Texas. But I also once was in a car driving around San Antonio and the roadways were absolutely the most littered of any I have ever seen anywhere. Missouri, my home, was the second state to institute an Adopt a Highway cleanup program, but it has languished for lack of promotion and now we can stack our strewn highways up against Texas or anybody else. Not exactly an inducement to enjoy a Sunday drive. New Hampshire has the cleanest highways I have ever driven on and the state could serve as an example to the other 49 sloppy ones.

Theoretically, most plastic could be recycled if people would take the trouble to gather it and do it. It can be melted down and be used to make useful items, such as chairs and tables. However, the problems of such recycling are many— expensive and complicated. The bottom line is that wholesale recycling is likely never to happen.

Plastic dates to 1907 when, through the miracle of chemistry, a combination of polymers and other elements that I don’t know and don’t care to, became what today is plastic in an almost infinite variety. But the history of plastic as we know it now has happened in my lifetime. Once, grocery bags were paper, bottles were made of glass and handguns were metal. Given time virtually all trash was biodegradable or reusable. Now even your baby’s sippy cup is plastic as is his bottle and even his clothing, which contains plastic and, can generate tiny plastic microparticles that break off in the washing machine, go down the drain, and ultimately find their way into the nation’s waterways and into the oceans. And expensive 3-D printers actually can manufacture a plastic handgun, undetectable by security scanners. I suspect well-funded terrorists organizations already are excited by that advance in the world of plastic.

Oceans constitute most of the mass of the world and without them we’re goners. There now is what scientists call “a garbage patch” in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii that is three times the size of France and is composed mostly of plastic debris. It is 79,000 tons of plastic crap composed of 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic. And that doesn’t count what has sunk to the ocean floor. Much of the debris is cast-off from fishing, like nets, and you can imagine the potential effect that could have on marine life. We are strangling our oceans. Simply enough, the death of the oceans, would mean the death of us all.

In simpler terms, if the proliferation of plastic doesn’t scare the crap out of you it should. So-called bio plastics offer some hope against our reliance on and use of non-biodegradable plastic, but they rely at least partly on oil. And oil is not exactly an environmentally friendly substance either. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

If it will make you feel better, insist on reusable fabric grocery bags, recycle waste material in the hope that it won’t wind up in a landfill, freeze water in used milk jugs for your cooler, fill your empty water bottles with tap water (which probably is just as pure as the expensive and highly touted “spring” water which originally came in the empty bottle) and don’t do what we always seem to do— leave the problem for a future generation to solve. In other words leaving it for your grandchildren who will either sink or swim, leaving you hoping that they won’t be sinking or swimming in a sea of plastic particles.

Badger your local government into banning plastic bags or instituting a surcharge on their use. And if you don’t have a local recycling center, start one, as did my late dear friends, Chuck and Sharon Tryon in their hometown, Rolla, Missouri, years before recycling became a common word in the language.

In the meantime I will continue to terrorize poor innocent grocery clerks for trying to give me plastic bags in which to carry my groceries immediately after I plunk a reusable bag in front of them and before I can say “no plastic!” Let’s all try to stick up for truth, justice, and not the American way (the American way all too often is to throw everything out the window and look steadfastly aside as we pass the local recycling center).

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