Thursday, September 6, 2007

Plastic and Water (revised)

Can we talk for a minute about how, everywhere I look, someone, dressed in a way that suggests that she is both affluent and fashion-forward is carrying a big ugly tote that says, This is not a plastic bag--and a little plastic bottle filled with water.

Can we talk about this? About the way that that little plastic bottle, once drained, will, at best, make its way to a recycling center where it will be reprocessed into anoher useful, but equally impervious product, some indoor-outdoor carpet perhaps, or a polar fleece jacket. At worst, that plastic bottle will join hundreds of thousands of other bits of abandoned emptiness in a great mountain of landfill. (A nationwide report shows that plastic accounts for two million tons of US landfill.) And there it will sit, glistening, impermeable for thousands of years.

What to do?

Last year, according to the website,, "Americans threw away 38 billion plastic water bottles, about $1 billion worth of plastic. That's a huge waste, especially considering 1.5 million barrels of oil - enough to fuel 100,000 cars for a year - were used to produce the bottles. And that's not even including the oil used for transportation" of the bottles.

In San Diego's North County Times, Third District Supervisor Pam Slater Price write, "The Container Recycling Institute calculates that if the nationwide average of beverage container recycling were 80 percent, the savings would be the emissions equivalent of taking 2.4 million cars off the road a year. The Institute also says that if the recycling content of plastic beverage bottles was 25 percent nationwide, that would save enough crude oil to run electricity in 680,000 American homes a year."

Americans spent nearly $11 million on bottled water last year despite the research which suggests that bottled water might be no more pure that tap water -- and that at least a quarter of the bottled water sold might actually be tap water!

We are all trying. It's just so confusing. I mean: At the grocery store, when the checkout clerk asks, "Paper or plastic?" I stand there thinking, "Hmmm. Which is better? Sacrifice more trees (paper) or puff up another dozen plastic bags? Last month, I FINALLY bought a pile of reusable grocery bags, chiding myself for not doing it sooner.

There is so much to do... and it feels, sometimes, as if it makes so little impact.

At my son's college, Hofstra University, where thousands of parents assembled last weekend to deliver their teens to school on freshman move-in day, there was not one recycling bin in the entire food court and yet... every single meal was served in a plastic tray (with a clear plastic lid.)

What to do? Should I embarrass my son (Oh, Lord, on his very first day of school!!) by marching up to the manager of the food court and demanding to know why? Should I quietly slip my own plastic packaging into my roomy handbag and take it home where I can recycle it with the glass and other plastics?

Should encourage my son to start a student movement for recycling? That's how it's done, I know. College students are responsible for most social change. Vietnam. Tianamen Square. The 60s. But my son is not the organizing-a- protest type. He is the type who wears tee shirts that say things like: So Rich, So Bored, the type who likes to shop at the mall.

To be fair, I am not much better. I comingle paper with plastic. I eat at restaurants where they serve my iced tea in a styrofoam cup. After a party, I don't put my plastic forks and spoons in the dishwasher, though I could.

In the New York Times Magazine section today, I read that as one of the conditions of acceptance of his new job as "co-head" of Columbia Records, Rick Rubin had made the "strong" suggestion that the record label be the first to discontinue using plastic "jewel boxes" to package CDs. I was impressed. I was also surprised. I'd thought those had been done away with long ago. In our house we buy our music in a completely "green" way, through ITunes. But that leads to other problems, the collapse of the music industry, to name but one.

In the NY Times Book Review the same week, journalist Alan Weisman imagines "The World Without Us," a future in which all the humans disappear from the earth and are replaced by... nature. Cities would collapse, replaced by rivers and vegetation. Wild animals would march back through the streets of Manhattan, now overgrown with green and transforming into tributaries of the Hudson River and Atlantic Ocean. And yet, thousands of years hence, long after every vestige of mankind has disappeared, save a few of our more permanent creations--bronze statues, for example--there would be plastic... little bits of the stuff cycling through the digestive systems of marine animals forever.

If only we'd known, all those years ago when Mr. Robinson whispered, "Plastics," into the ear of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman's in "The Graduate), that the shiny, impermeable stuff would become our worst nightmare, strangling seagulls, choking marine mammals, clogging landfills. What would we have done differently?

What can we do now?

As Tom Chapin sings, "Styrofoam is bad, it lasts a thousand years. A packing peanut's born and never disappears." What Tom Chapin taught my children (and me) 15 years ago has led to little action and lots of guilt.

It's the same reason, I suspect, that we can't mobilize a "movement' to save Darfur or get out of Iraq or solve any of the many pressing issues of our time: We feel overwhelmed; we are terrified by what we have done to ourselves and, we believe that we are powerless to change it.

After all, what can I, one little mom with a blog, really do about the heaps of plastic in the landfills? What can you do?

Well, at least we can do this... buy a Nalgene bottle at EMS or Campmor and fill it with tap water. We can order a home water filter to make our tap water taste better and fill that bottle again and again. We can teach our kids (including my son, if its not too late) that water is water is water and that, unless he and I and all of our friends and theirs, stop carrying little water bottles around, we will be living in a plastic world--and so will our grandchildren.

And then we can do more... one step at a time. If you're ready, click here.

No comments: