“Invest in Plastics!” … And We Did!

I recently recalled some of the dialogue from the movie “The Graduate” with Dustin Hoffman. It goes like this:

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman): Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics!

Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

And America did. We thought about it and we bought it.

Ad campaigns touted plastic as the wonder product; because it was. It boasted to be indestructible, last forever, be lightweight and more. We gradually moved all our glass, aluminum, metal and paper products to plastic form.  Try going one day without touching anything plastic. (i.e. toothbrush, toilet seat, steering wheel, lunch bag …) It’s impossible!

After watching a segment on 60 Minutes (my favorite show) about recycling plastic, I have been obsessed about reducing my consumption. Recycling is a myth. We’ve lulled ourselves into believing that by sorting and recycling, we were being good stewards of mother earth.

Well, the facts are out there and easy to find. There are only 3 ways to dispose of plastic; bury it, burn it, or recycle it.

Recycling simply means bundle it, lade it onto a cargo ship, and send it to Vietnam.  Developing countries will accept our trash for cash.  These countries then (by accident or on purpose) dump it into the ocean, where it floats around the world on jet streams. You can find plastic trash washed ashore in Antarctica!

According to the “Adam Ruins Everything” series, this problem is not a consumer problem, but a manufacturer’s problem. In 1953, bottling companies began to predict the future problems of plastic consumption and disposal. So, to shift the blame, they started a recycling ad campaign call “Keep America Beautiful,” and shamed the consumer by calling us “litter bugs.”

Let’s be fair. The consumer is not blameless. Business people, such as I, and their decisions are consumer driven. We are constantly asking ourselves, “What do our customers want?” If consumers wanted their drinks to come in glass or aluminum, the bottling companies would oblige.

Here are some staggering statistics to consider:

  • More than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped in our oceans annually.
  • Only 9.1% of our recycled plastic is reused.
  • Over 100 billion drinking containers are thrown away annually.
  • Plastic bags take 10 – 1,000 years to decompose.
  • Plastic bottles take 450 years to decompose.
  • Birds and fish aren’t the only ones consuming plastic. Humans ingest a minimum of 50,000 disintegrated plastic particles a year (more if you drink from plastic bottles).

Reduce and Reuse

All this bad news made me a bit gloomy and guilty feeling. What can one person do? A lot! I started by only recycling paper. I personally would rather see my plastic in landfills curated by the United States than dumped in the ocean.

Then, I asked myself, “Which conveniences am I willing to give up?” My Keurig coffee cups were a no-brainer. I still use my Keurig to heat water, but instead of the plastic cups I use instant coffee. It’s delicious! I think I even like it better. My favorite brand is Taster’s Choice, which comes in a plastic container. Ugh. It’s still less than 20 Keurig cups.

In addition, I carry my cloth shopping bag wadded up in my purse. I bring a coffee cup to Starbucks and save ten cents for having a personal cup. I don’t use straws and try to dine in at restaurants rather than carry out. And lastly, I don’t leave the house without my own water jug, though it is plastic. Dang.

America was good at making plastic. Now let’s see if we are as equally good at getting rid of it.