Stray Kernels – Pondering Plastic

Posted: August 14, 2019

I once stood on the shore of a Philippine island and gaped with dismay at hundreds of plastic bags washed ashore and bobbing gently in the waves.

I remember that as I ponder the movement to ban single-use plastics. Grocery bags. Water bottles. Straws. If you pay attention for even a day, you’d be shocked at the number of items you use for just a short time—even a few minutes—and then discard.

If you’re rolling your eyes in impatience now, I get it. Sometimes I do, too. “Oh shut up with the straw-shaming already. What about the plastic cup and lid? Anyway, did you hear about the woman who fell on a reusable steel straw and died? If she’d been using a plastic straw, she’d still be alive.”

I toured a landfill years ago. As I rode around the site, I gawked at the sheer volume of stuff we throw away. It’s a vision that plays in my mind every time I toss something into the trash. It’s sobering, and frankly, exhausting.

If you’re thinking “But I recycle,” I get it. I do, too. I dutifully rinse my containers and save junk mail and newspapers for recycling pick-up. I collect plastic bags for drop-off in grocery store bag-recycling receptacles.

Unfortunately, the sense of virtue I once felt when placing bottles in the recycling bin is fading. I’ve read about the disappearing markets for U.S. recyclables, resulting in tons of plastic stacking up in warehouses with no place to go. When I crush a milk jug, I can’t help but wonder if it’s going to end up in a landfill anyway, to languish with other trash for hundreds of years.

“Recycling contamination”—non-recyclable items mixed with recyclables—is another problem. Recycling contamination increases the cost of sorting items and renders otherwise-recyclable materials into trash. Imagine, for example, a not-quite-empty salad dressing bottle leaking in a bin full of paper or a newspaper bag tangled around several sticky soda pop cans.

In the case of plastics, recycling isn’t working out very well. But there are two other “Rs” in the “3-Rs” of waste reduction: “reduce and reuse.” Reduction of waste is obviously the most desirable. Reuse is next best. We used to do that better than we do now. Grandma stored leftovers in margarine containers, Grandpa saved nails in coffee cans, and we could turn in glass pop bottles to get a little money back.

Now we buy attractive clear plastic containers for our leftovers, coffee comes in plastic containers or bags, and soft drinks are sold in plastic bottles. Plastic keeps food safe and clean. Plastic is lightweight. Plastic shows off products. Plastic is convenient.

Plastic is everywhere. Trouble is, even when we’re done with it, it never goes away. Even compostable corn plastic doesn’t decompose in a landfill; it must go to a composting facility for that to happen.

I’m one of those educator and mom-types who experiences a giddy sense of satisfaction upon placing supplies into a spiffy plastic container with a cute label. I can’t visit Target without a trip through the plastic storage aisles to gaze at the myriad of organizational solutions. Plastic storage tubs! Freezer containers! Airtight containers for cereal! Woohoo!

Shoot, sometimes I buy a product in a plastic package only to put that item into another (more convenient and appealing) plastic container I bought for that purpose. Then I pitch the original package. Case in point: most snack bags are a hassle to use, plus they don’t reseal. So I frequently dump snacks into plastic containers and throw away the original (non-recyclable) bags.

Instead of packaging stuff in gaudy plastic containers or bags we can’t wait to throw away, what if companies put items in attractive reusable containers with easily-removed labels? I need food storage containers, pencil boxes, and drawer dividers anyway. What if the packages consumer products came in were containers we actually wanted to keep and reuse? What if we could reduce packaging waste while saving the money we spend buying plastic containers to store our stuff?

Returnable reusable containers would be nice, too. Farmers buy bulk seed in big plastic boxes which they return for reuse. Why can’t that be true for tortilla chips and toilet paper, too?

In the meantime, I’m reusing what I can, recycling with my fingers crossed, and considering a career change to package design. (Just kidding on that last part.)