This will be my penultimate Burning Man post for the year. I think. (I have one more in mind, but who knows if I’ll get a burning desire to say even more after that? Or less?)
I have a discussion question for you, but first, a little background and lots of pictures. (I don’t think there is any nudity in these photos, but let me know if you see some and I’ll remove it. This blog is rated PG even if my life isn’t always.)
Reducing our plastic footprint was the theme of the Earth Guardians camp this year. Toward that end, we had Annie’s plastic footprint sculpture…
I gave two talks on plastic-free living on and off the playa…
Karima from the Plastic Pollution Coalition was there, taking pictures and working on quantifying Burning Man’s plastic footprint.
Several people came up to me during the week who had the same idea about plastic. The Moop Monster made an appearance…
(He has offered to make me a similar costume which will be much more comfortable than my all-plastic sea monster costume.)
And this guy came by with a huge bag of plastic… mostly bottles… that could not be recycled on the playa. More and more, plastic is on people’s minds.
One of our events was a talk given by organic chemist Rebecca Braslau, who explained the history and chemistry of plastic,
demonstrated how flammable celluloid is by lighting a ping pong ball on fire,
and made Nylon in a beaker right in front of us.
Rebecca talked a lot about the toxic chemicals in plastics, particularly BPA and phthalates, the latter of which she is working on making less likely to leach out of plastic. (I may post more about her work and experiments later… or you can Google “Rebecca Braslau phthalates“.)
At one point, an audience member asked her what Tritan plastic was, and she said she didn’t know. I piped up and said it was a substitute for polycarbonate with BPA, but that I didn’t trust it. Rebecca said, “But do you trust any plastics, Beth?” And I answered that it depends on the use, but not for food contact.
And since then, I’ve been thinking… and this, finally, is the discussion question…
When is plastic not “moop”?
At Burning Man, Moop means “material out of place” because one of the hard and fast rules of Burning Man (and there aren’t many) is “Leave no trace.” And that means you’d better not leave anything… not even bits of lint or paper or feathers… on the ground. Anything that falls on the ground must be picked up immediately. And the Earth Guardians give out free handmade Moop Bags (made from repurposed pants and neckties) for people to carry with them to pick up Moop wherever they see it.
On the playa, even natural, biodegradable materials are Moop because they can become the basis for the creation of dunes, or “playa serpents,” that can and have caused rollovers for future visitors in speedy vehicles when they hit them unexpectedly. In the regular world, non-native species could be considered Moop even though they are “natural” because they interfere with the way the area has evolved over the millennia.
But what about plastic? It hasn’t evolved along with anything. It has no natural habitat. Visitors to the playa bring drinks and food in plastic bottles, containers, and packaging and then “do their part” to leave no trace by packing out their trash and throwing it away or recycling it.
But where is this magical habitat called “Away?”
It’s some other natural environment or landfill where the plastic will last and potentially leach toxic chemicals for a long time. Or it’s an incinerator, which could emit toxic emissions and will certainly produce toxic ash. Or it’s a recycling center in China, where in the best case, the plastic is downcycled into secondary products before ending up in the landfill anyway.
So when is plastic ever not “material out of place” in this world? I still use plastic. I’m writing this blog via a device made of plastic. My bike tires and seat are plastic, as is my helmet. And the entire inside of my refrigerator and dishwasher. If I made a list of all the plastic I use on a regular basis, it would still be very long despite having given up almost all disposable plastics, plastics in direct contact with food, and most new plastic items.
So I put the question to you guys for discussion. Get as philosophical as you want. Should we be working, as Rebecca Braslau is, to make synthetic plastics less toxic? Or should we be seeking natural alternatives to synthetic materials? And what does “natural” even mean at this point?
Where is plastic’s rightful place in this world?